DAVOS – Bollywood brings literacy to millions

Huffington Post article http://huff.to/erPULB

This Davos story starts about fifteen years ago when Brij Kothari was doing a PhD in Education at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  Brij’s passion was to use media to make the world a better place. His research took him to Ecuador, and so, like any good PhD student, he needed to learn the language. His project was to document indigenous people’s knowledge of medicinal plants. The people he studied were illiterate, and he was illiterate in Spanish.

Watching the movie “Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown” with Spanish audio and English subtitles he came up with an idea. He realized he would accelerate his learning to read and write in Spanish if he could see Spanish subtitles instead. His imagination went on to think about what this might mean in India, with all its linguistic diversity.  Hindi subtitles for Hindi Bollywood movies?  His community loves Bollywood. He left Ithaca believing his idea could mean a breakthrough in literacy in India.

He coincidently got a faculty position at the premier business school in India – IIM Ahmedabad. There, at the Center for Educational Innovation, his research continued. He was able to study firsthand the impact of putting same language subtitles on Bollywood music videos. The results were outstanding. In both children and adults his research showed dramatic reading improvements resulting from regular exposure to subtitles. He published his findings in academic journals and proceeded to talk to policy makers, media leaders, and education officials.  Not surprising, such an innovative approach was rejected at first. But, he didn’t give up there, he went on to apply for and receive a Global Innovation Grant from Development Markteplace at the World Bank. This provided $250,000 of seed funding allowing him to work with India’s public service broadcaster. So in 2002 PlanetRead was officially launched with Bollywood music videos over public television with same language subtitles.

Brij and others were immediately inspired by the direct and indirect results. Literacy improved, and so did people’s lives.  Even the Private sector benefited.  Specifically, newspaper reading in regional languages nearly doubled in groups who saw songs with subtitles:; 37% to 70%.  He claims that PlanetRead is fueling the newspaper revolution in India. Right now in India, it is estimated that there are over 300M “weak readers” who are officially literate, but who cannot read the headline of a newspaper.

Bill Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative noticed. Bill talks about Brij as a perfect example of a small change that has a staggering impact on people’s lives. For PlanetRead’s work, Brij was elected India’s social entrepreneur of the year in 2009, by the prestigious Schwab Foundation. One of the benefits of this was attendance at Davos this year where Brij ran into Bill Clinton at the ‘India Adda’ café in Davos. Brij updated Bill about PlanetRead’s growth in India. They are implementing subtitiling in eight languages, on weekly programming of Bollywood songs with subtitles.  Check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=juZOlmf9APk for a video of Clinton talking about PlanetRead or Brij’s blog about his recent run-in with Bill at Davos: http://www.forumblog.org/socialentrepreneurs/

Brij continues to focus on increasing reach in India, and has set his sights on mobile content. There are 110M TV sets in India. This provides fair reach because each set is viewed on average by 6 people. But with 750M mobile phones and growing, more people can benefit if mobile content also has same language subtitles. He also has a big dream of a nationwide policy requiring same language subtitles on every song in India. He has appealed to the broadcasting corporation of India (like the US FCC) and a national scale up is under consideration.

As Brij flies back to India I leave for San Francisco. He has inspired many people he briefed at Davos, and we now share his desire for big success for PlanetRead.

About Carol Realini

Serial Entrepreneur, Mobile Payments and Banking Pioneer, Author, Board Member Carol Realini is a successful Silicon Valley executive and expert in financial service innovation. She has worked with leading financial institutions including MasterCard and Citi, as well as numerous multinational and regional banks, to change the way banking is conducted. In 2011, as a Technology Pioneer attending the World Economic Forum, she led discussions on alternative banking at their meeting in Davos. A serial entrepreneur, she has been recognized as one of the 50 Top Women in Technology by Corporate Board Member magazine. Carol is a huge believer in the potential of mobile banking and payments to create financial inclusion - where everyone with a mobile phone has access to affordable financial services that empower their life and work. To understand Carol's vision please watch the WEF video (click on the weforum.org link below). Carol also mentors entrepreneurs providing wisdom and lessons learned from her four successful startup experiences.
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