What You Hear Is What You Read

I recently came across an organization called PlanetRead that completely captured my heart, and I am so excited about the work they are doing to improve literacy in India. There are 900 million illiterate people in the world, and 1/3 of those people, 300 million, live in India. According to UNICEF, 66% of India’s population is illiterate. I was acutely aware of India’s literacy problem and its implications for the socioeconomic development of the country, however I was still surprised to hear the explanation of Dr. Larry Brilliant, Executive Director for Google.org, in reference to the undeniable urgency of a literate nation. He explained that if you do a multiple logistic regression analysis and you put all of the variables in trying to explain what is the single most important factor in determining whether a child will live or die past the age of 5, it isn’t water or vaccinations, but the literacy of that child’s mother.

PlanetRead came up with a novel way to improve literacy in the country by utilizing the passion of millions – Bollywood. PlanetRead recognizes that while quality educational materials are scarce, Bollywood films and videos are omnipresent in society. With the largest film industry in the world, India produces 1000 films per year and 5000 music videos per year. According to K.S. Sharma, former CEO of Prasar Bharati Broadcasting Corporation, there are 108 million homes in India with a T.V., each watched by an average of 5 people. This results in an audience of 540 million viewers. “When you’re very poor, there’s not much that you can do for entertainment,” explains Amisha Patel, Bollywood film star. “For people here, the cheapest form of entertainment is Bollywood.” She says that movie stars and films are on every channel and are idolized by every citizen in India.

I recently spoke with Mr. Nirav Shah, the Chief Operating Officer at PlanetRead who set up the Mumbai as well as Pondicherry offices and put the operations for the organization in place. He told me how Bollywood, “with all its exuding glamour and charm,” has always been an escape into another world for the underprivileged. He recognized that it has also proved to be “an inspiration to the poor, who dream to reach levels of comfort and riches that are protrayed in the movies.” The manager of Quality Assurance at PlanetRead, Parthibhan Amudhan, added that Bollywood takes up a major portion of India’s media and has a strong impact on all classes of people. He told me that once the crime rate in a particular city went up drastically when all the movie halls were shut down. According to Suneil Shetty, another film star, the influence of Bollywood in India “is like the influence of oxygen in one’s body. Bollywood is everything.”

PlanetRead uses the people’s love of Bollywood to fill the need for education through a technique called SLS, subtitling lyrics of existing film songs in the same language they are sung in. In this manner, popular Bollywood film songs appear on national television along with the lyrics—as PlanetRead calls it, a sort of “Bollywood Karaoke” for the masses. With SLS, viewers subconsciously associate the song with the text, so the familiar lyrics on screen reinforce their literacy skills. This provides automatic reading practice to 300 million early literates. According to the research organization A.C. Nielsen, three to five years of exposure to SLS enables a person with basic familiarity with the alphabet to become functionally literate. PlanetRead’s SLS technique was first broadcast in 1999 on a film song program in Gujarat, and it has since spread throughout the country in 10 regional languages. For only $1 US Dollar, SLS can reach 10,000 viewers for a full year. In 2005, the Google Foundation awarded PlanetRead a grant to increase the number of SLS programs available. Google is also supporting PlanetRead with free advertising through the Google Grants program and content hosting on Google Video.

Nirav explained to me that Bollywood used to be an inspirational world for the poor and underprivileged, but with the advent of PlanetRead’s SLS, Bollywood became a tool for spreading mass-literacy and reading skills. He said that “while it was hard to measure the contribution of Bollywood, as soon as SLS was added to the songs we could clearly see a leap in literacy in all viewers across all strata of society as well as different literacy levels.” The most interesting part of SLS is how it mixes education with entertainment, as many don’t even realize that SLS is helping them improve their reading skills. It also has a powerful complementary impact because it reinforces at home, the same day, any reading one might have picked up in school. “This is a simple innovation we have been using for over a decade,” explained Parthibhan. “With a solid track record of research, we know that SLS is a very easily scalable model that will work anywhere in the world.”

The real turning point will come when the top Indian bureaucrats in education and broadcast can come together to support programs like SLS, however getting them to talk on the same table proves difficult. PlanetRead is currently in the initial stages of expanding SLS to other countries in South Asia, Africa, and Latin America through an affiliation model with a local partner. In each country, the organization aims to design and implement a custom partnership agreement with a local organization. Preliminary dialogues are already in place with potential partners in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

I was really excited to learn about this organization as it is completely in line with my project exploring the impact of Bollywood music on underprivileged youth in the city. In my various visits to Mumbai’s slums, I always saw groups of children gathered around the television watching Bollywood film songs and music videos, often singing the words and dancing to the beat. What a novel way for this NGO to capture Bollywood’s popularity and use it for the greater good, revolutionizing the education system one film song at a time! Below, see a photo of children watching these SLS clips as well as a short video of an SLS clip from PlanetRead and 2 short videos of children mimicking the songs:




According to PlanetRead, SLS could very well be India’s contribution to the world for fighting illiteracy.

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