While watching a Spanish film as a student, Indian Brij Kothari wished the film had subtitles in Spanish rather than in English so that he could learn the language.
Ten years on, Kothari has not only become fluent in Spanish but is also helping hundreds of thousands of people in India learn their mother tongue by watching popular film songs with subtitles in the same language.
He developed the same-language subtitles (SLS) system to exploit the popularity of lavish songs and dance sequences in Indian films to help people who are barely literate start reading.
Two subtitled programs now run weekly on national broadcaster Doordarshantwo and are watched by an estimated 180 million people.
According to government figures, 65 percent of Indians are literate, but many of these cannot read as all that is required for the category is to be able to sign one's name.
Subtitles will be introduced later this month in five more of the 17 official languages in India. Work on another five languages is in the pipeline.
"This is the most ambitious stage of the project. We will be able to reach 300 million people with our new projects," Kothari says by telephone from California, where he is based.
With funds now coming in from Google Foundation, the charity offshoot of Internet search company Google, Kothari has plans to introduce the concept in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
He has also floated the idea, which won him the global innovation competition organized by the World Bank in 2002, to Bollywood film producers.
What started as a passing thought took concrete shape in 1997, when the 41-year-old former professor of communications at the Indian Institute of Management conducted research to find out if subtitles could help improve literacy levels.
After showing subtitled programs to people in villages and slums, Kothari realized that people not only preferred to sing along with the text but they quickly improved their reading skills.
"In three to five years a person who can barely read can start reading a newspaper by just watching 30 minutes of a subtitled program [every week]," says Kothari, who holds a doctorate in education from Cornell University in the US.
Because of the sheer numbers involved, the project works out to be cost-effective.
"Subtitling takes one paisa (00.02 cents) per year person per year," says Kothari, pointing to the fact that the programs reach audiences of between 150 and 180 million viewers.
It took him another few years to convince television producers to launch the concept, which first went on air in 1999.
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