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July 7, 2012 / Gyanesh Pandey

Same Language Subtitling

Same Language Subtitling

(The story of finding and executing a near-zero-cost solution to improve literacy by Dr. Brij Kothari. He has an M. Sc. in Physics from IIT Kanpur. A Phd. From Cornell University, USA and is an adjunct professor at IIM Ahmedabad.)

Have you seen those Karaoke style subtitling in some of the song programs on TV? If you have noticed the subtitles are in the same language as the song – like even Bollywood songs would have subtitles in Hindi. Weird right? Why would you want to subtitle a song in the same language? Weren’t subtitles meant to be in English or some other commonly known language?

Same Language Subtitling for Bollywood Songs

It would be of interest to know that Same Language Subtitling doubles the number functional readers in primary school children. From a government’s stand point, this is like a ZERO COST solution to improve literacy.

It was the year 1996 – Brij Kothari was finishing dissertation for PhD. His topic was Conservation of knowledge of indigenous people of Ecuador. He was presenting their own knowledge about various plants and nature in iconic form, with minimum text in it. While he was working on his dissertation he was also trying to polish his Spanish – the language his subjects in Ecuador spoke. He would often watch Spanish films to work on his language. Most of the films would be subtitled in English.

While working on his dissertation, it occurred to him that if he could have Spanish subtitles for Spanish films, it would improve his reading ability tremendously – more than any book or course in the language. Thus the idea of subtitling in the same language started germinating in his mind.

His association with the languages had started very early. He grew up in the Aurobindo Ashram from childhood till he was ready to go for Masters. The school there is an experimental school, which believes in overall development of a personality rather than training kids for scoring well in exams. It has a much more holistic approach to education with a significant focus on physical education as well.

SLS Brij Kothari

At the Aurobindo school kids can choose their own subjects and often their own teachers. So, in a certain way it is a paradise for a child because the kid has the liberty to study what he or she wants to study. They have no examinations and no degrees. So when Brij went for an interview to IIT Madras for their Masters Program in Physics, he did not have a degree in hand. They made it clear that they would not have him in their institute, however the interviewers did hear him out for comic relief. Everybody likes to hear an interesting story. They did not grant him admission. He did get into the two year MSc. Physics Program at IIT Kanpur though.

He had neither X class certificate nor a XII class certificate, not even a Bachelors Degree – Not that he had not studied. But his school did not believe in such competitive methods to enforce education. Somehow, the professors at IIT Kanpur were more open to the idea and they let him in. Actually there had been a student before Brij, with the same background as him, who had come to IIT and had done rather well. Two years after Brij Kothari, a girl, with the same background as his, had topped her class at IIT Kanpur. So there was no problem with his education just that there was a gap in terms of exams and certificates.

Brij had grown up like a free bird learning whatever he wanted to. He played tennis, learnt Italian, French and studied English Literature. He had also studied Western Music there. But when he started thinking about getting into a traditional Masters program, he had to gear himself up to appear for competitive exams followed by interviews. This desire to get into a Masters Program was purely to earn a degree and take a step towards mainstream careers.

There could not have been a more contrasting shift than to go from the open skies of Aurobindo Ashram to the pressure cooker of IIT Kanpur. IIT Kanpur was and continues to be infamous for its notoriously fierce academic standards.

Brij spent most of his first semester coping with the rest of the class and did not do too bad. However, from the next semester onwards he got used to the groove and started expanding to other activities. He represented the IIT Kanpur Tennis team in sports and enjoyed participating in other cultural activities as well.

After graduating from IIT Kanpur, like everyone else, he also decided to go to US for furthering his studies. He was not too sure if he wanted to continue in Physics. So he cast his net a bit wide and applied for a communications course at Cornell University. He presented his case with background in Science (Physics) and interest in languages towards becoming some sort of a professional in science communication.

He pursued Masters in Development Communication at Cornell but he did not become a science journalist. He graduated into a PhD program at Cornell and this time in the field of education.

He had finished his Masters in 1988 (started in 1986) and here he was writing his dissertation for a PhD in the year 1996. So, after passing out of IIT Kanpur with a Masters in Physics, 10 years later, he was still a student finishing his doctoral thesis.

He strongly holds the opinion that people who rush through their PhDs miss out on a lot in their lives.

The way he chanced upon the topic of dissertation is also a very interesting story. He did a lot more than education in his time spent as a graduate student in US and he thinks that the openness and freedom for a student in that country is remarkable. As for himself, seeing America was one of his most cherished desires. Though traveling all around a country as big as America is not a very viable option for a graduate student. So once when a friend wanted to get his car moved from New York to California, he was happy to volunteer to drive it across the breadth of the country – with gas paid for.

He along with a dear friend of his, Rahul Ram – who has made a big name in India while playing and singing for Indian Ocean – decided to drive the car from Ithaca, New York to San Diego, California. The only two rules they had were – One, not to eat at a fast food restaurant and Two, never to take a highway. The goal was not to make it to San Diego but to see America, from the inside. On the last leg of the journey, a car crashed in from behind and the good thing that happened was that their car broke into two. It just broke into two. Which in insurance terms meant the car was “totalled” and the owner was going to get a good compensation for his already very old car. The truth was that their friend had been trying to sell the car but on failing to do so, he wanted to move it with him. So he was only happy. As for Brij & Rahul – who had a whole lot of National Parks and such stuff to be seen – the insurance company gave them another good rental car. They had enough proof to support their claim of being on a road trip, otherwise the insurance company would just put them on a plane to wherever they were headed.

Similarly in all those eight years of PhD he had had different phases of once getting into Reggae music and another phase of Latin American Dance.

One day, he got a coupon for a to-and-fro travel to Ecuador from Continental Airlines costing only 99 dollars. This was going to be another one of his many trips, but this trip was ultimately going to be very central in his coming up with his topic for thesis. On his trip to Ecuador he came across the indigenous people of the land and eventually conservation of their knowledge became the topic of his thesis. Discovering one’s topic for PhD on a travel trip is how education in truest forms is meant to be.

Getting exposed to Latin America had its own effects on him and his life. This was the first time that he had started looking at Education of the disadvantaged communities more seriously. In the process he came across the works of Paulo Freire, a legendary figure in the field of education, which took him on a radical phase for a while. Eventually he realized that he was not the only one, who was studying such communities, but the problem so far had been that the researchers would come and learn the methods of these folks and then vanish. They would leave nothing behind. It was a sort of intellectual theft in practice. So, he decided that he would do something for the Conservation of their knowledge.

Usually, having this kind of social relevance to your work is not one of the top agendas of most people. But his upbringing must have played a role in that. His parents live in a small town called Nanded in Maharashtra, India. He comes from a traditional Marwari family, a community known for its business acumen. It is very surprising that his parents saw value in the kind of education Aurobindo Ashram imparted. A lot of youth in the Marwari community usually gets involved in the same business as their father’s at a very early age, and often treat education only to further their ambitions for a certificate or a degree. His parents made a remarkable decision in stepping aside from the hundreds of years of community tradition  and instead decided to have their children sent to a rather unusual school, where the focus was real education, not getting a piece of paper with a stamp, called a degree.

Brij with all his conquests did become an inspiration in his extended family.

When his guide heard about his idea of Conservation of Knowledge of Disadvantaged Communities for his thesis, he was only very happy to have him find a subject on his own. Also he chose to do his PhD in a slightly different format. They realized that nobody reads a PhD dissertation, so acting upon a suggestion by a friend, he decided that he would openly publish each chapter as he progressed in his work. The act of publishing each chapter made the whole process even more interesting and popular – far from a usual academic exercise.

While studying at Cornell he also met his wife. So in about eight years, a doctoral degree and a life partner along with all the other fun he had in his life – not a bad deal at all.

And just around the time, while completing his doctoral program and toying with the idea of language, he came across professor Anil Gupta. Dr. Gupta, a professor at IIM Ahmadabad was visiting Cornell for a lecture. His work had also been in the field of education of disadvantaged communities. After they had a word with each other, Dr. Gupta invited Brij over to IIM Ahmadabad, but he was apprehensive because IIM was a very well known business institute and he wondered what role would he play? But he was told that IIMA had a Center for Educational Innovation. Brij thought that this would be an ideal opportunity for him to do some research on the Same Language Subtitling, something he had been wanting since the idea had occurred to him.

Having come across this idea of using subtitles to improve his language skills it had occurred to him that if one subtitles the programs on Television it could immensely help literacy in India. As soon as he started with his position in IIMA, he started doing research on the impact of subtitling of television programs.

Now, he was thinking that a few research publications in the domain and that would give him a tenure at IIMA. After that, he thought, he would pass on the findings to the government and move onto something else. In his mind, he was thinking that this thing would take him about 2 years. This was the year 1996.

Brij was quite gung ho about this new idea and more so the impact it could have. In their research he found various interesting things about SLS, like, Schoolchildren who see SLS programs are twice as good readers as those who don’t. It also helped deaf people enhance their reading ability. It was a method, which reinforced the text by providing the context through music & images, thus improving the language skills of people who were semi-literate or illiterate.

Armed with his scientific findings, his file of degrees (which had degrees from IIT Kanpur, PhD from Cornell University & the position of faculty at IIM Ahmedabad) he approached the Doordarshan – the government broadcasting body. Until the advent of cable TV in 90s, DD, as it is popularly called, was the only TV channel available in India. Some of its programs like Chitrahaar, Rangoli (both programs run popular Bollywood songs) are still quite popular amongst a large non-urban populace. At one point of time DD had such a hold on its audience that during some popular programs like Ramayan, Mahabharat and even during the Chitrahaar, there would be significantly less traffic on the roads.

DD was an ideal place for Brij to sell his findings for two reasons: It was still a very popular channel & DD was set up with an agenda of public welfare, as is everything established by the government.

Brij was in for a surprise.

His excitement met such an un-enthusiastic response that it would have driven him mad or even made him doubt his work. The experts in the media said: This would spoil the pleasure of watching the song, besides anyways people who watch these programs are illiterate.

It is interesting to imagine, what would have gone in the mind of the media professional, who would be telling such things to Dr. Brij Kothari, a guy who had spent his lifetime studying and then painstakingly doing his research work. A guy who had studied at the best place in the country, at one of the best places in the US of fucking A and then was a professor at one of the best institutes in the country, IIMA.

After this setback, Brij decided to get some support from the National Literacy Mission hoping that they would be more tuned into something like this. But the “experts” there said “this couldn’t work, because it is far too simple. If something like this could have worked, it would have been tried”.

What do you tell such a man! And this was when the research showed that people actually preferred subtitles and initially it would be a little difficult but very soon people caught up.

Some experts even had a moral problem in combining the two – how could you attach education with titillating song sequences from Bollywood. That was the whole idea! Those titillating songs, which people watch anyways, would be a medium to carry some learning, which would arm them with an ability to read other forms like newspapers, books, signboards and you name it.

Well this was India. This is India. In some other parts of the world, people would doubt themselves before mouthing such opinions and that too to a researcher like Brij Kothari with unmatched credentials. His battle was to reach a whole new level. He had so far in life, mostly struggled with ideas and concepts in books and also striven to prove them in the fieldwork. But now, a new coursework was to start – How to convince a bureaucrat! Or for that matter any other human being.

Dr. Kothari states that one thing he has learnt over the years is to question the experts, because clearly a person who is claiming to know everything about something doesn’t know everything. Because a real expert always knows that he doesn’t know everything.

It was 1999 and he had written to all the Doordarshan Kendra directors but no one had replied. So, he tried meeting a few directors at various Kendras but no one seemed interested.

A gentleman, Satish Saxena, at All India Radio found out about this and wrote to Brij about his interest but subtitles had no place in Radio. However, a few months later he moved to the Doordarshan Kendra, Ahmedabad, Gujarat and contacted Dr. Kothari for testing his Same Language Subtitling locally in Gujarat. Soon they found out that this was working. Dr. Kothari stood vindicated.

It was the best fruit of Dr. Kothari’s labour. Now, his theory of Same Language Subtitling being a tool of literacy was no more an academic exercise but it had been proven to work in the public domain, which was the target audience for such a project.

Armed with the confidence of this proof,Dr. Kothari, after three years of his laborious work, was now sure that now there would be no stopping. So, he went to New Delhi to the meet the Director General of Doordarshan. The DG heard him out but later responded with a letter saying he was not interested. No explanations provided – Bureaucrats do not need any reason to reject a suggestion. Dr. Kothari found this rejection almost hard to believe. But then again this is India, almost everything here moves like the traffic here, a million brakes in a mile.

Meanwhile, their research continued with the help of Satish Saxena. They also used it in folk language songs (earlier they had used it in Film songs) and realized that this technique would work in any song-based program.

Along the path Dr. Kothari applied for a competition at Development Marketplace sponsored by World Bank. This is a competition for Social Entrepreneurs. SLS (Same Language Subtitling) competed for the top prize of USD 250,000 and won it!

Armed with a World Bank Prize for Social Entrepreneurship he along with the Director of IIM Ahmedabad again went to meet the new Director General of Doordarshan in Delhi – Dr. S. Y. Quraishi. Dr. Quraishi, a very respected IAS officer, is currently the Chief Election Commissioner of India. Dr. Quraishi heard Dr. Kothari and said that he did not see any problem in implementing this. He asked them to subtitle “Chitrahaar”, which until the cable TV, was one of the most popular song program television had.

Despite the DG’s approval the lower order bureaucracy created delays and problems. One would think that doing “good” must be easy and people would welcome it.

One of the directors wanted many strange clauses in the contract and one amongst those was that he wanted to keep all the equipment after one year. This was strange, because the whole effort was funded by the World Bank. They had to again resort to Dr. Quraishi’s help in speeding it up. And it still took them a good 8-9 months to implement subtitling. They had won the grant in Jan 2002, which was valid for only one year and if the work could not be furthered within that year they would be asked to return the money. Fortunately, by September 2002 they had started subtitling Chitrahaar. Once on air, the ratings responded. So not only was it good for society but even the TRPs got better. Eventually Doordarshan was very happy about the result and after a year they also got “Rangoli”(another very popular song program) to subtitle.

2003 onwards they got enough programs and enough languages to keep their hands full. The CEO of Prasar Bharti, the Broadcasting Corporation of India, Mr Sharma gave them several programs in different regional languages like Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Punjabi etc.

But, soon they ran into the scalability issue. Their grant could get them so far but they did not know where to raise money from for the next phase. They obviously wanted to take this wonderful tool to all the 600,000 villages in the country, which have very poor infrastructure as far as education is concerned. Here was a tool with a micro-budget, which could make a dent in the destiny of such a huge populace, but they had no more funds.

It is surprising that Doordarshan was not paying anything for such a service in fact one local director even asked money for promoting literacy. Considering that one of the primary motives of having a state sponsored TV Channel is to promote various social good through media, this was absolutely heinous. But this is not unimaginable in India.

After a lot of running around they could get some support from the Ministry of Human Resource and Development, but that was again limited. And soon those funds were exhausted.

Till Date 85% of the funding of the Same Language Subtitling had come from foreign funds. A literacy program made for India has been primarily funded by non-Indian agencies.

SLS – Bill Clinton

Lately when Bill Clinton – Yes the Bill Clinton – praised this simple idea with a “staggering impact on so many lives”, It alerted some sleeping babus – “why is Bill Clinton talking about this stupid idea we have been trashing for so many years!” some must have thought. Now there are efforts that subtitling should be adopted as a policy in Prasar Bharti programs.

It needs to be a policy because otherwise it depends on individual patronage and tomorrow anyone can come and say “I don’t like it”, without caring the least about all the research that has gone into it, the positive impact that it has. Needless to say that it has come such a long way with some genuinely concerned people holding offices. Lately it has had a positive hearing at the Prasar Bharti Board meeting as it houses a couple of people from Civil Society – non-bureaucrats.

According to an independent study conducted by Nielsen – Center For Social Research: Same Language Subtitling doubles the number functional readers in primary school children.

Brij Kothari has come a long way since 1996 with both where his project and his understanding about the implementation of a simple idea. It has taken him 15 years to get here and the path has been full of challenges and some resounding victories.

BookBox – An offshoot of the same idea won a business plan contest at Social Entrepreneuship Competition at Stanford Business School. It is the implementation of the same idea of reinforcing reading ability for children by subtitling animation stories. Once the subtitling has been done in one language it is relatively much cheaper to do it for other languages too. The distribution of print material is a challenge but such material could again make a drastic impact.

Dr. Kothari’s family lives in California, USA. He has three kids all less than 10. He divides his time between US and India almost 50-50. Though the time he spends with his kids is never sufficient but he does get them to the Aurobindo Ashram in summers. The ashram, his alma mater, has a permanent place in his life and is also going to impact the lives of his children.

It must be very exhausting for him to keep these trans-Atlantic efforts going, to be staying away from family. But when he gets a postcard from some chidren in a village, who tell a story about how they got together to write a song book, with each kid copying a line of the song and then putting it all together to perform the songs together, it makes all his efforts worth the toil. Similarly kids hard of hearing get benefited from this, older people who can’t hear, people who studied till 5th standard revive their reading skills and venture into reading newspapers.

What is reading after all? Signs translated into sounds and when assisted with the context given by a story & music, mind seems to subconsciously pick up the craft. It’s magic.

Dr. Kothari spent 10 years in education culminating into a PhD and another 15 years with Same Language Subtitling. The wars he has fought, the battles he has won and the glory he has rightfully earned – Do you think it would be possible had he been “ambitious” and taken a high paying safe job.

I don’t think anyone would say yes.



Leave a Comment
  1. Navin / Jul 7 2012 7:51 pm

    Inspiring one. There is no second thought on your last message. The unpredictability of life makes life more interesting and charming given that you create/discover sincere interest and pursue it to a logical end. I hope GP sir would be considered like this in future.

  2. Himanshu Tewari / Jul 7 2012 8:20 pm

    Dear Gyanesh,
    Socrates was charged with treason against the mighty State because he used to asked Simple questions’. Your questions are also simple – “Do you think it would be possible had he been “ambitious” and taken a high paying safe job”. And they militate against the established ways … Be careful and continue with the good job

    Fantastic and inspirational – The storeyteller and Lead character !!

  3. Ram / Jul 7 2012 9:33 pm

    Excellent story. I hope I do something that has this kind of impact.

  4. Gaurav / Jul 16 2012 11:59 pm

    Awesome.. loved it..
    My heart wants to read the story again 😀

  5. ohiogupta / Aug 15 2012 8:54 pm

    Very inspiring. What a simple but powerful idea.


  1. Read the story behind Subtitles in RANGOLI and CHITRAHAR on DD1 | My wonderful teaching experiences

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