A smile that didn't come easy
Thanks to Slumdog Millionaire's dominating performance at the 81st Academy Awards ceremony this February, 2009 will forever be remembered as the year India mesmerised hearts and minds at the Oscars.
But it's a lesser known India-focused 2009 Oscar winner -- a 40 minute documentary by US documentarian Megan Mylan on Smile Train's [an international charity that provides cleft lip and cleft palate surgery to children in need] operations -- that might be remembered as having had a greater impact.
Smile Pinki follows the journey of Pinki Sonkar, a young girl from Dabai village in rural Uttar Pradesh, as she is swept up by Smile Train professionals and quite literally given a new lease on life.
Like some 300,000 young impoverished children around the world before them, Pinki and her pal Ghutaru are both given free cleft palate surgeries at a hospital in Varanasi, by the selfless Dr Subodh Kumar Singh.
Mylan faithfully captures every aspect of the experience, in Bhojpuri and Hindi, with English subtitles.
Pinki's painfully ostracised by others in her village, who view her cleft as some sort of horrible, karma-driven affliction. A tender 7-year-old, she's not attending school and her parents seem to think her cross is one that must be bared permanently.
That's when Pankaj -- a social worker who does rounds in UP villages, preaching the Smile Train gospel -- shows up and offers Pinki's parents the offer of a lifetime.
Image: Rajendra and his daughter Pinki
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera
Spreading smiles all around
Roughly a week later, Pinki is back home, with a scar so insignificant that it's almost indecipherable.
Really and truly, it's a miracle. A scholarship fund in her name has also seen to it that she's studying in a reputed hostel outside Lucknow.
A life that once seemed destined for little more than cruelty and misery is now brightly illuminated, as evidenced by Pinki's own winning smile.
Now the cast and crew of Smile Pinki are touring India, to spread the message of the film and the greater vision of Smile Train.
The film's India release was last Friday. Although it's been scheduled for just five cities, should the public respond well, the film will be opened up to a wider market, distributors have said.
Photographs: Dominic Xavier
'Smile Pinki is being treated here like a real blockbuster movie'
Megan Mylan, back in India for the first time since filming the documentary, was effusive in her praise for the country and its people.
"It's such a joy to be bringing this story back home to India, and sharing this Oscar moment that happened several months ago. We get to re-experience it all," she said.
"And, for me, coming to Mumbai and other parts of India for the first time; it's just been a great experience. Also, the reception has been extraordinary. Smile Pinki is being treated here like a real blockbuster movie when it's just a small documentary. Having people pay attention and want to know more about the film has been very heart-warming for all of us," she added.
As for the stars of Smile Pinki -- Pinki and her pal Ghutaru -- we caught up with them at a promotional event for the film at the Taj Land's End hotel in Mumbai.
With stars in their eyes, they attempted to make sense of the hectic life of Mumbai.
In between bites of pav bhaji, Pinki told us that Western food is very different and not exactly tasty. "But the pav bhaji is good," she reported dutifully.
Ghutaru meanwhile had nothing good to say about the food, preferring the subji and roti he's used to from home.
Interestingly, neither of the children touched sweets or dairy products, as they're simple luxury items not readily available in their villages, which actually lack regular electricity and running water.
None of this goes unnoticed by Mylan, who has a keen understanding of the enormous gulf between Pinki's life and those of most Academy Award starrers.
She told us that Pinki's experience in Los Angeles for the Oscars was memorable, especially her trip to Disney Land, but that it was also a bit overwhelming for her father Rajendra.
For both father and daughter, the almost 20-hour flight to LA was their first time airborne, and came with a lot of anxiety and stress.
Image: Megan Mylan poses with her Oscar statue for Smile Pinki
Photographs: Mike Blake/Reuters
'It was definitely India's year at the Oscars'
As for their promotional stop in Mumbai, Mylan joked that by now, "Pinki is an old hat at luxury travel. She flew out to LA and is now staying at the Taj (Lands End in Mumbai).
"Ghutaru in the past few days has had his first plane ride, his first ride in an elevator. So it's been pretty intense for him. But Pinki's helping him out. She's showed him how to ride the elevator. She showed him the Arabian Sea. She's taken on a leadership role."
Discussing her time on the red carpet with Pinki, Mylan remembered that, "We had that celebrity journalism, which just kept asking, 'What does Pinki think of Brad Pitt.' And I thought: 'Gosh, you're missing the point.'"
Mylan added that, while many documentarians have a tendency to pooh-pooh awards show, she thoroughly embraced it.
"I enjoyed that moment. And I think Pinki's presence had a lot to do with it. We had this funny moment when I wanted to take Pinki back to sit with her father, and I was trying to visually communicate with her, because I don't speak Bhojpuri or Hindi, that I was taking her to see her dad. But she didn't know where I was taking her! Luckily, Irrfan Khan and Anil Kapoor were sitting behind us, and they translated for us.
"As for the Slumdog cast, we barely paid them any attention beyond their ability to translate," she said, laughing uproariously, before adding in all seriousness that, "There was solidarity between the two casts. It was definitely India's year at the Oscars. And we were a part of that. So it was very special."
Parrying questions about which Bollywood actress is her favourite, Mylan simply said, "There's such a wealth of talent here, especially in these huge big budget releases. But I don't do that type of film. I do observational film. I try to extract myself as much as possible from the final product.
"The biggest satisfaction for me is making a film that can really be put to good use. Like this Oscar winner can get the message out about Smile Train and help people learn that clefts are a simple birth defect that can be fixed. So had it not had that social-work element, I'm not sure the experience would have been as joyous."
As for Pinki, she didn't hesitate when asked if she wanted to be a film-maker. "No. I want to be a doctor," she said sweetly. And why, little Pinki? "So that I can help people the way that I've been helped."
Image: Dr Subodh Kumar Singh, Pinki and Megan Mylan
Photographs: Dominic Xavier