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Smile Train expected to go places

By Arthur J Pais
June 09, 2009 17:05 IST
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Even had it not won the Oscar, Megan Mylan's Smile Pinki: A Real-World Fairy Tale was bound to travel wide. It had been shown at a few film festivals before the Oscars, and HBO was to air it. Mylan's reputation, based largely on the documentary Lost Boys From Sudan -- a film about two Sudanese trying to find a new life in America -- ensured that Smile Pinki had good exposure.

"But what the Oscar has done to this film is unbelievable," Mylan says, of the new awareness winning the award has created among the public. The film got a high profile on June 7 at the Museum of Modern Art film festival and was also premiered on HBO. Mylan has also been showing it free in movie theatres in several cities in America to discuss the work being done by Smile Train, an American organisation, in India and 75 other countries where it finances free surgeries for children with cleft lips.

She hopes Indians in America, Canada and other affluent countries will help Smile Train facilitate thousands of Indian children born with cleft lips to undergo surgery that costs just $250 per person, but makes such a huge difference in the life of the affected child.

She admits she is not an expert on India, and she had not visited the country prior to Smile Train approaching her to do this documentary. "But I know many Indians at various levels, including those who are in the Silicon Valley, are involved in many projects in India," she says. "Helping the likes of Pinki Kumari could be another worthy cause they can support. India does not have to wait for Bill Gates to take up this cause."

According to Smile Train, more than 4.7 million children in developing countries have unrepaired clefts, Over 500,000 children have received free surgeries in the past 10 years through Smile Train (

Documentary filmmakers do not get many opportunities to tell stories with uplifting endings, she says. And that is one of the reasons she holds this 39-minute long film closest to her heart.

"Ï want this film to be seen not only as a triumph for the kind of work Dr Subodh Singh (who performed the surgery on Pinki Kumari) is doing in India but also for many other activists who are transforming the world around them. The film appeals to people around the world, for it is also the story of a father's love for a daughter who, because of this birth defect, is shunned by villagers and schoolmates in a remote part of Uttar Pradesh," she says.

The father had reservations regarding the surgery, Mylan says, and yet he was prepared to take the risks to bring happiness to Pinki. The surgery was conducted in Varanasi, several hours drive from the village Pinki and her family lived.

Pinki Kumar, flashing her bright new smile and accompanied by her father and Dr Singh, had joined Mylan on the red carpet at the Oscars. The filmmaker says she debated for several days if Pinki, who lives in a poverty-filled village, should be brought to the Oscar ceremony.

"We decided to bring her to the event only after Dr Singh and our Indian crew prepared her well, so that she won't have a culture shock," Mylan says. "She had only been to one major city, Varanasi. We took her to Delhi and got her used to a big city before bringing her to LA."

Pinki was not really awed by Hollywood, Mylan says. She enjoyed the stay but longed to be back in her village. "She was clearly missing her home, siblings and friends."

Mylan meanwhile finds her life changing after the Oscars; happily, one of the first benefits was getting to hear from people she had lost contact with over the years.

'There's no five-picture deal for that kind of filmmaking,' she said in an interview. 'And I'm not interested in transitioning to fiction filmmaking. I'm in this for the long haul. So winning an Oscar isn't an invitation to some bigger, grander club to play in, but where it does help is in building important relationships, like the one I have now with HBO.'

Mylan, 39, has also made documentaries in America and Brazil. Is she tempted to make another film in India? She is tempted, she says, but there is no project at hand. She will however be in India in a few months, when her film gets a theatre release and also features on national television.

Her Indian sojourn has brought her in contact with many "gifted and committed" documentary makers. She would be glad to help them bring their films to major festivals in India. "I won the Oscar for this film," she adds. "But in all reality it is an Indian film, and the Oscar is also for India, and I am sure there are many Oscar-worthy documentary filmmakers in India."

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Arthur J Pais