When Megan Mylan landed in India she knew she was straddling two different worlds. She was staying in a modern hotel in Varanasi, video-chatting with her nephew in California every morning. Then she would take a two hour drive to meet the subject of her documentary—Pinki. Smile Pinkiwon Mylan the Oscar for best short documentary this year and has been picked up by HBO.
“Pinki’s village had no running water, no electricity,” says Mylan. “Before I met them they didn’t even have any concept of what a foreigner was.” They spoke Bhojpuri. Mylan didn’t even speak Hindi. But she knew she wanted to make Pinki the center of her film. “There was just something special about her gaze,” says Mylan.

Pinki had been born with a cleft lip, one of the most common birth defects in the world. More than 35,000 children are born every year in India with clefts. A fairly inexpensive, straightforward surgery can usually fix it.

But even that is out of reach for dirt-poor families like Pinki’s. On top of that, stigma and superstition abound.Pinki’s family thought an eclipse had caused the cleft. Others think it’s punishment for some misdeed.

Dr. Subodh Singh wants to change all that. The plastic surgeon is now a cleft-repair machine. “He lives a block and a half from the hospital. If his wife and children would allow it, he would work seven days a week,” says Mylan. As it is, he manages 3,000 operations a year. Singh is one of the surgeons trained and funded in 76 countries by the international NGO SmileTrain to fix clefts. Mylan says that appealed to the activist in her, that it wasn’t a team of American doctors flying down like angels of mercy.

When SmileTrain first approached Mylan to make a film about their work she was skeptical. She’d just finished Lost Boys of Sudan, her acclaimed documentary about former child soldiers from Sudan trying to find their way in the United States. She thought of herself as a “human rights filmmaker.” Clefts, while worthy, sounded a little too much like a Public Service Annoucement(PSA). “I’d see the ads in the Sunday paper and think ‘oh, that’s too bad’ but I didn’t think much beyond that,” says Mylan.

But then she reconsidered. “The key to having enough drama is finding individuals who are going through once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” says Mylan. And she knew that this was one drama “where (I) was pretty sure it was going to have a happy ending.”

Finding the children, though, was quite a challenge. “Even though there are over a million children in India living with a cleft, the population is over a billion, so to some degree it’s a bit of a needle in the haystack,” says Mylan. Her field producer Nandini Rajwade tracked down both Pinki and a boy named Ghutaru for her.

Though it’s called Smile Pinki, the film is about both children. “I still feel bad Ghutaru didn’t make it into the title,” says Mylan. “But ‘Smile Ghutaru’ does not roll off the tongue for an American audience.” She was drawn not just to the kids, but the close bonds they had with their families. Though she’d heard stories of families abandoning children with clefts, it was obvious Pinki’s father doted on her. But it was still hard to explain to the families that a cleft had nothing to do with sins or eclipse, or that someone was willing to fix it for free. “That’s very hard for a lot of the families who have never been given anything for free,” says Mylan. “And they are a little bit suspicious.”

But there is a moment when that skepticism starts to vanish. Mylan was there to film it. Four times a year the social workers associated with the hospital do a big communications outreach into the remote countryside trying to find kids like Pinki. Mylan got to be at the hospital during registration day when children show up from all over the countryside to get their surgery dates. There were more than 600 children, remembers Mylan. They started showing up starting 4 a.m. by boat, rickshaw, train, on foot. “It’s one of my favorite scenes in the film,” says Mylan. “You see Pinki walking in and for the first time seeing someone who looked like her. She looks at the little girl next to her and she sticks her tongue out and feels her own lip and then she looks up at her dad.”

Five months after the surgery Mylan returned to film the kids again. She says immediately after the surgery the parents looked like a great weight had lifted off their shoulders. “But the children felt pretty lousy, they had a lot of swelling,” remembers Mylan. When she went back, though, they were completely transformed.

Ghutaru seemed years younger, a boisterous kid playing football. Pinki was a self-confident little girl going to school. “I don’t think either will forget the hardships they had experienced,” says Mylan. “I hope the fact that someone invested in them and corrected their cleft gives them a bit of pride that their future matters, their life matters.”

Pinki’s story and the Oscar, coming as it did in the year of Slumdog Millionaire, has already changed the little girl’s life. The day the film was nominated, journalists were in her village asking if Pinki was going to the Oscars. She did go. She walked down the red carpet with Mylan. She met Anil Kapoor and the other Bollywood actors but didn’t really know who they were, much to their chagrin.

Now her village has a water pump, corrugated roofs, and might soon get electricity. But Mylan says she always reminds herself that despite its happy ending this fairy tale is still about the real world. “These are still desperately poor children,” she says. “But at least now they have more of a fair shot.”

Sandip Roy is the host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.

When Megan Mylan landed in India she knew she was straddling two different worlds. She was staying in a modern hotel in Varanasi, video-chatting with her nephew in California every morning. Then she would take a two hour drive to meet the subject of her documentary—Pinki. Smile Pinkiwon Mylan the Oscar for best short documentary this year and has been picked up by HBO.6c1a466a100e2bcd3502b8a54cde7218-2

“Pinki’s village had no running water, no electricity,” says Mylan. “Before I met them they didn’t even have any concept of what a foreigner was.” They spoke Bhojpuri. Mylan didn’t even speak Hindi. But she knew she wanted to make Pinki the center of her film. “There was just something special about her gaze,” says Mylan.

Pinki had been born with a cleft lip, one of the most common birth defects in the world. More than 35,000 children are born every year in India with clefts. A fairly inexpensive, straightforward surgery can usually fix it.

But even that is out of reach for dirt-poor families like Pinki’s. On top of that, stigma and superstition abound.Pinki’s family thought an eclipse had caused the cleft. Others think it’s punishment for some misdeed.

Dr. Subodh Singh wants to change all that. The plastic surgeon is now a cleft-repair machine. “He lives a block and a half from the hospital. If his wife and children would allow it, he would work seven days a week,” says Mylan. As it is, he manages 3,000 operations a year. Singh is one of the surgeons trained and funded in 76 countries by the international NGO SmileTrain to fix clefts. Mylan says that appealed to the activist in her, that it wasn’t a team of American doctors flying down like angels of mercy.

When SmileTrain first approached Mylan to make a film about their work she was skeptical. She’d just finished Lost Boys of Sudan, her acclaimed documentary about former child soldiers from Sudan trying to find their way in the United States. She thought of herself as a “human rights filmmaker.” Clefts, while worthy, sounded a little too much like a Public Service Annoucement(PSA). “I’d see the ads in the Sunday paper and think ‘oh, that’s too bad’ but I didn’t think much beyond that,” says Mylan.

But then she reconsidered. “The key to having enough drama is finding individuals who are going through once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” says Mylan. And she knew that this was one drama “where (I) was pretty sure it was going to have a happy ending.”

Finding the children, though, was quite a challenge. “Even though there are over a million children in India living with a cleft, the population is over a billion, so to some degree it’s a bit of a needle in the haystack,” says Mylan. Her field producer Nandini Rajwade tracked down both Pinki and a boy named Ghutaru for her.

Though it’s called Smile Pinki, the film is about both children. “I still feel bad Ghutaru didn’t make it into the title,” says Mylan. “But ‘Smile Ghutaru’ does not roll off the tongue for an American audience.” She was drawn not just to the kids, but the close bonds they had with their families. Though she’d heard stories of families abandoning children with clefts, it was obvious Pinki’s father doted on her. But it was still hard to explain to the families that a cleft had nothing to do with sins or eclipse, or that someone was willing to fix it for free. “That’s very hard for a lot of the families who have never been given anything for free,” says Mylan. “And they are a little bit suspicious.”

But there is a moment when that skepticism starts to vanish. Mylan was there to film it. Four times a year the social workers associated with the hospital do a big communications outreach into the remote countryside trying to find kids like Pinki. Mylan got to be at the hospital during registration day when children show up from all over the countryside to get their surgery dates. There were more than 600 children, remembers Mylan. They started showing up starting 4 a.m. by boat, rickshaw, train, on foot. “It’s one of my favorite scenes in the film,” says Mylan. “You see Pinki walking in and for the first time seeing someone who looked like her. She looks at the little girl next to her and she sticks her tongue out and feels her own lip and then she looks up at her dad.”

Five months after the surgery Mylan returned to film the kids again. She says immediately after the surgery the parents looked like a great weight had lifted off their shoulders. “But the children felt pretty lousy, they had a lot of swelling,” remembers Mylan. When she went back, though, they were completely transformed.

Ghutaru seemed years younger, a boisterous kid playing football. Pinki was a self-confident little girl going to school. “I don’t think either will forget the hardships they had experienced,” says Mylan. “I hope the fact that someone invested in them and corrected their cleft gives them a bit of pride that their future matters, their life matters.”

Pinki’s story and the Oscar, coming as it did in the year of Slumdog Millionaire, has already changed the little girl’s life. The day the film was nominated, journalists were in her village asking if Pinki was going to the Oscars. She did go. She walked down the red carpet with Mylan. She met Anil Kapoor and the other Bollywood actors but didn’t really know who they were, much to their chagrin.

Now her village has a water pump, corrugated roofs, and might soon get electricity. But Mylan says she always reminds herself that despite its happy ending this fairy tale is still about the real world. “These are still desperately poor children,” she says. “But at least now they have more of a fair shot.”

Sandip Roy is the host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.

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