Oscar-winning documentary “Smile Pinki” premiered in Chennai recently. Divya Kumar meets the team behind its making

It isn’t an everyday sight at a press meet — a gleaming Oscar statuette standing tall between the mikes on the table. But then, it isn’t everyday that an Oscar-winning documentary is launched in the city either.

Smile Pinki, the story of the little girl with a cleft lip from Mirzapur that made it at the Academy Awards this year, recently premiered at INOX in Chennai. The team behind the heartwarming documentary — its director Megan Mylan and Dr. Subodh Kumar Singh, the Smile Train doctor who operated on Pinki — were present at the press screening earlier at The Park hotel as part of their five-city tour of the country.

Great responsibility

“I had such a wonderful experience being part of India’s year at the Oscars, and I felt a great responsibility to bring this story back to India,” said Mylan, the American filmmaker who was approached by Smile Train to tell their story. “We want to bring the message across to every Indian child with a cleft lip or palate that the condition is 100 per cent treatable, and that there’s this organisation called Smile Train that conducts free surgeries.”

The number of such children in India is massive, according to Dr. Singh. “We have over 260 surgeons treating 15,000 patients a year, but we still have a backlog of one million children who need treatment,” he said. “Every year, 30,000 children are born with this condition in India.”

The greatest obstacle faced by organisations such as Smile Train and its doctors is lack of awareness, not lack of resources. “We have the finances and excellent surgeons, but energy is being spent just trying to access these patients,” said Dr. Ashish Sabharwal of Smile Train.

National tour

That’s where the attention garnered by ‘Smile Pinki’ and the Oscar could prove invaluable, and that’s the reason for this national tour, which began in Mumbai on October 1, and will proceed to Bangalore, Delhi and Varanasi next.

“It’s all about building energy and getting the word out,” said Mylan. “We won at the Oscars, but if I didn’t connect with the 167 Smile Train centres in India doing these surgeries day-in and day-out, if I didn’t bring in more patients, then I feel I wouldn’t have done my job.”

Although little Pinki herself couldn’t travel with the team — the girl who didn’t go to school because other children made fun of her now has a full scholarship to a school near Lucknow and takes her studies very seriously — other little children who’ve been treated by the Sri Ramachandra Medical Centre’s Cleft and Craniofacial Centre, where Smile Train has been functioning for the last seven years, attended the launch with their parents.

“In a way, it’s good that other little Pinkis local to this area are here,” said Mylan. “Though the documentary is very much Pinki’s story, it’s also the story of all the others in this country born with the condition.”

Some of those stories can be tragic, especially when they don’t receive treatment in time. “Getting a job is hard, marriage is often out of the question — I’ve seen so many become outcasts as adults, when they could have been integrated into society so easily,” said Dr. Jyotsna Murthy, chief co-ordinator of Sri Ramachandra Medical Centre’s Cleft and Craniofacial Centre. “If they’re treated before age one, we’ve won the battle.”

‘Smile Pinki’ will be playing at INOX shortly, a preliminary to the larger plan of getting it out to other media outlets and eventually Doordarshan where it’s likely to have the greatest reach. “We hope to use the Oscar to say this is what we have to pay attention to,” said Mylan.

We want to bring the message across to every Indian child with a cleft lip or palate that the condition is 100 per cent treatable, and that there’s this organisation called Smile Train that conducts free surgeries

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