Megan Mylan’s “Smile Pinki” has proved that a small curve can put everything straight.
Photos: V. Sreenivasa Murthy, PTI
Winning smile Filmmaker Megan Mylan
An idea can change life. Sometimes, commercial catchphrases find their reflection in dreary daily life. Megan Mylan’s Oscar-winning documentary “Smile Pinki” is one such case.
It not only opened the world for a little girl but is also giving wings to the dreams of many other Pinkis who are living with the stigma of honth kati. It literally proves a smile is an inexpensive way to change your looks.
The director was in India recently on a multiple city tour to promote the film and the cause. She is elated to find that even taxi drivers know about Pinki and cleft lip. “That’s the job of a documentary. It is not about sermonizing or education. It is about filmmaking and the facts should be delivered in such a way that people are entertained and take home the story and the inherent message. She believes in verite style of cinema.
“Life should unfold in front of the camera with minimal prompting. I am inspired by the idea, the better we know each other, the better this world is. I expect audience who watch my documentaries to come out with a feeling that now they better understand the life of someone else who is living a different reality.”
Having started her career as a fund raiser with an NGO in Brazil, Megan says she moved to documentaries to tell the stories of the people she was working for. “I wanted to make a social impact.” However, she understands that how the format is being abused these days.
“Everybody wants to be a part of a documentary because it looks authentic. When I was approached by Smile Train (the NGO working with people with cleft lip) I was not convinced initially as I took it as a ‘cosmetic’ issue but when I came to know about the social ostracism part, I realised the problem is worth exploring.” As part of her research, she visited the villages around Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh.
“I came to know that they are discriminated against right from schooling. Teachers call them an unwanted distraction in class room. A birth defect, which could be corrected through surgery, is being treated as God’s curse. Smile Train is getting the corrective surgery, which costs Rs.10000, done free of cost but there needs to be more awareness.”
Megan didn’t want to make it as a documentary on cleft lip. “When I started I thought there would be a lot of medical aspect involved. Gradually I discovered surgery is just small part of this social problem. So I decided to address the issue through a real story.”
It is, in fact, Megan’s style reflected in her earlier work “Lost Boys of Sudan” as well. The need of a central character brought Pinki Sonkar into the picture.
“Field producers Nandini Rajwade and social worker Pankaj Kumar came with a dozen pictures of children with cleft lip. Out of them Pinki stood out for her simple charisma that camera keeps looking for.” Verite style proves provocative too as the filmmaker interferes in the personal space of the ordinary subject.
“That’s true. That’s why I wanted to make sure that our presence should not hurt Pinki or her parents’ self-esteem.” However, the most evocative shots that she has got are those between Pinki and her father. “Pinki is closer to her father than her mother. He made her ponytails before the operation and the way he was caressing her hair after the operation was really touching. It appeared as if a big burden had come off his shoulders.” Megan is in touch with Pinki and says that the girl has got her self esteem, her courage. “Her eyes no longer look down and she wants to become a doctor.”
Meanwhile, Megan’s search for issues has taken her back to Brazil, where she is working on a documentary on racial inequality.
Mylan with Dr Subodh Kumar Singh
Dr. Subodh Kumar Singh who conducted the corrective surgery on Pinki says the satisfaction that he gets from the smiles of Pinkis is much more than the ‘profits’ that some of his peers are earning. “I take it as a professional challenge as well as I get to do so many operations,” says Singh who runs the G.S. Memorial Hospital in Varanasi, which provides free treatment for cleft lip in association with Smile, and has conducted more than 14000 cleft lip and palate surgeries. “Research shows that one in 700 births is born with cleft lip and girls are more prone to it than boys. That explains Pinki as the central character.” About the causes, Singh says the research is still in process. “What we know is that apart from genetic factor, some environmental factors like exposure to pesticides and lack of Folic Acid in mother’s body are also responsible for the cleft lip and palate. It not only affects the physical beauty but also impairs hearing and speech.” He says generally teachers could not realize their problem and most of the kids with cleft lip drop out from school. “The operation requires a specialized plastic surgeon and in hospitals it costs Rs.20,000 to Rs. lakh depending on the facilities. In India around one million people are waiting for the surgery. One Smile Train is not enough, we need many more dedicated groups.”