Born with cleft lips in one of the poorest regions of rural India, five-year-old Pinki and 11-year-old Ghutaru are ostracized and ridiculed for their condition. While surgery to correct the defect is routine in the U.S., it is a distant dream for them and their families - until they meet Pankaj, a social worker for the G.S. Memorial Plastic Surgery Hospital, who travels from village to village to find children with cleft lips and palates. Directed by Megan Mylan, the uplifting Oscar®-winning documentary Smile Pinki follows its two wide-eyed protagonists on a journey from isolation to acceptance.
Told in vibrant cinema verité style, Smile Pinki follows two of the hundreds of families who journey to GS Memorial Hospital in the holy city of Banaras - also known as Varanasin - where free corrective surgery is available. When Pinki (who travels three hours on foot with her father) and Ghutaru arrive at the hospital, they see many other children who look like them for the first time in their lives, which calms their nerves. The doctors try to put the children at ease, but many have been ridiculed by other children, and in some cases have been cast out by family members who do not accept them.
Pinki and Ghutaru undergo surgery after a series of diagnostic questions, then spend several days recovering in the hospital before going home. Five months later, both have healed completely and are attending school, playing with friends and smiling, enjoying a more normal life.
Smile Pinki spotlights the work of Dr. Sudbodh Kumar Singh, who has operated on thousands of children, including Pinki, at GS Memorial Hospital as part of The Smile Train, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping children with clefts in developing countries.
"Each cleft surgery we perform is a modern-day medical miracle," explains Dr. Subodh. "This surgery gives these children not just a new smile, but a second chance at life." According to Dr. Subodh, the hospital performs roughly 3,000 operations per year, with a 100% success rate. The problem is the enormous backlog of cases.
Approximately 35,000 children are born with clefts every year in India; around one million Indian children now live with the condition, which is one of the most common and most curable of birth defects. While it is unknown exactly what causes a cleft palate or lip, it is more prevalent in poor families and likely linked to prenatal nutrition.
Notes director Megan Mylan, "This is one of those rare opportunities where something that devastates a young life can be so easily cured. Smile Train's strategy of empowering local doctors caught my attention. It just makes so much sense to have talented local doctors doing surgeries all year long, rather than flying in teams of Americans, who are only able to work for a few days and help a fraction of the children who need it. Seeing first-hand how dramatically this simple surgery changes children's lives is something I will never forget. For me, it did feel like a real-world fairy tale."
The Smile Train is the world's leading cleft charity, with thousands of partners and programs in 76 of the world's poorest countries. The organization's mission is to help millions of children suffering with unrepaired clefts in developing countries. It provides free cleft surgery to children from poor families that give children not just a new smile, but a new life. Now in its tenth year, The Smile Train will help its 500,000th child this year.
Megan Mylan is an Oscar®-winning documentary filmmaker and Guggenheim Fellow. Prior to winning the Oscar® for Best Documentary Short Subject earlier this year, Smile Pinki premiered at SilverDocs, was nominated for Best Documentary Short at the International Documentary Association and won Best Short Documentary at the Boulder International Film Festival. Mylan's previous film, "Lost Boys of Sudan," won an Independent Spirit Award and was nominated for two News and Documentary Emmys®. She has a Bachelor's degree from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and Masters' degrees in Journalism and Latin American Studies from the University of California at Berkeley. Mylan is currently directing a film on the struggle for racial equality in Brazil.