Page last updated at 23:58 GMT, Sunday, 15 February 2009

Pinki hopes to smile at Oscars

Pinki in her school
Pinki, here at her Uttar Pradesh school, is going to Los Angeles

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Mirzapur

Slumdog Millionaire - Danny Boyle's film based on the slums of Mumbai - may be the favourite at the Oscars, but a short documentary on an Indian girl born with a cleft lip is also in the race for a trophy.

Smile Pinki - a 39-minute documentary by American director Megan Mylan - chronicles the story of eight-year-old Pinki's journey from being a social outcast in her village to her acceptance - and even deification - by society.

Smile Pinki is one of the four short documentaries nominated for the Academy Awards.

A 90-minute drive from the holy Hindu city of Varanasi takes us to Rampur Dhavaia village in Mirzapur district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

To get here, we take a turn off the main highway and drive for about 20 minutes on a dirt road.

We pass several huts to our left, all made of mud with thatched roofs, and stop when we reach a house with white trees painted on its outside walls.

'Unlikely star'

This is where Pinki lives - the protagonist of Smile Pinki.

"I have to go to America, and bring back the Oscar," Pinki tells me.

I ask her if she knows what an Oscar is - she stares at me and then shakes her head in the negative.

Pinki, before the operation (Picture: Dr Subodh Kumar Singh)
Pinki was teased and ostracised by society...

This wispy eight-year-old girl has become an unlikely star in this village.

Born with a cleft lip in an impoverished family, the first few years of Pinki's life were spent in abject unhappiness.

"When she was born, her lip was torn. It looked awful. Even I couldn't bear to look at her, how could I blame my neighbours," says mother Shimla Devi.

"Every one used to tease her, they used to call her hothkati - the girl with the torn lip."

At school, she was shunned by the children. She was different and no-one wanted to play with her.

"Everyone called me hothkati. I would feel very bad. I would feel hurt and get very angry. Sometimes I would abuse them. Now no one calls me a hothkati. They all call me Pinki now," she says.

'Better dead'

The family owns a tiny plot of land and father Rajendar Sonkar works mostly as a day labourer to support his wife and five young children.

Barely managing to survive on his meagre income, he couldn't even dream of consulting a doctor for his daughter.

"I used to think that she would be better off dead. I used to wonder who would marry her? Where would I find the money to pay for her dowry? At school everyone teased her. At home, family and friends talked about her as if she was a freak," says Mr Sonkar.

Pinki (Picture: Dr Subodh Kumar Singh)
... but now the smile is back

Pinki's life took a turn for the better when she was spotted by a social worker. Dr Subodh Kumar Singh is the plastic surgeon at the GS Memorial hospital in Varanasi who carried out Pinki's surgery.

"Our social workers go from village to village, into the interiors, to find cleft patients. During one such visit, they reached Pinki's village. Megan Mylan, the American director, was also with them," Dr Singh says.

"They took her photographs and brought them to me. When I saw her photograph, I said this was the girl who was going to be our main [film] lead."

Treatment at the GS Memorial hospital is free and sponsored by the New York-based global charity, the Smile Train.

India has a backlog of more than a million people waiting with cleft lips and every year 35,000 new patients are born.

Since April 2004, Dr Singh has performed more than 13,000 surgeries.

Every day, he sees at least 20 new patients every day and does as many surgeries.

Beauty parlour

Pinki was six at the time she was taken for surgery and mother says Dr Singh has performed a miracle.

Pinki with Dr Subodh Kumar Singh
Dr Singh says he was impressed by Pinki-the-patient

"Her parents wanted her lip to be fixed from the time she was born, but they had no means. They couldn't afford it. Pinki had grown up to six years, she could see her face in the mirror, and she always wanted it fixed," Dr Singh says.

He says he was impressed by Pinki-the-patient.

"She talked jubilantly with all my staff at the hospital. And after the surgery when she saw her face for the first time in the mirror, she was really very happy. She could not smile because of the pain in the lip, but her eyes were saying so many things."

Dr Singh says Pinki's surgery is not yet over. She needs some more procedures that will have to be done in a few years' time.

Pinki is back at the hospital for a check up. She is due to travel shortly with her father and Dr Singh to Los Angeles for the Oscar ceremony.

Before returning to her village, she is sent off to a beauty parlour for a hair cut.

At the parlour, her inquisitive eyes take in everything around her.

She was here last night too, but she wouldn't let the hairdresser come near her.

Pinki (in the front) with her family
The Sonkar family says Dr Singh is a miracle man
Today, she's more amiable. She even smiles and lets the saloon staff take her pictures on their cell phone cameras.

Back in the village school, Pinki's star status is easily visible.

She is immediately surrounded by a group of children and one girl hugs her. Pinki smiles.

It's difficult to imagine that until a couple of years ago, she had no friends and that she was ostracised and teased. Today, she's the star.

Says schoolteacher Vidyananda: "All the children here look up to her. Everyone here is waiting with for the Oscar ceremony. People in the village are lining up to touch her feet.

"Many say she is Dhana Lakshmi - the goddess of wealth. We are hoping she will win the Oscar and our village will benefit from it. We are praying for her victory."

Pinki's father is confident they will win the Oscar. But mother Shimla Devi plays down the expectation. For her, she says, the biggest award is Pinki's new found smile.

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