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HBO climbs on 'Pinki's' Smile Train saga

The documentary's Academy Award win puts it on the cable giant's radar.

June 02, 2009|John Lopez

Sometimes winning an Oscar means more than bigger bucks for your next flick.

Once in a while, it can even make the world a better place.

That's the case with Megan Mylan, who won the Academy Award in February for her short documentary "Smile Pinki," which follows a young Indian girl and boy, Pinki Sonkar and Ghutaru Chauhan, as Pinki's cleft lip and Ghutaru's cleft palate are repaired. The film was commissioned and funded by the American charity Smile Train, a group that pays local doctors in 75 developing countries to perform the simple surgery that parents of such children rarely know is possible.

"Pinki's" Oscar win and upcoming broadcast on HBO -- it's being shown Wednesday night and repeated through the month -- has exploited the power of compelling narrative and fame's 15 minutes to bring smiles to troubled faces, literally.

As Mylan tells it, the tale of her and Pinki attending the Oscars had an ending that rivaled "Slumdog Millionaire's." It even shared some cast: When Megan wanted to ask Pinki if she'd rather sit with her dad, she turned to "Slumdog" stars Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan, seated a couple of rows behind her, for Hindi translation. Then, when the cameras turned off, Megan and Subodh Kumar Singh, Pinki's Smile Train-partnered surgeon, joined their newfound friends on stage to celebrate "Slumdog's" win.

"She and I walked down the red carpet holding hands -- I said, if you get nervous squeeze my hand and I'll squeeze yours," Mylan recalled. "We kept squeezing."

It was only the beginning: upon returning to India, Pinki and Singh were feted as heroes, hosted by the prime minister's wife, and courted by Bollywood royalty like Aishwarya Rai and Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman for the privilege of championing their cause.

Pinki and Ghutaru benefited directly too. Pinki's family got a new house, and her village was given a new well for potable water. Electricity is on its way, and the remote village's dirt road, impassable during the monsoons, soon will be paved. Both have also received scholarships to better schools.

But this was no accidental feel-good fairy-tale. As HBO's president of documentary and family programming Sheila Nevins explained, a good doc can uniquely provoke "feeling for someone who was a stranger to you five minutes ago. You didn't know that person, you didn't know that issue and suddenly that person becomes a part of your human family."

It was precisely this emotional power that Smile Train President Brian Mullaney says he sought to tap in hiring an independent, Emmy-winning director like Mylan and handing her complete editorial control, noting: "Nothing can create awareness like a good film."

Still, any documentary, let alone a short, has to fight to be seen, and the added value of even an Oscar nomination is crucial for shorts.

As Timothy Sternberg, director of 2008 nominee "Salim Baba," put it: "It's the one area where a kind of professional validity is given to filmmaking that has no support system." Even though "Salim Baba" didn't win, it too found its way onto HBO, as Nevins makes it a point to stay on top of the doc universe.

"We screen 200 for every one we consider, and we screen another 200 for every one that we buy," she said in a recent interview.

In "Pinki's" case, HBO was on board well before the Oscar -- but it's that win that's allowed "Smile Pinki" to capitalize on its emotional impact. And as Nevins joked, "You probably wouldn't be writing this article if it hadn't won an Oscar."

That thought didn't escape Mullaney when the documentary wasn't quite ready in time for 2008 Oscar eligibility: "We took a gamble and held the film back." The strategy paid off; Mullaney said the day after the win, traffic and donations doubled on their website.

With broadcast to HBO's millions of subscribers, the documentary may well be a game-changer for Smile Train, albeit a risk Mullaney can't recommend to other charities.

"No charity in America would say let's go spend this amount of money to make a movie," he admits. "They would say that's not a good use of our funds."

However, to Mylan, the potential impact was no surprise. Her previous documentary, the full length "Lost Boys of Sudan," also brought awareness to its cause.

"You're always sort of hoping this will happen, but it's never a guarantee," she noted. "Documentaries need what studio commercial films have: They need publicity and distribution, but then they just go on and on."

Singh credited the film with "bringing so much good for so many children. They are all getting treatment because of her. . . . If we do 100,000 a year, we can clear it out [in India] in 10 years."



'Smile Pinki'

Where: HBO

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday; 3:15 p.m. Sunday; 9:45 a.m. June 9; 11:15 a.m. June 13; 3:15 p.m. June 22

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