March 2, 2009 / 10:08 AM / 10 years ago

Star of "Smile Pinki," India's other Oscar, back home

RAMPUR DHABAHI, India (Reuters Life!) - She’s not as famous as the child actors of “Slumdog Millionaire,” but Pinki Sonkar is a legend in the Indian village that once ostracized her, thanks to cleft-lip surgery and another Oscar-winning film.

Shimla Devi holds her daughter Pinki, who featured in an Oscar award-winning documentary, upon her arrival at her village Rampur Dhabahi, 50 km (31 miles) south of the northern Indian city of Varanasi, February 28, 2009. REUTERS/Pawan Kumar

Pinki, believed to be about 6 years old, is the star of the short documentary “Smile Pinki,” which won an Academy Award for telling her story.

The 39-minute poignant film, by U.S.-based filmmaker Megan Mylan, recounts how the girl, born into a poor family and with a cleft lip, is taken by a social worker to a hospital that provides free surgery to fix the deformity for thousands of children each year.

“Yes, the village is very proud of her,” Pinki’s father, Rajendra Sonkar said at a press conference in New Delhi after he and his daughter returned to India from Los Angeles after last week’s Oscar ceremony.

“I want her to become a doctor when she grows up so she can help other children with the same problem.”

Pinki was once an outcast in her northern Indian village, where deformities are not understood, but she was accepted into the community after the surgery.

This weekend, she was welcomed as a hero by hordes of people as she and her father made their way home.

Journalists jostled to take her picture and thousands of villagers accompanied the visibly uncomfortable girl on the final leg of her journey from Los Angeles to her village, 50 km (30 miles) south of the Hindu pilgrimage city of Varanasi.

Most of the villagers of Rampur Dhabahi who danced around Pinki’s car and showered her with flower petals did not know what an Oscar was, nor had they seen the documentary.

But that didn’t stop them from celebrating.

“Pinki has got her cleft operated on, and the government has given some award to her,” said a villager when asked what the party was about.

Subodh Kumar Singh, the plastic surgeon who corrected Pinki’s cleft lip and accompanied her to Los Angeles, said he hoped the film will increase awareness about the condition which carries a social stigma in parts of rural India.

Singh, who treated Pinki for free, said he has performed 13,000 corrective surgeries at his hospital in Varanasi since 2005 with the help of the U.S.-based charity Smile Train, which aids cleft lip surgery.

“There are 160 Smile Train hospitals all across India but this hospital alone has conducted the maximum number of surgeries in the world,” he explained.

The hut where Pinki has lived her whole life does not have electricity, but villagers organized a generator to light up its mud walls when she returned.

Rajendra Sonekar holds his daughter Pinki, who featured in an Oscar award-winning documentary, as they arrive at the hospital where her surgery was performed in the northern Indian city of Varanasi February 28, 2009. REUTERS/Pawan Kumar

With Singh by her side, shying away from the many cameras and reluctant to talk to reporters, Pinki’s eyes searched the crowd for someone she had not seen for a long time.

A moment later, mother and daughter were reunited and Pinki flashed her now famous smile.

(additional reporting by Rituparna Bhowmik)

Writing by Tony Tharakan; editing by Matthias Williams and Miral Fahmy

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