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Oscar-winning director sees film's positive impact

By Rituparna Bhowmik

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A short film about a poor Indian girl with a cleft lip fetched filmmaker Megan Mylan her maiden Oscar this year, and now she can't wait to do more films that could help improve people's lives.

Her 39-minute "Smile Pinki" documentary shows how the life of its outcast heroine, Pinki Sonkar, changes after she is taken to a hospital that provides free surgery to fix the deformity for thousands of children.

The film also helped increase awareness about the condition, gave Sonkar the chance of a better education and brought improvements to her remote village.

The documentary premieres Wednesday on HBO. Speaking from San Francisco, Mylan told Reuters that she plans a limited release of the film in five Indian cities.

Q: How has life changed for you after the Oscar?

A: "It has sort of turned it upside down, but probably not in the way people would expect. Careerwise it's not a game-changing thing. Documentary filmmaking is such a small field anyway. I'm not swamped with offers, and I'm not terribly surprised, either. It's a wonderful recognition of the fact that I'm not lousy at what I do."

Q: How did people react after you won the Oscar?

A: "I have had people reaching out who I've known from all walks of my life. I feel like I had this tremendous embrace from people reaching out to say 'We're so happy for you.' I'm still in the afterglow period.

"The film has been embraced by Indians and Indian Americans who have really been so proud of the Oscar and taken the story as their own when it would have been so easy to write off as a foreign director telling the story of an impoverished child."

Q: Have you been in touch with Pinki since?

A: "I haven't spoken to Pinki just because of the logistics of the phone problems. There is no phone line or electricity in her village, but Dr. Subodh (Subodh Kumar Singh, the plastic surgeon who corrected Pinki's cleft lip) and I talk every week about Pinki and Ghutaru, the other protagonist in my film, and he keeps me updated."

Q: So where is Pinki now, and how has her life changed?

A: "One of the great things that happened was that she was offered a scholarship, as was Ghutaru, just to help them go to a slightly better school away from their village than the one-room schoolhouse close by.

"The district government made their village a model village and brought an automated water pump and new housing with corrugated roofs to stand the monsoon rains. There's talk of electricity coming soon. You couldn't ask for a film to do much more."

Q: Do you have plans to come to India?

A: "We have plans for India, to do what I have been referring to as a 'boutique' theatrical launch. We will probably do five cities -- Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, maybe Bangalore, most likely in late August and followed by a national television broadcast.

"One of the things about the story is that in a simple and emotional way it helps families who might have children with this affliction that can be helped. After the theater premieres and television broadcasts we will work to get DVDs out to every clinic and hospital and school and everyone who wants to use it."

Q: Will we see more of your work on India in the future?

A: "I would love to. It will be a matter of stumbling across the right story. Mostly my subjects seem to find me. I love stories about people that make a positive impact in the world. I could imagine it would be another story of social change, there are so many stories. I feel very privileged to be the person to tell the story of Pinki."

(Editing by Tony Tharakan and Miral Fahmy)

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