The Dark Oscar Horse

Thirty-nine-year-old American documentary filmmaker Megan Mylan says it almost seems fated that she would come to a tiny village in India to make a documentary on a little girl with a cleft lip that would get nominated in the Short Documentary category for the Oscar.

Written by Debesh Banerjee | Published: February 20, 2009 12:47 am

Besides Slumdog Millionaire,another film with an Indian protagonist has a fair shot at the Oscars. Meet Megan Mylan,director of Smile Pinki

Thirty-nine-year-old American documentary filmmaker Megan Mylan says it almost seems fated that she would come to a tiny village in India to make a documentary on a little girl with a cleft lip that would get nominated in the Short Documentary category for the Oscar. “It’s a great honour to be nominated. I’m happy because it means more people will watch it,” says Mylan,on the phone from her apartment in New York,where she is based. She has just returned to the US from Brazil,where she has been shooting for another documentary on racism and national identity.

Mylan’s 40-minute film documents how Pinki’s life changed after a global initiative called Smile Train performed a free cleft removal surgery. “I usually don’t allow others to dictate my subjects,but when Smile Train,USA,showed me the work being done by doctors in India on cleft lips,I was intrigued,” says Mylan.

She came close to winning an Oscar in 2001,when she worked as post-production supervisor in Long Night’s Journey Into Day,which was nominated for Oscar in the Best Feature Documentary category. Lost Boys of Sudan,another documentary by her,received the Independent Spirit Award and two Emmy Award nominations in 2003. Mylan was aware of the cleft lip issue since a friend’s child has the same defect. “I come from a culture where surgery for such defects is routine. But I was surprised to see the ostracism faced by individuals in India,” she sighs.

Mylan says the big challenge of filming in India was the language barrier and simple logistics. “Whenever I go to a new place I make it a point to do some research. I learnt to do a lot of namaste and make eye contact because these people had never seen a camera or a foreigner. I was helped by a friend and social worker Nandini Rajwade,who translated everything for me,” explains Mylan,who shot the film in Mirzapur in UP over a three-week schedule in March 2007 and in a government hotel in Varanasi. “I survived on packed rajma chawal. Each day we would travel two hours from our five-star hotel in Varanasi to the village. We did not want to be a burden on the villagers by staying with them,” she explains.

Though the film revolves around Pinki’s life,Mylan is happy that the humane work of the hospital staff and the doctors has come through. Mylan’s love for socially relevant films goes back to her college days,when she graduated in journalism and film studies from Berkeley. Right now,she is basking in the unexpected glory of walking the red carpet on the

Oscar night. “I’ve prepared my speech and I’m wearing a red gown designed by my grandmother,” she says. We’re all rooting for Smile Pinki.

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