Pinki Sonkar: From School Outcast to an Oscar-Winning FilmUpdatePosted Monday February 23, 2009 08:30 AM EST
Originally posted Sunday February 22, 2009 06:25 PM EST
"People stared and teased all the time," she told PEOPLE in her native Indian dialect through a translator. "They would call me 'hothkati' – meaning cut lip or the girl with the cut lip. I was never known by my real name," she said. But her name was Pinki Sonkar.
Pinki, now 8, is the unlikely star of Smile Pinki, a 39-minute documentary that chronicles her story from being hopelessly unhappy to being helped by plastic surgeon Dr. Subodh Kumar Singh and The Smile Train, who transformed Pinki's life. It was one of four films nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Short Documentary category, and Sunday night, the film's director Megan Mylan took home the Oscar.
Born with a cleft in her upper lip due to a birth defect, Pinki's life was bleak. At school she was shunned by the children and stopped attending. "I felt hurt and very angry," says Pinki. "I always wanted to know why I was different from others." At home she was also outcast by the villagers and her impoverished family could not afford the money for corrective surgery.
"I used to think what kind of life she would live and wonder who would marry her," said Pinki's father Rajendar Sonkar. "I felt terrible that I could not help her. She would be better off dead."
A New LifeBut by chance, hope came knocking when Dr. Singh and his team of social workers arrived in Pinki's village and offered her a second chance at life by giving her a new smile. Sponsored by The Smile Train, an international charity organization that provides free surgeries to children with cleft lip and palates, Pinki is just one of hundreds of thousands of children who have received a free cleft surgery.
"The shame in her eyes broke my heart," Dr. Singh told PEOPLE. "But the first moment she saw her face in the mirror after the surgery, she looked at me and knew everything was going to be better. Now she is the most beautiful child."
Full of energy, curiosity and confidence, Pinki now has many friends and, for the first time, all the children call her by her real name. She says she loves to play "I Spy" with them. "I'm the most happy I've ever been."
Hitting the Red CarpetPinki and her dad walked the red carpet at the Kodak Theatre on Sunday with Dr. Singh and Mylan.
Having no idea what the Academy Award means, Pinki only cares about her new smile. "I can't believe it," she said of her new mouth. "I find my lip complete and I like to touch my lip with my tongue back and fourth."
Still, Dr. Singh says Pinki was ready for the night's glitz and glamour. "She had a little lip gloss put on her and she highly enjoys it," said Dr. Singh, referring to Pinki's first experience with makeup for a television appearance. "After the makeup was put on, she looked at herself in a mirror and she really loved it. It is a big change – a contrast of life."
Pinki, too, says she is ready for her close-up. "I am looking forward to wearing lip gloss again and will smile even bigger at the Oscars."