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‘It was like a fairytale in real life,’ says Indian girl who returns to poverty after winning Oscar in 2009

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In 2009, Slumdog Millionaire was not the only film that made all Indians proud by winning eight trophies at the 81st Academy Awards ceremony, the winner in the documentary (short) category Smile Pinki, which depicted the story of a five-year-old Indian schoolgirl Pinki Sonkar who received corrective surgery for cleft lips, also made headlines for weeks.

Now 21, Pinky is back in poverty and lives in a house with no door and her life is a story “full of false promises, poverty, hardships, and short-lived fame”.

As the Oscar awards were announced on Sunday, Pinki relived her moments of fame and glory. She said, “Those were the best moments of my life. It was like a fairytale in real life. Boarding a flight, a trip to Los Angeles, wearing expensive clothes, staying in plush hotels, enjoying a variety of food that my father and I could not even imagine, and meeting neatly dressed people — it was like the story of Cinderella, the bedtime story for kids.”

She continued, “I make sure that I watch the Oscar awards every year, as it’s the only way to relive the moments, which I once lived. But, in no time, the fairytale ended and I was back to my real life, which is full of pain, trauma, and poverty.”

Pinki hails from Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur. She now spends most of the time after school working in the fields.

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Recalling her days before the corrective surgery for cleft lips, Pinki said, “I was socially ostracised because of my deformity. I remember being treated as an outcast by my schoolmates. My relatives didn’t want me around and used to consider me ‘inauspicious’. People used to call me ‘honth katiya’ and mock me. I was lucky to be spotted by an NGO, Smile Train India, and a Varanasi-based plastic surgeon Subodh Kumar Singh, one of its associates, who performed my surgery for free. The NGO freed me from the trauma. That is how my story was picked up by the documentary film director. It made me world famous.”

Talking about the lack of basic amenities in her village, she said, “I have read that under Har Ghar Jal Yojna, water taps are being provided to every house. But the welfare scheme is yet to reach our village. My house doesn’t have a water connection, we have to walk around 300 meters to the nearby well to fetch water for our daily needs.”

She also claimed that her family couldn’t get a house under the Awas Yojana as her father and uncle’s names were missing from the list of beneficiaries.

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