Oscars boon for charities in India

Mumbai’s been in the spotlight this week since the film “Slumdog Millionaire” won big at the Oscars Sunday night. And the winner of the Oscar for Short Documentary, “Smile Pinki,” also took place in India. Even before the awards were announced, charities and to some extent, the filmmakers themselves, have been working to turn the buzz into dollars and deeds to help children in India and beyond.

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There’s no denying the impact of this feel good story about a young boy who grows up in the slums of Mumbai and makes it big on a game show.

"The real challenge here is to take a feel good story and make it into a do-good story," says Jim Hickman of the Institute for One World Health in San Francisco.

"There are times where pop culture and politics intersect, and good can come out of it. I think Slumdog Millionaire is another one of those opportunities on a global level."

Hickman’s non-profit develops pharmaceuticals for neglected diseases in the developing world. The group has jumped on the Oscar bandwagon with a full page ad in Monday’s "New York Times" playing off the game show motif in "Slumdog Millionaire" and the line in the movie: “It is written.”

Hickman says, "It is written is the fourth answer in a question that opens up the film asking whether or not the character is winning a contest because he’s cheating or his life experience has taught him many valuable lessons, or it is written – it’s his destiny."

And of course, the message of One World Health is that it is not written, that millions of people die from treatable diseases each year. Likewise, the UK-based Save the Children says it’s been feeling the effect of "Slumdog Millionaire"’s success. The group’s PR manager, Kate Redman, says it’s all about bringing tough issues like poverty alive.

"It’s bringing it straight into the cinema screen, and you know, without using the wrong word, but to kind of sexify an issue and glamorize it so that people can really imagine it and sort of really suddenly see what it must be like. And I think personifying it as well, so you have strong characters that are talking to you from the cinema screen rather than it being constantly a development issue in the foreign pages of the newspaper."

Redman says it’s way too early to tell how much the success of Slumdog will affect groups like Save the Children in terms of money or interest or projects, but she hopes the trend of movie-making about these issues continues.

"I’m sure it will be the first of many. And you know, from our point of view there are many issues – child witches, minings, slavery, trafficking – you know, all of these would make fantastic films just because they’re incredible phenomenon that should still be existing today."

Filmmaker Megan Mylan couldn’t agree more. She created this year’s Oscar-winning Documentary Short “Smile Pinki”. It’s about a little Indian girl with a cleft palate who undergoes the relatively cheap, simple surgery that transforms her life. Mylan’s very clear about the need to capitalize on the Oscar moment.

"It’s an incredible amount of exposure, and I think for documentary filmmakers it’s tough to reconcile sometimes. There’s so much attention put on you and your dress and the glamour of the Oscars. And that’s just hard to reconcile, especially for filmmakers who do social issue documentaries, of like, “How do I make meaning out of this?” And it guarantees the film a big audience. I mean, more people will turn into HBO because they saw us at the Oscars. So you know, there’s no denying that that has an impact, and then I think our challenge is really catching that energy."

Mylan says all kinds of things have happened to Pinki and her family and her village as a result of the film, but she hopes there’s a bigger impact as well.

"Because your neighbor doesn’t get Malaria, and you don’t see a little girl with a heinous cleft walking down 5th Avenue in New York. You never see it. So we’re hopeful that this movie will raise Americans’ consciousness about the plight of the extremely poor and these children that could be so easily helped. I mean, the surgery we provided this girl costs less than one of Angelina Jolie’s shoes."

Mullaney says his inbox is full, The Smile Train’s website is exploding with hits, and calls and donations are way up. That’s the Oscar bump other related charities are hoping for, too.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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