Making a film based on a real life incident from the living memory and not history in these polarizing times is a daunting task that film maker Aneesh Daniel has pulled off brilliantly. Based on horrific incident of the cold blooded murder of an Australian Missionary Graham Staines and his two children aged six and ten in Orissa’s tribal belt in 1999, the film “The least of those: The Graham Staines Story” has come out as a near authentic version of the ghastly reality that made India for the first time realize the repercussions of the fake news and hate campaign in the pre-social media era.
The film that seeks to unfold the persona and mission of the Missionary Graham Staines is neither didactic not judgmental about the larger issue of communal equations in multi-faith India. Staines had spent 35 years in helping patients of leprosy in Odisha’s Madhaopora where the disease was common and its victims were treated as untouchables. Back then BJP with Atal Behari Vajpayee and L K Advani in the saddle was ruling India. With the benefit of the hindsight, that dispensation today looks like a bevy of saints in front of current regime that is brazen and unapologetic in its hate against minorities, especially Muslims, and does not mind spreading it. Back then, the pro-Hindu politics of BJP was targeted against Christian Missionaries; the campaign was that they were luring people, especially tribesmen in the hinterlands, through social work and inducements to convert to Christianity.
In this surcharged eco-system, a young Bajrang Dal activist Dara Singh was subsumed by the hate of Missionaries. He instigated a mob of villagers and burnt the van in which Staines and his sons slept in a dead of the night during their outreach to the locals.
The story of the “the least of those…” unfolds on a note of curiosity. A young small-town journalist Manav Banerjee played by Sharman Joshi is desperate for a breakthrough in his career when his editor asks him to follow Christian Missionaries, especially Graham Staines, to expose their conversion for money activities among the gullible tribal people. Manav is a fictional character, who apparently is a metaphor for Indian public which is used by the manipulators of a political situation and yet is always open to knowing the truth. As Manav chases Graham not so discreetly, the story of real missionary in Graham unfolds layer by layer as that of a compassionate human being who is serving people on the strength of his faith. Graham played by veteran Hollywood actor Stephen Baldwin lives with his wife Gladys (played by American actor Shari Rigby) in an Ashram that he has opened for leprosy victims. He treats and cured them of the disease and also rehabilitates them to make a living.
Manav is unrelenting in his chase: there are intense scenes between the two in one of which Staines replies to Manav’s direct question whether he converts his patient with, “Yes, sometimes, not always.”
Manav traces Staines to the Manoharpur jungle camp where he hopes to find evidence of the allurements that Missionary would be offering to the tribesmen for converting to Christianity. Instead he stumbles upon a shady character of Mahendra (the real life Dara Singh) who is plotting something sinister. Manav can sense trouble from him to Graham. He also feels guilty – quite like the silent majority of Indians whose attitude only emboldens criminals – since in order to save a poor woman from the wrath of villagers, he had inadvertently given an idea to the illiterate Mahendra that he must deal with those who are luring the villagers and not them. He does his best but is unable to avert the tragedy. In the process, he finds out that Graham’s mission was not about religious conversions but giving life and hope to those as good as dead by their own people for the disease they were afflicted with.
The movie was released first across 400 theatres in USA and America in January and it was appreciated both by critics and public. Now it’s running in selected theatres across India. According to Aneesh Daniel, his film’s USP is authenticity and keeping it raw.
On a weekday I watched this in one of the multiplexes in Noida, UP, to a reasonably packed hall. I noticed the audiences didn’t feel like leaving the hall; almost everyone sat through even after the storyline was over and the screen was showing the mandatory roll of names of people involved in making of this sensitive flick. I felt the audiences wanted to internalise the emotions evoked by this film and its feel to linger on for more time. The film and strong performances touch the mind and heart of the audiences; each one leaves the hall in a reflective and not an angry mood.
The movie is not evangelism; it’s an advocacy of universal human love and human touch. The life of Graham Staines and his surviving wife Gladys indeed highlights the universal values of love for fellow humans as Godliness.
The film has been shot on real location of the leprosy ashram in village Madhaopora and some of the characters are real lepers and others who worked with the dead Missionary. It seems the driver of the ill-fated jeep in which the Staines and his children were sleeping when the mob had attacked them in the dead of the night, who played himself in the Movie, broke down after the filming of the crucial scene. He said it had happened exactly like that.
Actor Shari Rigby narrated her experience of shooting for the film as Staines’ wife. She said in one scene where she was to look at the infected toe of a real leper woman in a small room overcrowded with crew, she felt sick at the sight and smell of the putrefying human flesh. Later, she felt some divine energy inside and it smelt great. She almost broke down on TV while narrating her experience of looking at the toe again, “I felt this is divine; I felt God.”
Have the producers deliberately not gone whole hog about promotion of this film in India. Probably they felt the larger audience could reject it as a “Christian film” The movie is made well with veteran actors; the cinematography captures realism and there is no drama either in the screenplay or the filming of the movie. The rawness of the filming and a taut screenplay adds to the authenticity of the narrative. Indian audiences have grown up to appreciate a good movie experience. The makers of “The least of those…” could have probably not been shy to call it a mainstream cinema or at the most projected it a parallel cinema to the Indians.
There is no need to maintain the suspense about the end of the story as its facts are known: Manav manages to expose the reality behind Graham’s death and Gladys forgives the killer in true Christian spirit and continued with leprosy mission.
(Published on 8th April 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 15)