The Least of These movie review: Graham Staines biopic starring Sharman Joshi is unremarkable, melodramatic
In the year 1999, when hate crimes against Christians were rearing its ugly head in this country, Australian missionary Graham Staines was burnt alive in his station wagon, along with his two sons aged 10 and 6. A Hindu fundamentalist Dara Singh, who had alleged links with Bajrang Dal, was charged with this heinous crime and sentenced to life imprisonment. The then President, KR Narayanan, had said the “killings belong to the world’s inventory of black deeds”. Yet, a film made on this very incident makes no mention of the politics that went behind this carefully planned murder. But, perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The Hollywood production, helmed by debutant director Aneesh Daniel, unravels the story of Staines (played by Stephen Baldwin) through the eyes of a fictional journalist, Manav Banerjee (Sharman Joshi). Banerjee and his heavily pregnant wife Shanti (Aditi Chengappa) arrive in Baripada, a sleepy town in Orissa, one evening. Desperate for a job, he grabs the first chance he gets to secure a position at the local newspaper, New Orissa. The shrewd editor, Kedar Mishra (Prakash Belawadi), on the hunt for an expose on Staines, who he believes is attempting to proselytize unsuspecting tribal locals, tasks Banerjee to bring him the evidence.
All through the film, the young journalist’s moves appear more foolish than fiery. The lopsided screenplay, penned by Andrew E Matthews and Daniel leaves a gap between Banerjee’s actions and intent. He never quite gets started on getting converted to Christianity, as the undercover operation demands him to. Instead, he observes Staines from the sidelines trying to make sense of his motives, while continuing to make rookie moves, which sometimes seem plain ridiculous. The script tries very hard to pin the blame on the journalist alone, who in an attempt to get out of a sticky situation, unintentionally ends up inciting locals against missionaries [like Staines].
Staines could well have been among the earliest victims of fake news. He was believed to be doing something that he wasn’t. But the religious fundamentalist sentiments that were quietly brewing in Orissa’s fringe political outfits in the 90s are completely ignored in the film. Instead, the focus shifts to how Banerjee goes from nurturing a cautious scepticism towards Staines to finally seeing the man for what he really is, but not before it’s too late. The life of Staines is barely explored. We hardly see the journey of the man who came to Orissa in 1965 in search of a pen pal, and then never went back. In Baldwin’s expressionless portrayal, we don’t see why Staines chose to stay back in Orissa and embark on “God’s work” to heal the diseased. There are moving visuals of him administering medical treatment to lepers, conspicuously highlighting the white man as the only rescuer of the needy, while locals, Banerjee included, would only hysterically scream “leper leper” and run for their lives.
A sari-clad Shari Rigby, as Staines’s wife Gladys, has little screen time and remains underwhelming. Joshi brings out the resilience of his character well but falls prey to a melodramatic script. Towards the end, Belawadi’s villainy gets too theatrical for comfort and the story nosedives into a rushed conclusion. The only performance that stands out is that of Bhaskar Shewalkar as Sundar, a leper who Staines takes under his wings. He turns out to be the much-needed voice of reason amidst the resounding cacophony.
It has been 20 years since the gruesome killing of Staines and for the story Daniel's film set out to tell, The Least of These is unremarkable, to say the least. This could have been a telling biopic of a brave and selfless man but the makers clearly got too caught up in pussyfooting around what really transpired, making the end product fuzzy and overdramatic. I’d call this a missed opportunity.
Updated Date: Mar 29, 2019 18:37:18 IST