In 1999, an Australian missionary who had worked for decades helping lepers in India was burned alive, along with his two sons, while he was sleeping in a station wagon. His story is told by first-time filmmaker Aneesh Daniel in The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story, a film whose odd balance between storytelling styles — blending Indian melodrama with the Hallmark tone of American faith-based cinema — makes it a tough sell in stateside theaters. While its messages of selflessness and transformative charity would resonate with the audience that keeps Christian moviemaking afloat, it’s doubtful that a large share of that demographic will be able to adjust to the sensibility.
Unlike many of its cinematic kin, the film has a relatively interesting narrative device: Staines’ work is seen through the eyes of a local journalist who is deeply suspicious of him, and in fact is trying to put him out of business. (Presumably, this angle was chosen to give Indian viewers a protagonist with whom to identify.) Sharman Joshi’s Manav Banerjee is confident that Staines is breaking local laws regarding religious conversion: While people are free to change their affiliation, missionaries are not allowed to offer money or other inducements to prompt a conversion. Banerjee has done much reporting on this topic, and is hired by a newspaper editor to dig up evidence on Staines (played by Stephen Baldwin, affecting an Australian accent).
A sad story viewed through the lens of faith-based melodrama.
The thinking is that he’ll probably have to go undercover, pretending to convert in order to get close to Staines. But Banerjee moves slowly on this, trying first to understand the motivations underlying Staines’ work. Though most Indians in the region (Banerjee very much included) are terrified of lepers, Staines works in close proximity with them every day, tending to their wounds and administering medicines; the white man is seemingly the only person around who accepts that leprosy can be cured with modern medicines, and its victims made safe for contact with others.
As he works past his initial disgust, Banerjee grows impressed with Staines. As we see through his increasingly admiring eyes, we expect the journalist will be won over to Staines’ cause and probably to Christianity as well. Interestingly, he isn’t: He continues to think there is more to this operation, however humane its effects are. The man of God shows a Christlike patience with the journalist’s questions, even as those he has helped try to run the outsider off.
Banerjee even inadvertently stokes the anger that will get Staines killed. As he tries to talk his way out of a conflict with nearby villagers, he exploits the suspicions of locals who resent Western meddling. Echoing the kind of language used by many self-proclaimed Christians in the West, they complain that outsiders are trying to force their values on native citizens. Complaints about law-breaking are just cover for their prejudice.
An awkward screenplay by Andrew Matthews offers little feel for the way things actually work in Odisha, the state in eastern India where the action occurs, and given the picture’s overall stiffness, Daniel seems lucky to have recruited actors with some experience as his leads. The largest obstacle for American viewers may be the overdramatic score by Bruce Retief, which is out of sync with a viewer’s sense of which moments are important relative to others. Those who stick with the film will do so out of admiration for a man who willingly risked his life to help those abandoned even by their families.
Production company: Skypass Entertainment
Distributor: Eammon Films
Cast: Sharman Joshi, Stephen Baldwin, Shari Rigby, Manoj Mishra, Prakash Belawadi, Aditi Chengappa
Director: Aneesh Daniel
Screenwriter: Andrew Matthews
Producers: Aneesh Daniel, Andrew Matthews
Executive producers: Victor Abraham
Director of photography: Jayakrishna Gummadi
Production designer: Bhupesh R. Bhupathi
Costume designer: Anusha Ranganathan
Editor: Steven H. Bernard
Composer: Bruce Retief
Rated PG-13, 109 minutes