The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story comes 20 years after the Australian missionary was burnt to death along with his sons by members of the Hindu fundamentalist organisation Bajrang Dal in Orissa. Aneesh Daniel’s film will be out in India on March 1, a month after its Stateside release. The English-language film stars Stephen Baldwin as Graham Staines, Shari Rigby as his wife, Gladys, Sharman Joshi as a journalist and Prakash Belawadi as a newspaper editor.
On January 23, 1999, Staines and his two sons, aged 10 and six, died after a vehicle they had camped in for the night was set ablaze in Odisha’s Keonjhar district. Rumours that Staines was carrying out forced conversions served as the justification for the hate crime. “When I read about Staines’s murder, it made me feel that it would be very interesting if someone makes a film on this,” Daniel said. “Though [at that time] I never thought that I would do it.”
About a year later, Daniel decided to pursue the project and met Gladys Staines in Baripada in Odisha, where the couple had lived and worked among leprosy patients and Adivasis.
The film, co-written by Daniel and Andrew Mathews, recounts the facts of the case, but introduces a fictional element through Sharman Joshi’s investigative journalist. “We struggled a lot on the character of Graham, because we did not find any conflict in his life,” Daniel said. “He was a man who was very loved in that part of Odisha and very respected. We decided to look at the film from a journalist’s point of view. From a fictional character’s point of view, we reveal the truth.”
Joshi’s character, Manav Banerjee, is tasked with examining the allegations of forceful conversions. The character was necessary to add some dramatic heft to the film, Daniel said. “My focus was very clear, on what needs to be told,” the first-time director added.
On what this focus was, Daniel said, “We have not taken any political stand. I just wanted to give his due to a man who has worked so hard. This is a man who walked the extra mile, left his country and served people affected with leprosy. I feel Graham never got his due. But it is not a propaganda film, definitely not.”
Daniel started out as an assistant to filmmakers such as Bhimsain and Shyam Benegal before going on to set up Shepherd Films, a production house that works on corporate and television projects. His works include Christian-themed short films and the television adaptation of Adventures of Odyssey, a Christian radio show for children. Does The Least of These fit into the faith film genre?
“Those [older] works have an element of faith, but they are not preachy,” Daniel said. “The film is also nowhere connected to faith or preaching. There is a thin layer of faith because it is the story of a missionary. As a filmmaker, I have never struggled [with the dilemma] that faith is overpowering my storytelling.”
Stephen Baldwin, whose credits The Usual Suspects (1995) and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (2000), has been active in the faith films circuit in the United States of America. Is there apprehension that The Least of These will be viewed as a partisan effort? “No, because once you see the film, you will see it is not,” Daniel asserted. “More than anything else, the audience will decide. We are not looking at is as a faith-based film but as one that will touch hearts at a secular level.”