A movie that revisits the 1999 murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines by a Bajrang Dal mob that is out in cinemas in an election year and a week ahead of a fawning Narendra Modi biopic? How is this even possible?
Could it be because The Least of These contains no references whatsoever to the Hindu fundamentalists who incinerated Staines and his sons, aged 10 and six, as they slept in their station wagon in a village in Orissa on January 23, 1999? In Aneesh Daniel’s movie, the perpetrators are not shown to have any political affiliations and their motives remain fuzzy.
The facts behind the gruesome murders, for which Bajrang Dal member Dara Singh is serving a life sentence, are watered down to the extent that the movie will offend nobody except those seeking to draw connections between the killings in the late 1990s and the current spate of attacks on minority groups.
The English-language film centres on a reporter who does more harm than good as he stumbles about trying to prove his hypothesis that Staines is using community service to actually buy souls. Sharman Joshi plays Manav Banerjee, who lands up in an Orissa town with his heavily pregnant wife Shanti (Aditi Chengappa) and wangles a job at a local newspaper by promising to unearth the rate card that lures impoverished tribals to adopt Christianity.
The editor of the newspaper, Kedar Mishra (Prakash Belawadi), believes that conversion is actually imperialism. Kedar is convinced that there must be an ulterior motive for the selfless service of Graham Staines (Stephen Baldwin), who has spent decades with his wife Gladys (Shari Rigby) caring for leprosy patients.
Manav is a willing consumer of the propaganda about Staines, but as he learns the truth about Staines, he confronts his own ignorance and shallowness.
Mahendra (Manoj Mishra), who is modelled on Dara Singh, is the stormtrooper who carries out Kedar’s hate to its chilling conclusion, but his actions have no larger context, except for a hazy animosity towards missionaries. Manav is the bigger problem here, poking his nose where it doesn’t belong and playing both sides as he hunts for the perfect headline. The people of India need to cut off the head of the snake, Manav declares.
In this movie’s telling, it is Manav’s gullible incompetence that is responsible for the Staines killings, rather than a calculated campaign to suppress a religious minority.
The idea of conversion in Andrew F Matthews’s screenplay extends to Manav’s transformation from flint-eyed muckraker into dewy-eyed believer. The Least of These is firmly in the faith film-based zone, and weaves in subtle messaging about Christian values alongside reclaiming Staines’s reputation. The missionary’s real-life work among people affected by leprosy is stirringly depicted, but the refusal to name names reduces the movie to a pious and cloying tribute to Staines’s legacy.
Sharman Joshi turns out the only noteworthy performance, with admirable back-up from Bhaskar Shewalkar as Sundar, who has been cured of his leprosy by Staines. Joshi is the one bright spot in a movie that drags on for 115 minutes and says very little at the end of it.