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‘Staines’ On The Human Heart

Subhash K . Jha

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The Least Of  These:  The  Graham  Staines  Story

Starring  Sharman  Joshi, Stephen Baldwin

Directed by Aneesh Daniels

Rating: ****(4 stars)

 From the outset  of this profoundly moving though flawed   recreation of   the ghastly Graham Staines  murder,  the director  and  his writer  Andrew Matthews ,make it very clear to us whose  side they  are  on.

And that’s perfectly fine by me. A work of art  is  most  welcome to take  sides  if it knows  the truth.And truth in this case was this:   Odhisa-based  Australian missionary GrahamStaines did not indulge  in conversion   of the locals. He was cleared of  all malafideintentions  by a investigative committee afterStaines and  his two  little sons were burnt to death  by goons with suspicious political  affiliation.Nobody is  suggesting saffron in  the  blood.This  has gone  far beyond mere suggestion.

It is interesting how the director has chosen Sharman   Joshi’s character  of  the  out-of-luck desperate  journalist with a pregnant wife to support, to  create  an arc from cynicism about Staines’ work  of faith  to  a resounding ratification  of his intentions. Sharman  is  as usual, a portrait of earnest  brilliance. In fact  by the end  of it I was so moved  I felt  I  was  watching Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar  dispossessed  into a different world. In both the films, the conscience is lulled  into slumber for  economic survival.

  The Least  Of These  takes a very  dangerous stand on the issue of conversion by  whittling down the religious issue to  a far  deeper spiritual crisis.

At  the end  of  the  film the journalist speaks to us  and  draws a contrast between religious conversion and conversion from  “nothingness  to significance”.  There  is  a moment  that can easily be seen as an attempt to glorify Christian  evangelism    and manipulate  our emotions  into  submission, when Staines’ wife is informed  of  the  ghastly  tragedy.

“I forgive those who have done this,” GladysStaines says when  informed she has just lost her husband and  two children.

Such a far-reaching level of  forgiveness  is hard to achieve in  the human context.We can  dismiss it as pamphleteering .And  yet  this is exactly how the real Mrs Staines had reacted.  What sort of  a passion drives  the missionaries  to take on  impossible  odds? That’s  the question I wanted to ask as  Stephen Baldwin’s  altruistic  role of   the Christian  missionary  filled up the screen with  a sunlit dazzle.

Shooting the  film in rural Odhisa is  just about the  best  way  the  director could have chosen to not allow the  wild improbabilities  of  the plot(a newspaper editor hellbent on proving Staines’ conversion  scheme  turns out to  be  a leper’s son). The  characters and their  environment exude  the  stifling air  of  a social condition that breeds inequality and  disharmony.

 Taking way  from the  authenticity are the rural character conversing  in English  with the  journalist-hero. Since elsewhere  the film does  use the Oriya dialect why not let  thegrassroot  speak in their actual tongue all the way?  That apart   The Least Of These has many virtues to  vitiate  the vice.

Rural Odhisa  is captured  by  cinematographer  Jayakrishna  Gummadi with a striking lack of selfcongratulations.In this week’s other release Notebook  it is Kashmir and  Kerala in  Junglee.  Is  our cinema   going back to its  roots?But it’s not where the story unfolds that  matters in  The Least Of  These.It’s the sheer  barbarism  of  a religious order that championed tolerance that bothers  us  while watching this moving but dissatisfying  film.

How   many more Graham Staines to prove how dedicated we are  to preserving  our religious sanctity?

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