By Heather Cecilia Phanwar
Graham Stuart Staines, an Australian Christian missionary, and his two minor sons, aged 10 and six, were burnt alive inside their car in a cold January night of 1999 in Odisha’s Kendujhar district. The reason: Staines was allegedly forcing Hindus to convert to Christianity. The criminals: right-wing activists.
“The story of Staines needed to be heard,” Aneesh Daniel, the director of The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story that released nationally on March 29 and in Shillong on April 5, told Sunday Shillong during his visit to the city.
Daniel said he never thought he would direct a movie based on the incident but he strongly felt the need to tell the story. He met Staines’ wife one year after the grotesque incident and “it was only when she agreed to it that our production started”.
Though the script was ready by 2007, Daniel and his crew took five years to complete the movie. “The movie has five elements from five continents — the writer is an Australian, the music director is from South Africa, music was recorded in Budapest, the producer is from America and the director an Indian. The film was shot in Andhra Pradesh,” said the director.
The director said he tried not to stray away from the true story and incorporated in the movie those people who witnessed the event. People who were affected with leprosy were also part of the film. The man who played the driver of Staines is a real character. His name is Mishal.
The characters of Daniel and Gladys Staines are played by Stephen Baldwin and Shari Wiedmann.
A dedicated team worked on choosing the cast, Daniel said.
The director said he wanted to show the leprosy home in Odisha where Staines had visited. “This made the movie truer and more authentic,” he said.
However, Daniel said he needed a “conflict” to divert the story “but Staines did not have any conflict in his life”. This was when the need for a fictional character was felt and the character of the journalist Manav Banerjee, played by Sharman Joshi, was introduced. In the film, the journalist visits Staines to find evidence of the alleged conversions. “But in the end the truth always cost something,” said the Hyderabad-based director, who has over 30 years of experience in showbiz and the latest film is his first feature film.
Before venturing into feature film, Daniel made films for television and corporate houses, ad films and television series. He has worked with eminent directors like Shyam Benegal and Mira Nair.
When asked if there is any political agenda in releasing the movie before the election, the director said, “There is no reference to any political party. The film does not raise a finger at any political party, neither it was biased towards any colour or any individual.”
Daniel said he wanted to release the movie during Easter but no theatre was available since a blockbuster movie was scheduled to release.
“Why not during election time? The film is about forgiveness. This is the best time to talk about forgiveness because we are throwing mud at each other. Forgiveness plays a strong element in the movie,” he added.
The film received clearance from the censor board without any cuts “because it does not point a finger at anyone and it stands on its own merit”.
The director said the response to the film was overwhelming and shows were running houseful.
According to Daniel, people don’t need to be missionaries to a different country but can start noble work at home and in the neighbourhood.
“You can help people in need. You can be your own missionary. Of course, there is a price to pay for the truth but you have to work hard for the truth. Truth has a strong influence and you need to be courageous to tell the truth,” the director added.
“Unfounded fear prevents you from doing good,” says Staines in the movie.
The shows in Shillong also ran houseful and the audience comprised people from all age groups. There was pin-drop silence inside the theatre hall.
Euffi Lyngdoh, who had come to watch the movie with her friends, said, “I loved the movie. It made me realise that I’m so blessed to have the liberty to worship and witness Jesus freely. Also, to be a true Christian means carrying your cross, be forgiving in any situation. The movie should be screened for many more days and weeks in Shillong so that through it the love of Christ will be known.”
“What the director portrayed about Christians is true and it is still happening all over the world. The movie is unbiased and stuck to the incident. What really struck me is that though India is a secular country, hatred between different religions still exists. What we believe should be decided by us and not by anyone else. Graham Staines was a true missionary who did not care what other people thought about him. He was the one who took care of the lepers when no one was there to help them. As human beings we tend to criticise people who do something good when we can’t do anything about it. I highly recommend people to watch it,” said an elderly person who was emotional when she came out of the cinema.
A young member of the audience, Lizzie Phanwar, felt that the movie portrayed true love for mankind. “‘To live is Christ, to die is gain’ is an example of who Graham Staines is as a missionary,” she said.
Shaphrang Sawkmie, another young viewer, was surprised how a sensitive incident such as the Staines’ murder could be portrayed on screen without any bias or political innuendoes. “It is emotionally overwhelming and shows how life is all about selflessness,” he said.