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Siraj Syed


Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 

 

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The Least of These, Review: More was needed

The Least of These, Review: More was needed

In India’s turbulent political climate, making a true-story movie on the life and work of a Christian Missionary who was accused of forced conversions and brutally murdered, along with his two sons, might not be such a good idea. That it is patchily made proves, once again, that all true stories are not film material, and not everybody can impart cinematic strength to powerful subjects.

It is true that Australian missionary Graham Staines was murdered in 1999 by a mob led by five persons that set fire to the vehicle in which he and his two sons were sleeping. His sons died too.  Staines had been working among leprosy patients in Odisha, eastern India, for about 34 years and had been able to cure many of them. Lepers, those days, were shunned and stigmatised by Indian society, as it was widely believed that leprosy spread through human contact. Being a missionary, Staines also converted some of his patients and people living in remote areas to Christianity.

These conversions were seen as forced or induced, and a militant Hindu organisation decided to punish him. The murderers were arrested and tried. Staines was cleared of any wrong-doing while some of the accused were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment, including life-term for a man called Dara Singh. The film does not have Dara Singh, the primary accused, in it. Instead, it dwells on the character of one Manohar, also an accused.

Seen through the eyes of a fictional young, newly-married, journalist, called Manav Kaul in the publicity material but Manav Banerjee in the film, who goes undercover for a newspaper called New Orissa, in the hope of exposing Staines as illegally proselytising leprosy patients. He is acting at the behest of the paper’s editor, who sees a front page headline in the making, and asks Manav to infiltrate the Mission, by offering to get converted himself. To his surprise, Manav finds a man who has given himself completely and unselfishly as a missionary to those patients. Manav cannot prevent Staines’ murder, but he soon discovers his editor’s hidden agenda, and decides to expose him.

Director Aneesh Daniel (film debut) has collaborated with Andrew Matthew in writing the screenplay. Although the case was in the headlines for a long period, the writers do not include court proceedings. Even the conspiracy leading to the build-up to get rid of Staines is handled very superficially. Manav, who could have been the counterpoint to Staines, is an under-developed character, who spends most of his time darting from place A to B, on scooters and cycles. He mouths the most prosaic of dialogue and, often, just stares. Looking at the narrative holistically, the only purpose of the script is to convey to audiences that Staines was innocent, and a true man of God. But that was never in doubt.

There are two twists in the tale: one when Manav meets Sundar and Staines for the first time and the other towards the climax, which occurs after Staines’death. You also empathise with Sundar when he reveals that “He was the only person who touched me,... Graham showed me God’s love.” Plot points like these raise the bar, but are not discernible for most of the film. Instead, you have a largely dry, uni-dimensional scenario.

The Least of These is a curious title, and had to be from the Bible. Sure enough, it is. The “least of these” is a phrase that originates from Matthew 25:31–46, where Jesus speaks of those in need. Verses 35–40 read, “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

Perhaps writer-director Daniel, who has tons of experience in TV and video and has assisted several directors of repute, did not realise that by creating the character of a down and out journalist whose wife is in hospital, and who ventures in varying directions every day, he moved the tale away from the central themes of hope, love and forgiveness. Too much time is devoted to the scribe, at the cost of Staines. Entering the scene quite late in the film, he is dead before the end, allowing little time to interact with the audience. Staines deserved better. Using English dialogue for almost the entire film, Daniel causes distance between authentic village-folk and their screen personae. Occupational hazard alright, but one that had to be worked around. Music score by Bruce Retief tries to compensate for the lack of sheer drama, without much success.

Although Staines and his sons died gruesome deaths, we are not shown the actual details, and that’s good sense. Authentic Indian locales, away from civilisation, impart an earthly touch to the drama.

Sharman Joshi  (Rang De Basanti, 3 Idiots, Golmaal) as Manav Banerjee keeps looking for motivation but finds none, so he gets into desperation mode. Stephen Baldwin (American; The Usual Suspects, The Young Riders, Born on the Fourth of July) is subdued and sincere. The mandatory “mate” apart, he does not sound a true blue Australian. Shari Rigby (American; Not Today, October Baby) is stoic and dignified as Gladys Staines. Manoj Mishra as the conspirator Mahendra is half-baked, constantly confabulating but saying pretty little. Prakash Belawadi as editor Kedar Mishra is painted shrewd and unscrupulous, going over the top in the bargain. Aditi Chengappa as Shanti Banerjee, the sickly wife, draws sympathy, with little else to do. Aneesh Daniel puts in a cameo as a House Agent, in the beginning of the movie. In an interview, Daniel has said that he cast a professor in his first acting assignment. Though he did not identify the character played, I guess it must be Sundar, enacted by Bhaskar Shewalkar. And for realistic effect, Staines’ real-life driver plays that very role on screen.

Noble intentions, lofty ideals and heart-rending incidents always strike a chord, and they abound in The Least of These, but when it comes to transcribing a ‘based on a true story’ saga to the medium of cinema, the grammar and mise en scène are of supreme significance. The film does have the least of these, though much more was needed. One hour and fifty-two minutes seem heavy going.

Rating: **

Trailer: https://youtu.be/B3KblmWPsjo

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


Bandra West, Mumbai

India



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