The Least Of These

It was late January, 1999. Churches all across Odisha were under severe protection and no Christian in the state was untouched by fear for their own safety. The reason for this was the shocking murder by the burning of Graham Staines and his two sons by a radical religious group.

Religious tensions due to missionary conversions was not new to Odisha. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Odisha has witnessed the presence of missionaries of many denominations. It is therefore no surprise that Odisha was one of the first states in independent India to pass the Freedom of Religion Act in 1967, which makes it illegal for any person to "convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means”.

After two decades of the incident, Graham Staines’s story has finally been adapted on celluloid. Directed by Aneesh Daniel, the film starring Sharman Joshi, Stephen Baldwin and Shari Rigby playing the lead roles, released in India on 29th March, 2019. Some aspects of the film are disappointing. First, while the script does not underplay the pre-existing religious tensions in the region, somehow it comes across as if these tensions existed solely because of the presence of Graham Staines, and not because of several other missionary activities that have been ongoing for over a century before Staines set foot in Odisha. Second, while the film is about Graham Staines, the focus is mostly on Sharman Joshi, who plays the character of a prejudiced journalist, Manav Banerjee. Manav is tasked with exposing the missionary’s conversion tactics. All we see or know of Staines in the film, is through the eyes of this journalist. As a result, Joshi takes up most of the screen time while Staines (played by Stephen Baldwin) gets side-lined. Third, Sharman Joshi, and Prakash Belawadi who plays an unethical newspaper editor, fail to impress in spite of being fine actors. Fourth, the main perpetrator of the ghastly event is shown to be an individual who is not motivated by any political agenda, which may not have been completely true. Despite these inadequacies, the film is rendered special because of the powerful story it retells.

The strength of the film is in the beautiful manner in which it conveys the Christian message. Staines’s philanthropic work is highlighted throughout the film, and time and again we are reminded that it is love for the Lord that motivates him to do what he does, whether it be rescuing lepers from the scorn of superstitious villagers, or medically treating and caring for them even while constantly being subjected to suspicion by the locals. Despite being made for a secular audience, the film does not shy away from proclaiming the values and doctrines on which Christianity operates. For instance, there is a scene where one of Staines’s sons says that, one day, he wants to play cricket for the Indian team like Sachin Tendulkar. When asked why he would do that, considering he is from Australia, the child confidently replies that he has been created from dust, reminding us that as Christians, it does not matter which nationality we belong to, for we are all united in the love of Christ.

The issue of conversion is at the heart of this film. It begins with Joshi’s character trying to prove that Staines is converting people illegally under the garb of humanitarian efforts. But the focus is not just on conversion in the Christian sense. Joshi’s character goes through a major conversion by the end. From someone who flees at the sight of a leper, believes that lepers have been cursed with the illness because of their karma, he transforms into someone who touches and clothes a leper boy at the end of the film, and this has happened because he has been irreversibly affected by the missionary he had set about to malign. The film is a tribute to Staines’s selfless, Christian life and over three decades of service to the poor. May it act as a reminder to us, that Graham Staines is one of the many missionaries who have dedicated their lives to spreading the message of Christ to the back and beyond of this magnificently large and diverse country, while suffering persecution, lack of resources and dangers that arise from taking Christianity to hostile environments.

Tess Joss