The Least of These

A timely reminder of murders most foul, and love in action.

A scene from The Least of These
Actress Shari Rigby (as Gladys Staines) imbues strength and dignity in her sari-clad, tribal dialect-speaking character.

Cast: Sharman Joshi, Stephen Baldwin, Shari Rigby, Manoj Mishra, Prakash Belawadi, Aditi Chengappa
Director: Aneesh Daniel
Producer: Victor Abraham

The Bible is full of exhortations to heal the sick and help the needy. Matthew 25:40 of the Bible is the source of the title of the film — The Least of These: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Helping the impoverished then is obeying God’s command.

This is why the Albanian nun Mother Teresa and the Australian missionary Graham Staines came to India — to serve the destitute and the downtrodden in a country far from home. However, this crucial factor, the raison d’etre for their life’s mission, is not underlined in this film which largely ignores the right-wingers who distort and misrepresent the message of love in service as “inducements for conversions”.

Stephen Baldwin and Sharman Joshi in a scene from the film
Actor Stephen Baldwin (as Graham Staines) with actor Sharman Joshi (as Manav Banerjee) in a scene from the film.

Thanks to their machinations, it is harder than ever to reach out and render help where it is most needed. In minimising the role of the right wingers, the film lays the blame for the ghastly murder of Staines and his sons Philip and Timothy, on the media which employs lies and deception in its pursuit of truth! For example, the fictional editor (Manoj Mishra) instructs the new recruit Banerjee to investigate the rumours of illegal conversions in rural Orissa by pretending to be a Christian. Pertinently though, Staines (played by Stephen Baldwin) tells the fictional investigative journalist Manav Banerjee (Sharman Joshi): “No inducement brings real conversion.”

Banerjee is not beyond dangling threats of blackmail and petty extortion and as it turns out, the editor has a vested interest in Staines who came to the 105-year-old Mayurbhanj Leprosy Mission in Orissa at the age of 24 and spent the next three and a half decades ministering to impoverished tribals and the sick, especially the leprosy patients in Baripada, where he set up a leprosy treatment centre when the nearest leprosy hospital was at Purulia in West Bengal about 400 kms from Baripada.

Banerjee’s hidden agenda and personal vendetta against Staines is the weakest part of this otherwise compelling film which depicts Staines as the personification of humility and love in caring for the lepers in obedience to Christ who, as he tells Banerjee, had himself healed ten lepers.

The investigative journalist’s character is well-etched and Joshi gives a strong performance which marks his trajectory from cynic to sympathiser. Baldwin is calm and placid as the doomed hero. As Gladys Staines, the bereaved wife who chooses to forgive the murderers, actress Shari Rigby imbues strength and dignity in her sari-clad, tribal dialect-speaking character, as does the actor playing the role of the leper who is treated with disgust and revulsion by Banerjee.

Stephen Baldwin in a scene from the film

Compelling as it is, the film does not depict the Staines’ tragic deaths in the van in which they had bedded down for the night in the village of Manoharpur in Keonjhar district. We only see the vehicle being attacked, but never hear the children crying. And surely, they must have cried in terror in the midst of leaping flames, malice and hatred. Or perhaps they prayed. The morning after, the camera pans the burnt vehicle, but doesn’t show the charred corpses. Only a coin or two that Staines accepted as payment for medical treatment and a small shoe that survived the blaze on that tragic January night of 1999.

The cinematography is outstanding; mention must be made of the footage displaying the beautiful Orissa landscape which harboured the ringleader of the murderers, Dara Singh, a known criminal who was aligned to the assembly of foot soldiers of the right wing brigade.

The end credits cite the Justice Wadhwa Commission which found Staines innocent of forced conversions. In 2003, a trial court convicted the 13 accused. Dara Singh and co-conspirator Mahendra Hembram were awarded the death sentence, the rest were sentenced to life. In 2005, the Orissa High Court commuted Singh and Hembram’s sentences to life and acquitted the others.

The widowed Gladys and her daughter Esther continued to run the leprosy centre for several years before returning in 2004 to Australia where Esther pursued medical studies. Now practising as a doctor, she is married while her mother works as a nurse in Queensland. This reviewer had the privilege of meeting Gladys briefly in Mumbai where she released Vishal Mangalwadi’s book Burnt Alive: The Staines And The God They Loved.

The movie was first released across 400 theatres in the U.S. in January, this year. It is presently running in selected theatres in the major cities of India.

Shot on real location at the leprosy ashram in Madhaopora village of Orissa, the movie is a strong advocacy of universal love and human touch. The true story of Graham Staines and his surviving wife Gladys, which the movie portrays, beautifully highlights the eternal values of love, forgiveness and service to fellow humans irrespective of colour, caste or creed. It is really a film worth watching, particularly in the context of the present happenings in our country and in our neighbourhood.

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Ronita Torcato is a government-accredited journalist, film critic, amateur historian, traveller and social media communicator.

Ronita Torcato

Ronita Torcato is a government-accredited journalist, film critic, amateur historian, traveller and social media communicator.