THE LEAST OF THESE (2019)

  • Release Date: 29/03/2019
  • Cast: Sharman Joshi, Stephen Baldwin, Prakash Belawadi, Aditi Chengappa
  • Director: Aneesh Daniel

Manav Banerjee (Sharman Joshi) is a budding journalist who has just been recruited by “New Orissa”, a local newspaper in Orissa. He has a loving and pregnant wife and not nearly enough money to make a life for himself, his wife and the forthcoming baby. He has a history of writing charged pieces against Christian Missionaries and their conversions. The editor of “New Orissa” is impressed by his body of work and gives him a nod to writing about the work of the Christian Missionaries in Orissa. Manav’s wife soon gives birth but is rendered bed-ridden by the complications in the delivery which leaves Manav in dire want of a lot of money to save her life. In walks an apparent religious leader and shadowy owner of “New Orissa” who offers Manav all the money and help that he needs for his wife’s treatment. In return for the favors, he wants Manav to convert to Christianity, get in the confidence of local Missionary and garner proof of their conversions through fear, coercion or any other unfair tactics.

The Least of These is a graphic retelling of the events leading up to the horrific murder of Graham Staines, an Australian Christian Missionary and his two sons by religious fanatics. Apart from documenting the murder and the events leading up to it in great details, the film also takes us through the aftermath of the gruesome incident. We see the whole story unfold through the eyes of Manav who starts off as someone who is petrified even at the look of a leper to him understanding how important it is to treat them as humans even before treating their disease. Through Manav’s many interactions with Graham Staines (Stephen Baldwin) the film tries to decipher the psyche of the man and why he did what he was doing. His inspirations. His influences and his penchant to convert lepers to humans.

Here is a film that is brave enough to show us that the society was not willing to accept a leper back in their midst but when he/she was cured by missionaries, and the leper now wanted to convert to Christianity, the same society was willing to go to any lengths to stop the conversion. It just went on to show the duality and hypocrisy of a society that performs the last rites of a man who is diagnosed with Leprosy but is not ok with him/her converting to Christianity even if it was their own choice. The more I watched these portions, the more I grew restless and angry. That is the kind of impact that this film had on me and that is proof enough of the fact that how well made this film is.

Stephen Baldwin turns in a sublime performance as Graham Staines. There is a sense of calm and care in the manner in which his character sways through the film. There is an indelible charm to the way he looks at the oppressed and helps them. It isn’t easy to play a character like this and yet Baldwin breathes life into a role that has so many shades to it. I loved his interactions with his two sons who incidentally die with him. There is an undeniable sense of easiness and gullibility to the way the boys interact with Baldwin and it was heartening to see the chemistry they shared. It did make their end that much more sad and shocking. Stephen Baldwin also shares a brief but poignant chemistry with Shari Rigby who plays his wife Gladys Staines. Rigby herself comes to the fore in the end when Staines is killed and she is left to cope with the loss of her husband and children. Never for once she loses her composure and even in the face of such mammoth personal tragedy, she sticks to the path shown by God and chosen by her husband.

I associate Sharman Joshi mostly with comedy but here he is made to play a character that is not only tragic but is also divided between his sense of right and wrong and what he is experiencing first hand in the company of Staines. For a very large chunk of the film, he truly believes that Staines is doing a crime to the society and Hinduism by converting people to Christianity even if these people have been treated worse than being dead at the hands of the same society. Gradually he starts seeing the true depth of what the man has been able to achieve and warms up to him. The transformation of Manav is subtle and slow and that is what makes it so effective.  Sharman is not only believable but is endlessly affecting. In a poignant scene at the beginning of the film, we see him jostle with a missionary over the baptism of a girl in a manner that is so real that I was anxious about how the sequence would end. The narrative is peppered with countless such sequences. Prakash Belawadi plays another important character and he is detestable. That’s exactly what the character needed.

The Least of These is technically as proficient as it is emotionally investing. The cinematography is haunting and it remains one of the high points of the film. The scene in which Staines and his kids are burnt alive is shot in a way that will make it the stuff of nightmares for many. The opening sequence showing the gruesome burning of a church sets the mood for what is to come next. The overall atmospheric feel of the film has got as much to do with the material as it has with the cinematography and background score.

The film ends with the following lines by Manav.

“Graham Staines was indeed into conversion and achieved unbelievable success in that. He converted worthlessness into significance. He converted the hopeless into the hopeful. And for 35 years… he converted lepers into humans”.

These lines perfectly encompass the spirit of the film and the life and works of Staines himself. This is a film that shows us how you could meet a gruesome end even if you are doing God’s work and how that is never the end of it. It gives us hope and appeals to our good sides to carry on doing what is good and right even if it lands us in some of the most painful situations. For that and a lot more, The Least of These is a must-watch.

Rating: 4/5 (4 out of Stars) 

 

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