Mother Teresa was the greatest Christian representative in modern-day India, improving and saving countless lives, working with the poorest of the poor in Calcutta and providing orphanages for the many children in need. But India has seen many other missionaries, and the new movie “The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story” brings to life the tale of another — an Australian missionary who was tragically burned to death in 1999 alongside his two young sons.
Shot on location in India with an almost all-native cast and crew (aside from American actor Stephen Baldwin as Staines), “Least” finds a window into Staines’ life story through a young journalist named Manav Banerjee (Sharman Joshi). Banerjee is assigned to find evidence that Staines is coercing Hindus into becoming Christians. His wife has just had a baby girl, and is hospital-bound due to complications from childbirth, and so he is desperate to make a good impression on his new boss and deliver the evidence by any means necessary.
Banerjee’s editor is determined to bring Staines down because India has long been torn in its response to missionaries, whom they respect for helping the desperate, but resent for shaking up their long-standing Hindu traditions. Indian law allows people to be converted as long as they are not bribed or otherwise induced to do so, and Staines was making a noticeable impact by providing effective and otherwise unavailable care to lepers.
At first, Banerjee is fired up about his mission, refusing to believe that Staines simply has honorable intentions. But as he sees this kind, gentle man in action as both a doctor and in his private life as a husband and father, Banerjee starts to feel guilt about his assignment. When Staines and his sons are killed by an angry mob, Manav takes a stand for the truth he has come to discover — leading to an entirely new and dangerous set of complications.
“Least” starts out weakly, with Joshi’s performance as Banerjee a little too zealous to be realistic, but as the story grows more compelling and he is caught in a web of ethical dilemmas, he more than rises to the occasion and delivers a solid turn. Most of the many other actors’ roles are too small to register strongly as individuals, and Baldwin as Staines delivers a performance that is strangely laid-back, to the point of laziness. No matter the situation, he mutters his answers with a dispassionate wink and a smirk.
But the screenplay by Andrew Matthews offers plenty of fascinating details about the religious culture clash embroiling India and the strange superstitions that lead many Indians to believe that leprosy is a curse. His use of choice statistics, including the fact that 127 churches were torn down or burnt to the ground in 1999, causing tens of thousands to flee, also draws viewers in instantly.
Matthews also effectively conveys a couple of big plot twists in surprising fashion and accurately gets inside the skin of a journalist who has to make major ethical decisions that will have long-term ramifications for his personal life.
Director Aneesh Daniel makes powerful use of montages to convey the unspeakable circumstances in which Staines and his sons died, using glimpses of horror and the resulting aftermath in a way that effectively leaves viewers to fill in the details themselves.
All told, this is a noble effort that shines a much-needed spotlight on the dangers that missionaries face even more than 2,000 years after Christ. Those who wish that movies had strong Christian spiritual content on a regular basis should seek this out and make a mission for themselves to see it.
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