Inspired by the Australian missionary and title character, Graham Staines, The Least of These is a fictionalised retelling of the missionary’s work in India, told through the lens of a suspicious journalist, Manav Banerjee. Beautifully shot on location in India, the film demonstrates the extraordinary ministry performed by Graham and his wife Gladys in the midst of serious opposition from Indian locals.
Manav Banerjee is a struggling journalist, devoted husband and soon-to-be father, with a fascination for the negative impact Western missionaries are having on Indian life and culture. With his wife nearing the end of her third trimester and no money to pay the hospital fees, Banerjee decides to move the family across the country to the state of Orissa in the pursuit of a promising job prospect, a position he anticipates to be the solution to his family’s future security. After his previously prepared work is dismissed by the editor-in-chief for lacking spice, Banerjee makes an impromptu pitch for a story that would seek to expose Western missionaries for illegally induced conversions. The story is promising, as no missionaries have previously been charged.
With his family to feed and bills racking up, Banerjee’s desperation to acquire evidence escalates. His attention soon turns to Graham Staines, a prolific Australian missionary who has been operating in India for 35 years, known for seeing many Indians converted to Christianity. But how can Benerjee gain enough trust from Staines to get the proof he needs to write his story?
Hollywood meets Bollywood
The Least of These is an enigma of sorts. Although English is the spoken language for the film’s vast majority, it maintains a strong Bollywood tone which could be a touch jarring for uninitiated Australian audiences. This leads to some beats and moments feeling a little awkward. There are also a number of Bollywood inspired film techniques utilised that are similarly jarring, such as excessive flashback use and some clunky action edits.
The story itself is strong, though the subtitle “The Graham Staines Story” is misleading. The story has relatively little to do with the missionary’s faith journey, instead spotlighting Indian culture via Manav Banerjee and his story. Through Banerjee’s struggle to make ends meet in spite of having an education, and through his observation of others – particularly the humiliation and isolation of lepers – we get a glimpse into the inequitable lifestyle faced by so many Indians, as well as the extreme gap between the rich and the poor.
The film is visually stunning, captured in and around some of the most striking Indian buildings and landscapes. The tone is dark and gritty, in contrast with the distinctly Indian pastel structures and clothing. The music seeks to bring balance between Hollywood and Bollywood, sometimes even combining the two into an amusing hybrid.
Actor Sharman Joshi provides an enthralling and nuanced performance as Manov Banerjee, effectively navigating the journalist’s internal ethical dilemma of doing what is right, while providing for his family. While Stephen Baldwin and Shari Rigby did a fine job of the Staines missionaries, an Australian pair of actors might have been better suited.
The film is rated PG for mild themes and violence. A church and van are set on fire at different points in the film, but avoid showing anything explicit. Many characters in the film suffer from leprosy, with severe sores and physical deformities. Some smoking is also shown.
As the film presents Manav Banerjee’s story rather than that of Graham Staines, it is perhaps less focused on Christianity than one might expect. For this reason, what we get from Staines character has little to do with theological principles or apologetics, and more the outward manifestations of a faithful life. Most notable is his sincere love for the Indian people, particularly those cast out of their community and deemed worthless. The Staines family provide these people with shelter, food, community, and most importantly a sense of worth.
The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story is available on ACCTV NOW from March 1st.
(*Watch ACCTV here: Foxtel Channel 182, FETCH TV Channel 199, D2 Satellite, Free online stream at ACC.TV Apple TV 4th gen, Android TV, Search ACCTV in the App Store and Google Play)