The Least of These Review: A well-intentioned film that loses the plot thanks to poor execution
This ordinarily told story means well, but the effectiveness of the narrative is let down by a number of factors
Films inspired by true events are always a risky business. How much liberty can a filmmaker take to further the narrative? Sensitivity and empathy are key, especially when the events being portrayed are a blot on a supposedly secular country’s collective conscience. The dastardly act of torching and killing Australian Christian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two young sons, on the night of January 23, 1999, in the Manoharpur village of Odisha, while they slept in their car, by Bajrang Dal activists (led by Dara Singh), is not a memory that should be forgotten, let alone condoned.
Unlike his more famous contemporary, Mother Teresa, who was also known to care for lepers abandoned by their families, Staines met a very different fate. Whether the man, who dedicated most of his life to caring for those afflicted by leprosy in the remote reaches of the state, had been instrumental in forcibly/illegally converting the poor tribals he treated or not, isn’t the question to be asked. Even if he had taken to doing such a thing, and this is a big ‘if’ (there has been no evidence in support of it till now), can his terrible end at the hands of frenzied Hindu extremists be justified?
Director: Aneesh Daniel
Cast: Sharman Joshi, Stephen Baldwin, Shari Rigby, Manoj Mishra, Prakash Belawadi
The Least of These, is, unfortunately, an ordinarily told story. It means well, make no mistake, but the effectiveness of the narrative is let down by a number of factors such as the script, the acting, the dialogue, and the general implausibility of Manav Banerjee’s (Sharman Joshi) story surrounding the historical events.
To begin with, they could have gotten a better person for the lead role. There are innumerable instances in the plot where Manav’s reactions do not fit with the overall tenor of the film. One such scene early on takes place on a bus. He does not have enough money for a ticket, and requests the conductor to consider his circumstances (he’s new to Odisha and his heavily pregnant wife is eagerly awaiting his return). When the bus conductor refuses to budge, he is lent money by a genial old man. Manav is late to notice that the man may have leprosy, and jumps up in fright. After kicking up a fuss, they are both asked to promptly disembark. I understand that such discrimination is common, but Sharman overdoes it with the theatrics.
The dialogue, most of which unfolds in English, leaves much to be desired. It should have ideally been a multilingual film (in equal parts Odia and English), but the lines are skewed in favour of the latter. So much so that, even conversations involving the villagers and local cops don’t take place in Odia. Only a smattering of it can be heard here or there. When films, set in environs that employ the vernacular to communicate, are replaced with English, they come off as problematic.
Manav is supposedly an investigative journalist, despite possessing none of the real skills of someone competent for that profession. He is neither objective nor bright. When he begins his investigations for the local newspaper, he spots a conversion happening on the banks of a river. Instead of taking his photos quietly, he involves himself in the ritual and demands answers. Journalistic objectivity be damned! Besides, doesn’t going undercover mean that you try to blend in and not draw attention to yourself?
There is one decent sequence towards the end as Manav and his editor have a conversation in the latter’s car. Staines and his two children have just been killed in the most unjust of circumstances, and all the biased editor can think of is to spin the story in favour of conversion -- the clear lack of evidence, notwithstanding. Apart from this scene, and another involving Staines tending to patients while his children play a game of cricket, the depiction (both Manav’s fictionalised tale and events based on fact) in The Least of These is nowhere near true-to-life as it should have been. Well-intentioned, but a big disappointment in terms of artistic representation all around.