SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 13 APRIL, 2019
The Film Does Little Justice to the Graham Staines Reality
Aneesh Daniel who has directed The Life of These – The Graham Staines Story which explores the incidents that led to the brutal murder of the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two minor boys, claimed in a recent interview that he felt that he wanted to give Graham Staines his due. This comes 20 years after the killing. Never mind.
A bit of the back story of Graham Staines will shed some light on the film. Graham Stuart Staines was an Australian Christian missionary who, along with his two sons Phillip, 10 and Timothy, 6, was burnt to death by a big gang of the Hindu Bajrang Dal while they were sleeping in his station wagon at Manoharpur village in Kendughar district in Odisha on January 22 1999. Dara Singh was convicted of leading the gang and was sentenced to life imprisonment though the initial media reports states that the missionary was killed because he was converting the tribals he was counselling and treating for leprosy.
The family came down from Australia in 1965 and the two boys were born here where Staines worked with tribals and lepers. Allegations raised by a majority of mainstream people in Odisha accused him of forced conversion but his wife Gladys continued to work for the lepers among the tribals and the poor till she went back to Australia in 2004. In 2005, she was bestowed the Padmashree in recognition of her work with leprosy patients in Odisha.
The Life of These is the name of the film directed by Aneesh Daniel. Daniel is convinced that the cover-up of the Staines’ murder along with his two sons later by one newspaper – in this film – underlining that the reason for the killing was because Staines was actually converting the tribals and the lepers which, by implication, cleared the killers of the crime.
In the film, this comes across as headline news which is later revealed to have been fake by the struggling journalist Manav Banerjee (Sharman Joshi) who finally succeeds in establishing that Staines was never into forced conversions at all and was killed by a man and his gang who felt he was doing exactly that under the veil of taking care of leprosy patients.
But this is clearly a fictional film based on a single tragedy that did not bring the shock effect it should have. But the ‘fiction’ in the film far transcends the fact and the narrative is almost entirely focussed on the trials and tribulations of the fictional investigative journalist, who, tagged with a heavily pregnant wife, manages to land this story by the local editor of a leading English daily.
While Sharman Joshi gives a marvellous performance veering between being kicked out any day and sticking on in exchange for a “price”, or, between a sick wife about to give birth and lack of money for good medical treatment, steals the film and the show from everyone else. He is the one who questions the “story” of forced conversion after meeting Staines several times and watching him at work at his jungle camps.
He goes to the camps where Staines in working with the lepers and meets the two boys who are so deeply Indianised that they say that they want to play for India like Sachin Tendulkar and are quite at home playing cricket with the tribal children. The two boys are natural and endearing within their brief roles.
The “playing-it-safe” perspective of the film becomes evident from several points such as (a) the very one-dimensional and flat characterisation of Graham Staines portrayed by noted Bollywood actor Stephen Baldwin who does his bit mainly with a beatific smile on his face all the time, (b) the completely blank expression on the face of Shari Rigby who plays the role of Gladys Staines.
This may pass the bill for a person completely dedicated to the poor and the sick but there is no change of expression even when there is no news of her husband and children and then, the news that they have been brutally murdered in their sleep, (c) the total absence of the pro-Hindu fundamentalist political context that actually led to the killing (d) keeping the character of Dara Singh who planned and executed the killing completely anonymous and identifiable with any criminal who may not be associated with any political party which has been proved to be far from the truth and finally, (e) rushing up the diabolic plan leading towards the murder so much that one is more confused by the planning than being able to understand it.
This leads the story to continue with the same “fake news” which, according to Danil, the film sought to show reducing its archival value to a fictional film which could have been mainstream with a bigger starcast and lavish production values. The director however, veers from using commercial strategies like a colourful tribal song-dance number in the film or any typical romantic anecdote featuring Manav and his pregnant wife.
There is no attempt to glamorise the film at any point but that does not take away from its highly fictionalised premise that ignores the political context and fleshes out a villainous editor desperately greedy for a “break story” who is not only cut out like a filmy villain but also cuts a sorry figure as a journalist and as a successful son of an ailing father! Why?
Despite good production values and technique backed by the excellent performance of Sharman Joshi, the film fails completely because its subject deals with a political subject but the film tries its best to remain apolitical in order to play safe.
The Aftermath of the Killing
In a brilliant article in Outlook (July 5, 1999) Ajith Pillai details what happened to the Graham Staines murder in terms of punishment. A special investigation team headed by IG Padman Singh was set up by the Justice D.P. Wadhwa Commission probing the Staines' murder. The commission's 250-page report submitted to the home ministry on June 21 1999 is based on the submissions before it as well as the report of the investigation team. Some of the key submissions were as follows:
The investigation concluded that Dara Singh was involved and he was actively involved with the Bajrang Dal which is not mentioned in the film even once. The disclosure by Kartik Lohar recorded by the Crime Branch gives in detail Dara Singh's participation in the actual crime. Among others, names mentioned were those of Dipu Das, Mahesh Mahanto, Avi Mahanto and Kartik Lohar who later turned state witness.
But Pillai does not give Staines a clean chit either, though his actions never ever can justify the killing which was preplanned, diabolic and brutal within the premises of one of the many jungle camps he organized for the tribals. He goes on to add that the jungle camps he organised were often in areas that were 'points of friction between Christian and non-Christian communities. There had been danger signals in the past.
Dara Singh figures among the 18 persons charge sheeted in the Staines murder case by the CBI on June 22, 1999. The investigating team listed 11 cases in which Dara Singh was involved and his association with the Bajrang Dal/BJP was revealed.
But the differently named Dara Singh in this film is painted as a leader who led a group of men as an individual criminal and his link with any political party is rendered invisible.
Did Graham Staines get his due as the director claimed? The film is still running in theatres across India so this is an open question.