For many, the story of Australian missionary Graham Staines (Stephen Baldwin) and his two young sons may be a distant memory, but with the current tensions in the subcontinent, the history of the Staines becomes more relevant. A man who helped to heal leprosy patients in India, Graham and his family had built a ministry of reaching out to the rejected souls of India with medicine, love and the message of Christ. Tensions toward foreign missionaries had increased in the country through the decades and rumours had been circulated that the Staines had forcibly converted or lured their patients into becoming Christians. Even though there was no evidence to prove these allegations, many people in the surrounding communities continued to spread these lies about these ministry workers.
While serving in the local community of Manoharpur village, Graham and his two sons Philip (aged 10) and Timothy (aged 6) were burned to death while they slept in their vehicle on 23 January 1999. A gang of Hindu Bajrang Dal fundamentalists were found gulity of murdering the three Australians. Even though many of the men were brought to justice for their crime, this justice could not take away the pain of the tragedy, but did manage to open the eyes of many Western news sources to the plight of Christian ministry workers in India.
Director Aneesh Daniel and writer Andrew Matthews bring the Staines’ story to cinemas through the eyes of those looking in from beyond the walls of the leper compound. Seen from the perspective of journalist Manav Banerjee (Sharman Joshi), who had been assigned by his newspaper the responsibility of exposing the work of the Australian missionaries and proving they were performing illegal conversions. The writer investigates the patients who had been treated at the medical facility and many who chose to become Christians. Throughout his interviews and personal conversations with the Staines family, Manav comes to the realisation that the gossip was spread through fear of the unknown, as opposed to being based in truth.
Even though the film is subtitled ‘The Graham Staines Story,’ this tale of self-discovery was more a journey for the fictionalised journalist than of the missionary and his family. This style of storytelling seems entirely appropriate, because it does less to build up the legend of Staines and instead focuses on the message he was trying to share with the Indian people. His portrayal in the film proved that Graham was not seeking undue attention, but merely wanted his life to honour the Lord. This puts the focus back on Manav Banerjee and his journey to discovering the mystery behind the message of this foreign missionary. Like many who begin to seek after the truth behind followers of Jesus, things begin with confronting the fear of the unknown and move toward inquisitive speculation mixed with frustration. Then over time the conclusion can take many forms, but Manav's investigation leads to determining what to do with the truth after it becomes evident to him.
The value of this film can be found in the underlying message it contains. Andrew Matthews’ screenplay has a clear message of a personal and spiritual journey that is beautifully complemented with the depiction of the Staines lives. The production is wrapped up in the fascinating context of the Christian film industry and the Indian film industry. These aspects may cause many to wrestle with the film’s quality, but hopefully people can look past these elements and capture the heart of the Manav Banerjee and Graham Staines’ stories. Stephen Baldwin, Sharman Joshi and Shari Rigby as Gladys Staines do good work to portray their characters and help to move the story forward.
This confronting tale of the sacrificial work of medical missions, the underlying spiritual challenges in India and how something beautiful can be born out of tragedy makes this an adventure worth experiencing. The quality of the Staines story truly epitomises how Christians should look at this current life that in living and in death everything should give glory to Jesus.
Interesting insights into the religious structure of India
Bio and image Russell is an American ex-pat who has been transplanted in his new home of Sydney. He is a reviewer for Insights Magazine and the blog Russelling Reviews. He moderates events called Reel Dialogue (reeldialogue.com) which connects the film industry with the general public.