On 23rd January 1999, Graham Staines, an Australian Christian missionary and his two sons were burnt to death by a Hindu fundamentalist group in the Keonjhar district of Odisha. Two decades later, Aneesh Daniel has dared to make a film on the incident. In this exclusive interview, the debutante director talks about the film which has been titled ‘The Least Of These: The Graham Staines Story’, his inclination towards telling real-life stories, getting Sharman Joshi on board and the desire to make a sequel to the film.
You have been into filmmaking for a very long time. Why did it take you so long to direct your first feature film?
Basically, I was looking for a good opportunity. I wanted to make a film which would have a very strong content. I was ready with the script in 2007 but getting that first break is usually a little difficult. Most investors do not like to invest their money in first-timers. We got the permission from Graham Staines and after that, I was sure about not letting go of this opportunity. I wanted my first film to be on a socially relevant subject.
The film is based on a controversial subject.
You need courage to make a film on a subject like this. In fact, you need courage to tell the truth. As an individual, one must always speak for what is right and stand against the wrongdoings in the society. I did not set out to make a controversial film. I thought it was a story that needed to be told. I have made a film on love, hope and forgiveness and I hope the audience connects with it.
The film is based on true events. What is the kind of research you had to do before going on the floors?
My writer Andrew E. Matthews is from Australia. He came from there to India and did extensive research with me for a very long time. We spoke to many people. In fact, Dr. Subhankar Ghosh, who was a key witness in the incident, was present on the sets throughout the shoot. He was guiding us throughout the process. The character of the journalist, that Sharman is playing, is fictional but all the events that you see in the film happened are true.
This is your first film as a director. Was it difficult to get a mainstream actor like Sharman Joshi on board?
No, Sharman said a yes to the film immediately after reading the script. For me, the script is of paramount importance. We got a script doctor from the US to go through the script. We did four or five drafts and several revisions after that. When we shared the script with Sharman, he really liked it. The script spoke volumes to Sharman and that is why, I think, he agreed to be a part of the film.
You have a company called Shepherd Films. What is the kind of content you want to produce?
I am very fascinated by true stories. There are several challenges involved in making a film based on a real-life event. A film must have some conflict in it but every incident does not have conflict. I prefer doing films based on true stories but if I come across a good script which is purely fictional, I would love to make a film on it too.
You live in Hyderabad. Do you plan to continue working from there?
Right now, I am comfortable working from Hyderabad but now that I have made my first Hindi feature film, I am contemplating shifting to Mumbai.
What are you doing next?
I have not decided what I will make next but if this film is accepted by the audience, I would like to make a sequel to it.