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Movie-maker zooms in on missionary murder
- Director pins hope on Staines’ widow; Gladys says no objection if script wins her approval

Mumbai, Oct. 27: Graham Staines died in a blazing car on a cold, dark night. But the man who lived for the lepers could live again — on Bollywood’s screen.

Director Sunil Agnihotri, who is ready with the script for a bilingual film on the Australian missionary who was murdered with his two sons more than fours years ago, believes it is high time Staines’ tragic heroism is brought out before an international audience.

Agnihotri is waiting for the “final word and clearance” from Staines’ widow, Gladys, who has stayed back in Baripada, Orissa, to carry on her husband’s work. If the clearance comes through, shooting for the movie — which will have actor Irfan Khan in the role of Dara Singh, the main killer — will begin in February and “should hit the theatres by October next year”.

Hopeful of a green signal for the film, titled The Murder of a Missionary, the director says his only concern is to highlight the work of Staines and his family and to bring Baripada on the international map with an epic story of courage, faith and humanism.

“The commerce doesn’t matter,” he says. “I’m not doing it for the money, though a few awards will be welcome. I want to tell the world what it takes to devote a lifetime to the service of lepers. Not many do such things.”

Agnihotri, who directed the serial Chandrakanta and movies like Daawa, Jai Kishen and Laat Sahib featuring Bollywood biggies Naseeruddin Shah, Jackie Shroff, Akshay Kumar and Raveena Tandon, says he has spoken to Gladys and her only condition was the script for the film, to be made in Hindi and English, should be cleared by her.

“That is okay by me. After all, it is their story, we are just the vehicle,” the director said, adding that he intends to meet her with the script some time in November.

Gladys was surprised when told about the project. “I don’t recall the communication (through e-mail) with this gentleman (Agnihotri),” she said, speaking from her Mayurbhanj Leprosy Home. “But then, there are so many people sending so many mails everyday. It is difficult to handle so many things on my own. Is someone really making such a film'” Asked what she thought about the project, she said: “I don’t know what I think any more. So much has happened.”

Gladys, however, was open to the movie “given it sticks to the facts”, but said she was a “little cautious”. She has been on her guard since the murder case came to an end recently with Dara sentenced to death and 12 others jailed for life for burning alive her husband and sons as they slept in their car. “People do all sorts of things, you know,” she added.

She said she did get a call from someone from the BBC asking her about the film. “But I don’t know much about it and told them that I’ll have to find out. Can you give me the name of the director and his phone number'” she said. “Maybe, I’ll get things clear then.”

Gladys may be a bit circumspect, but Agnihotri is not. “I have been working on the film for a year now and was waiting for the court’s verdict,” he said, adding that he was immobilised as “the climax could come in only after the real case had ended”.

Certain of getting the go-ahead, Agnihotri says he does not think the Vishwa Hindu Parishad would trouble him as it has some filmmakers who made films on the Gujarat riots. “The Gujarat riots and the Staines’ story are two completely different things,” he said. “Moreover, the VHP has disowned Dara Singh, so there will be no trouble from them.”

Agnihotri said he would take very few poetic liberties with the story as he is dealing with “crass realities and very hard truth”. More so because he is attempting a project that is serious and aimed basically at an “informed” international audience.

“My film will definitely have a very strong social message,” he said. “I will not delve very deeply on the death part, I will talk more about life and the heroism with which Graham Staines lived it and his wife continues to live it.”

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