General George S Patton who commanded the US army during World War II was known to have said, ”Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.” The General’s feelings, if not his exact words, are echoed by Colonel Indravadhan Rajput in Sneha Desai’s Code Mantra, directed by Rajesh Joshi. The play is proving to be a big success with housefull shows. Its producer Bharat Thakkar is smiling. He is known to promote meaningful content vis-a-vis the stereotypical and more predictable play on the Gujarati stage. The play’s Marathi version is due to premiere soon.
Pratap Sachdev who plays the arrogant Colonel is bombastic and perhaps deliberately over the top in a production, which while purporting to be more intelligent than its peers, is still meant to toe the line of mainstream Gujarati theatre. So it goes for the others in the main cast too- all competent actors – who must live up to an enterprise that in spite of the gravitas of its subject, must resemble and sound like a soap opera. But for all its decibel shattering sound, its kitsch theme song, and tele-serial music, this is a nifty production that must be commended for its efficient delivery, its attention to the military detailing of costume and custom, and its ability to place justice above the military.
The play’s military ensemble, largely comprising actors from Bhavans, makes the intervening scenes dramatic and transitions smooth without any blackouts. The audience is struck by the precision and clap approvingly. The story has been derived from a well-known Hollywood film, which began life as a Broadway play. The team to its credit acknowledges the film. Sneha Desai, who also acts in the play as the defense lawyer, has cleverly inserted emotionalised bits in her adaptation that predictably tug at the heart of her audience.
The plot revolves around the death of a junior army officer. His elder brother, who serves in the same regiment, is held responsible for his murder. Their mother does not accept the army’s version of the story even though her elder son’s best chance is to plead guilty. Thus unfolds a courtroom drama in which the excesses of the army, in this case, its internal disciplinary actions, are called in question. ‘Code Mantra’ is the unspoken, legally unacknowledged term given to such actions – often excessive and horrendous – in the context of the play. The defense lawyer from her own experience is more than familiar with it.
Relationships in the army are always first and foremost determined by discipline and guided by duty, which extends to duty to the senior commanding officer, by which all his commands must be followed. Trust is implicit. But what happens when the senior officer misuses his position, however sound he may make his theory in the larger interest of the army and the nation? It is this grey zone that the play seeks to tackle, albeit with generous doses of melodrama and jingoism.
The ‘nationalistic’ fervour, complete with asking the audience to stand up to the loud, orchestrated recording of the national anthem before the play starts and making the curtain call with ”Jai Hind” and then adding ”Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, is however curious for a play that seeks to present a scathing critique of the Indian army’s top brass in the overstepping of its authority. On the contrary, these calls sadly reinforce the present-day government’s dubious narrative on patriotism and nationalism and seem to defeat the brave dismantling of the status quo, which its makers want to highlight.