The Madras Players’ Honour was an endearing tribute to the armed forces which kept the audience engaged despite its nearly two-hour run

Honour is a difficult word. Especially in this day and age. How you interpret it has as much to do with your upbringing and personality as it does with your political leanings.

Think of honour in the context of the armed forces, and it becomes an even more intriguing conundrum. On one hand, we’re an unabashedly patriotic nation. On the other hand, reports of war crimes and high-handedness also means we’re getting disillusioned with guns and jingoism. Caught between this are the men and women who have dedicated their lives to serving their countries. It’s an ideal setting for a story — and one wonders why so few playwrights have tackled the subject in India.

After much searching for a suitable script to honour the armed forces, P.C. Ramakrishna finally asked playwright Nandini Krishnan to develop a play set within the backdrop of the Indian Army for the Madras Players. While the script does have its weak spots, which include a hasty (and melodramatic ending), patchy characterisation and inevitable clichés, it’s also a fascinating story. It flows naturally, with gripping twists and turns for two hours with no interval.

In a nutshell (without giving too much away, for this is a production that can be revived) Honour revolves around a crime of passion. Capt. Ranveer Singh Chauhan (Amitash Pradhan) is accused of killing Major Vishal Chaudhry (C. Rishi), who is married to his best friend Radhika (played by the playwright Nandini Krishnan.) Ranveer’s father, the arrogant General Pratap Singh Chauhan (Radhakrishna) is determined to bully his way to the top to get his son freed with no stain on his military record. He’s aided by Radhika’s mother, the dignified Rajshree (Tehzeeb Katari) and an unexpectedly entertaining team of lawyers, the earnest Major Abhimanyu Singh (Abhinav Suresh), his assistant the engaging Captain Aditi Randhawa (Tanvi Patel) and hotshot lawyer, the dapper Darius Wadia (T.T. Srinath).

While P.C. Ramakrishna is best known as one of Chennai’s favourite actors with Honour he proves he can direct as well. For the most part, the production displays his trademark approach, a dignified restraint even in highly-charged emotional scenes so that the story doesn’t descend into bathos, given how much it balances on high tension. Some of the best scenes, for instance, are with Tehzeeb playing Rajshree, because she manages to be a tough, glamorous, imposing army wife, and still be fragile enough to garner audience sympathy.

The most impressive performance, however, comes from an actor with the most challenging role. Rishi, playing the drunken, abusive, crass Vishal could have easily morphed into a monster. Instead, he interprets his character as someone with shades of grey: more a victim of his circumstances than a bad person. Since charming Ranveer Singh Chauhan is exhaustingly virtuous in comparison, Vishal becomes the key catalyst, keeping the audience hooked with his drunken swagger and quicksilver mood swings.

There’s some clever writing. And unexpectedly entertaining banter in the tense court room thanks to T.T. Srinath revelling in his almost caricatured role as the heavyweight, and eternally languid, hot shot lawyer. The story is told with a pastiche of scenes that move back and forth in time, to propel the story forward instead of the more predictable sepia-tinted flashbacks that so many playwrights and directors favour.

The sets, by Victor Paul Raj, are slick and hardworking, given the fact that there are six play areas through which the story wanders. While this makes for seamless movement it also means that there are inconveniences. The court scene, for example, moves the action to the very back of the stage, behind a clutter of furniture. Also, some of the most dramatic scenes, such as the reactions to Vishal’s death are obscured because his body falls behind an oversized sofa.

However, on the whole Honour’s an endearing tribute to the armed forces — because it’s been created with honesty.