A Few Good Men: Nadir Khan brings Aaron Sorkin's iconic legal drama to the Indian stage

‘You can’t handle the truth.’

If you're a movie buff, you can't help but hear these words in actor Jack Nicholson’s voice, in the manner that he delivered this line in the iconic 1992 Rob Reiner-directed film A Few Good Men. This legal drama is considered a classic in recent cinematic history, because of its writing and powerful performances from Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and others. What is less known is that the film was actually based on a 1989 play of the same name written by Aaron Sorkin, who is known for his writing in The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and the stage version of To Kill A Mockingbird, among other plays.

So when theatre director Nadir Khan was approached to direct the play for Aadyam’s fifth season, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. “You can’t forget the iconic lines or characters. You can’t forget the ‘You can’t handle the truth’ scene and the other speeches Jack Nicholson gives... Sorkin’s writing is excellent as we all know. The script is pretty much the same as the film, to be honest; there are a few bits, here and there, where some writing is different, but the main speeches and text are exactly the same,” says Khan, who is working with Aadyam for the fifth year in a row.

 A Few Good Men: Nadir Khan brings Aaron Sorkins iconic legal drama to the Indian stage

While he doesn’t think of himself as a Sorkin-superfan, Khan does feels he is a great writer who pens electric dialogue. Citing the example of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom, he refers to the American playwright and screenwriter as a 'master of dialogue'. “He has a very definitive style of writing. The dialogue is quick-witted and so fluid. In a script like A Few Good Men, which is so dialogue-driven since it is a courtroom drama, we don’t find it verbose because the lines are so light, witty and electric that it is just a pleasure to listen to them,” he explains.

The play, which Sorkin wrote largely on cocktail napkins while bartending at the Palace Theatre, is about how military lawyers navigate a court-martial to uncover a high-level conspiracy against two US Marines accused of murdering a fellow Marine. While the play is set in the American military system, Khan feels that the themes ensure it remains relevant. “More often than not, subconsciously, we are affected by the world we live in when we read a script. While A Few Good Men is set in the American military and martial system, it deals with themes of honour, formality, and blindly following orders; those are contexts that apply everywhere and can easily apply to us as well. In a world where people are just doing stuff because they are ordered to and not thinking about the consequences, [the play] has relevance for sure.”

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The cast for the play includes Neil Bhoopalam, Rajit Kapur, Ira Dubey, Kenny Desai, Ashwin Mushran, and Danish Hussain among many others. Rajit Kapur, who plays the hardwired Colonel Nathan Jessup, says that for any character one plays, one has to believe what they are doing is right. “So whether it is my character or any other character, we are trying to find our core in a sense to make them believable without passing any judgment,” he said, “I find the role challenging because it is something I have never played before — an army officer; the way he looks at things and his perspective is what is important for the nation.”

Bhoopalam plays the cocky, arrogant lawyer Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, who accuses Colonel Nathan Jessup of ordering the killing of a US Marine at Guantanamo Bay. It is also the first time he will be portraying a lawyer in his acting career. “I find law as a subject quite interesting. When I heard about it (Kaffee’s part), I jumped at the opportunity because I will get to work with people who I really like and admire and push my limits as well. The dialogue in the play is crafted in a manner where you just don’t state your point in the beginning. You arrive at it. That’s quite interesting to do as a performer,” he shares.

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Bhoopalam, who has also been part of plays such as The Glass Menagerie and Project S.T.R.I.P, interprets Kaffee’s character as jovial and impulsive at times. “The character is pretty clear and strong on paper, so I find that good. He is very humorous and everybody around him is very fond of him. Kaffee is also small fry. He is a junior grade lawyer and suddenly he is presented with a murder case which is way beyond anything he has handled before. He is used to handling cases where an officer was on duty and he went to watch a movie. He is used to plea bargaining that way,” says the 36-year-old actor. Khan feels Bhoopalam's character Kaffee is the centre of the story who keeps moving the entire plot forward.

Khan also lauds actor Ira Dubey’s stage presence in portraying Lieutenant Commander Joanne Galloway, who is assigned to work on the case with Kaffee. “You need someone who is able to stand up to Daniel Kaffee throughout the play and to be able to bring out different sides in the other. They are almost polar opposites who find out they have a lot in common in terms of how they view the world, and that’s what brings them together. In this sense, Joanne’s casting is more important than Kaffee's. Ira is a fabulous actor. She is very precise and her instincts are amazing,” he said.

As a director, Khan works with his actors in a democratic space where their ideas are welcomed and tried out before blocking anything. He has a clear vision in his head of everything on stage before diving into a production. One needs to have extreme clarity of thought to be able to execute a play and stick to the timelines and schedules to ensure that the final product is everything one wanted it to be, he says. Having said that, he believes he is always completely open to being proved wrong or shown a different outcome in the rehearsal room. "The idea is to allow the actors to respond to their instincts, because at the end of the day, they are the ones saying the words and being the characters. So, if something feels true to them, then we have to explore that path. It is like what I say in a rehearsal room, that a move can’t just be a move. You can’t move across the stage at a particular point because of the staging or blocking; it has to be driven by something — a reason."

On the subject of how he approaches any text as a director, he says it is about telling the story in an engaging and interesting fashion. “Like in this particular play, it is ping-ponging between very specific locations at the speed of light almost. You have to be going from X to Y to Z to A to B to C almost seamlessly throughout. The challenge is, how do you make that happen seamlessly without allowing the audience's concentration to drop? Every time you go to a different location you won’t have a 30 second blackout or music playing in the background while set changes take place", he says. The set design for A Few Good Men allows smooth transitions between different locations to keep the story moving at a very fast and interesting pace, he adds.

This is also not the first time Khan is directing a stage version of a well-known film. In an earlier edition of Aadyam, he directed Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Jurors, whose film version is called 12 Angry Men.

Asked if comparisons between the film and the play that will be staged is a concern, the cast and the director reject the notion and say comparisons are inevitable. “People are going to compare. That’s not my problem. That’s their problem,” says Kapur.

“I would hope that a lot of people who come to watch the play have seen the film because it is an iconic, brilliant film and definitely worth watching. The only filter I can apply is my own. If I was asked about someone doing a stage version of an iconic film, I would be very interested to see it, just to see what a different person’s take is on it. Also, theatre is a live medium, which is obviously a very different experience,” asserts Khan.

A Few Good Men will be performed on 20 July and 21 July at St Andrews Auditorium in Bandra, Mumbai. Tickets are available on insider.in.

Updated Date: Jul 17, 2019 09:40:20 IST