Elevate Difference

Pune Highway (11/11/2010)

Directed by Rahul Da Cunha
London, England

During my childhood, visits to India were largely spent travelling. A lot of this involved time on the infamous GT Road, a dry scaly snake taking us wherever we wanted to go. Aside from the beauty of fields either side, there was always the fear of danger lurking nearby. Visiting these roads was always interesting—but you knew they had the potential to harbour deadly forces. Whenever something happened, people would react wildly. The road was both a blessing and a curse, progressive in its promise, but with a lot to hide.

Whenever an incident on happened we looked on in wonder, not really knowing protocol. Minor scuffles in traffic would result in typical rambunctious arguments which proved entertaining for some—but larger incidents were a different matter. A cyclist thrown off his bike, for example, would result in a series of complexities not only for the culprit but also for spectators. Typically, they’d refrain from contacting the authorities, afraid of opening a can of worms.

One macabre incident, featured in the Times of India, inspired Rahul Da Cunha to create the play Pune Highway. Described as a "dark comedy thriller and a brutal exposition of friendship," Pune Highway is currently showing at Watermans Theatre in West London for a limited time. Rage Productions launched the play in Bombay to much critical acclaim.

On first seeing Pune Highway last night, I found it a raw and absorbing delight. With a sombre set and atmospheric lighting, the play revolves around three friends who have just witnessed the death of a fourth. As we open to a dank hotel room beside Pune Highway, three Bombay men are in turmoil, uncertain as to what their next actions are going to be.

It’s five in the morning, but no one is sleeping. The night before they were all subject to terrible events: a corpse lay on the road before them, but on closer inspection, they realised that it was not a corpse at all. Bags of rice had been laid out, designed to fool them. On realisation that they’ve been had, one of the party was attacked whilst the others fled.

While watching this play, I was quickly taken back to my own experiences of quiet Indian hotels. We’d usually rock up in a roadside three-star perched on the corner of a main highway hoping for the best. Usually it’s not the hotels themselves, but the occupants that make them such eerie places. I’m often reminded of Industrial expansion in America and Hitchcock’s Psycho. Our three characters are constantly on edge; they’re middle class men from Bombay: one with a former coke habit, another is having an extra-marital affair, and the third is wrestling with his conscience and a stammer. As they bicker and reminisce amongst themselves, things begin to get a little twisted as certain truths are revealed.

Rajit Kapur (Pramod), Ashwin Mushran (Vishnu), and Bugs Bhargava Krishna (Nicholas) have an excellent believable chemistry between them. You’d think they easily shared a childhood or a long personal history. Their suspicious waiter for the evening (Shankar Sachdev) makes regular appearances on the scene and speaks a type of street slang synonymous with his film roles. Unfortunately, the Hindi interludes are lost on some members of the London cosmopolitan audience.

Yamini Namjoshi, who plays Mona, relieves some of the tension with her spirited performance. Added to her character is a certain mystery that makes you realise all the characters in this play are truly multidimensional. As such, the play proves itself a strong candidate of the Problem Play genre. Neither too comedic nor melodramatic, it moves successfully through a gripping plot.

Overall, Pune Highway is a well woven mystery with little to fault it. The play’s ultimate success is that it leaves you wondering about the incident that inspired it: how many horrors have we actually seen on the major roads that network India? And what does our growing apathy and fear tell us about how we’re growing as a nation?

Pune Highway runs for a limited time in London before moving to New York and Washington, D.C. in June 2011.

Cross-posted at The NRI

Written by: Sandeep Sandhu, November 24th 2010