A Fistful of Rupees

by Shiv Tandan
Stone Paper Stories
Kalaa Utsavam - Indian Festival of Arts 2023
Esplanade Recital Studio, Singapore

A Fistful of Rupees feels in many ways a sequel to playwright-director Shiv Tandan's The Good, The Bad and The Sholay, a play which premiered when he was a student at NUS and which subsequently enjoyed a luminous restaging by Checkpoint Theatre at the Esplanade's Kalaa Utsavam eight years ago. Both have titles inspired by Westerns, clean, stripped-down stagings and feature a protagonist with the same name, Raghav, trying to find his place in the world. 

While Sholay was lit by youthful optimism and wonder, chronicling the experiences of a young man leaving his northern Indian hometown and moving to Singapore for studies, A Fistful of Rupees is an altogether darker, grittier tale. The opening scene introduces us to Raghav, who has just left Singapore and arrived in Mumbai. He's thrust right into the heart of its frenetic energy, cacophony of sounds and rain. Endless, interminable rain. 

Raghav is armed with a tech background and experience in theatre and filmmaking but can't quite figure out what he wants to do next. He tries to connect with family, friends and denizens of the metropolis to get the lay of the land and gain new perspectives but constantly feels that he's an outsider looking in. 

Tandan's writing is crisp, colloquial and endearing, beautifully balancing comedy alongside more sobering moments. He extracts strong performances from his ensemble of four actors. Dressed in pastel-coloured jumpsuits, they play all the roles with an infectious energy, even providing the occasional sound effect. Scenes featuring two men squeezing into an uncomfortably tiny Mumbai lift and a yoga class presided over by a militant teacher are a particular highlight. 

There's certainly a universality to this story that transcends its Mumbai milieu. However, the narrative seems to move in too many directions and the personal journey of Raghav feels somewhat diffused as we segue into monologues from various individuals who feel othered in some way. A storyline about a sister who decides to emigrate to London never feels fully developed. One ultimately finds it hard to empathise with this character, someone who is to all intents and purposes an educated middle class man who's hardly been dealt a heavy blow in life. 

A Fistful of Rupees may be a little rough around its edges but offers a heartfelt snapshot of urban life, capturing the uncertain tensions of adulting, navigating new spaces and learning how to simply jump in and make that vital human connection.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5


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