The actor and the writer coexist in me: Vivaan Shah

Exploring Mumbai’s underbelly: Vivaan Shah wears multiple hats   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Actor Vivaan Shah has recently come out with his debut novel titled Living Hell. Essentially a murder mystery, the novel is set against the backdrop of Mumbai’s dark underbelly that comes alive at night.He likes to describe Living Hell as “Slacker noir in a Bumbaiya setting that takes a detour to the dark side.” Also, he sees noir as a “psychological landscape where the universe conspires against you.” Vivaan made his Bollywood debut with Vishal Bhardwaj’s Saat Khoon Maaf which was in dark space and was interestingly based on a short story by Ruskin Bond. He has also directed a play titled A Comedy of Horrors featuring the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

A copy of “Living Hell”

A copy of “Living Hell”  


What is Living Hell about?

The genre of crime fiction that I am trying to pay tribute to in Living Hell is the classic hardboiled fiction associated with most pulp writers which oft-times is not considered literary but it still is of the same merit in my opinion. It is about a guy called Nadeem Chipkali who has to solve a crime that has taken place in his own building. Now, there are two traditions of the detective genre. On one hand we have the British tradition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie which is slightly more genteel. Nadeem Chipkali, on the other hand, is closer to a Raymond Chandler or a Philip Marlowe. He is an alley cat who goes more by the gut instinct than by logic, analysis and deduction.

Were there other inspirations and influences beyond hardboiled fiction?

The biggest literary influence on me has been Edgar Allan Poe who completely blew me at a very early age. He wrote a short story called The Murders in the Rue Morgue which is said to have inspired Doyle to create the character of Sherlock Holmes. Beyond the literary influences, Living Hell has actually drawn a lot from my own childhood experiences. Now, I grew up in Bandra in the ‘90s where there was a lot of bhaigiri kind of activity in the neighbourhood. They may not have been gangsters but there was definitely an underworld influence on them especially the way they talked and carried themselves and I just got acquainted with the whole scene. You can probably say that they were on the fringe of the underworld. Today Bandra has the image of a very posh kind of a place but back in the ‘90s it was a very different place. It really used to be very colourful place in terms of gangster activity and there are vestiges of that even today in Bandra.

When I was growing up and the kind of friends I made playing cricket in the neighbourhood I was really fascinated by the way they talked and behaved. Then I went to boarding school. When I came back home I reconnected with that whole world with an adult point of view. By then I had already read a lot of hardboiled fiction such as works of Raymond Chandler and more importantly seen films like Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing which influenced me greatly and then later I started discovering films of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart which are also about the streets of New York. Those films were about goons and not about the big shot dons. I am talking about the foot soldiers, the shadier sort of marginal characters… the street corner gundas in a sense. That’s when I realised that all the stuff that I have seen while growing up in Bandra can be made into some kind of art.

Are you in the middle of a transition from acting to creative writing?

No, the actor and the writer coexist. In fact, the two of them have served each other quite well. My acting has helped my writing and my writing has helped my acting. In my early twenties I really started getting into literature in order to perform a lot of those pieces as an actor. So I studied them as an actor so as to communicate their ideas to the contemporary audience in order to make it work as a piece of drama. So that’s where the acting helped the writing. Also, since I am a writer myself I am able to internalise it and understand it in a different way as an actor. At the end of the day an actor is speaking someone else’s thoughts and so it’s important to respect the words written on the page because the writer has put in a lot of thought into it.

What kind of challenges did you face as a young and upcoming author in order to get your novel published?

The first thing that I ever submitted to an editor was a collection of short stories which got rejected by a number of publishers. That was my first ever literary endeavour. I eventually did get an offer to publish it digitally which I declined as at the time I was a bit sceptical about it.

Now that I look back, it feels like a stupid thing as I have now realised that digital publishing is actually a fantastic thing. Now, interestingly, I had almost completed the first draft of Living Hell by the time I was editing the short stories book. At the time the idea was to have the novel as a follow up to the collection of short stories. But by the time the deal with the short stories book fell through, I already had the first draft of the novel ready with me. I got a genuine response from the Penguin representative that while they like the short stories there wasn’t any market for a collection of horror short stories. So I sent them the first draft novel. I was told that it required some work. Then each time I got back to them with the updated drafts I would get their detailed feedbacks. I think by the fourth pass it was finally accepted.

You said that gangster movies have been a great influence on you. Why didn’t you think of making a movie instead of writing a novel?

Actually my first attempt was to write a screenplay and I have written many screenplays about the whole milieu. But I think cinema is a different kind of a medium where you are dependent on many other persons and that’s why I decided to transform a lot of my pursuits into prose. So that’s when the whole literary journey kind of started. But Living Hell was never a screenplay transformed into a novel. It was written solely as a novel which also follows the structural framework of a novel.

We haven’t seen you in a movie for some time now...

I am doing a movie called Coat wherein I play a Scheduled caste boy from Bihar who has the dream of wearing a coat. He is a pig farmer who in order to fulfil his dream starts a handicraft business of bamboo products.

It explores the caste politics and highlights the challenges that lower caste people have to encounter in order to rise above his circumstances and attain social mobility. It is directed by a young filmmaker from Bihar called Akshay Kushwaha who has no industry connection and has put together this project completely on his own.

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 7:45:13 PM |

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