Beyond the big screen: Vivaan Shah on his debut novel, Living Hell, and next film project
You might remember him as the computer hacker from Happy New Year or the chocolate boy narrator from Saat Khoon Maaf, but Vivaan Shah, in addition to being a Bollywood actor and a theatre artist, is also a published author with his recently released debut book, Living Hell.
The novel is a murder mystery “set in the underbelly of Bombay,” as Vivaan puts it and is “basically a synthesis of the post-World War II private eye genre, spawned by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and the classical school of detective fiction, exemplified by Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and John Dickson Carr,” he adds.
Here, the son of veteran actors Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah, tells us about his inspirations, his love for eerie stories and how his experience in Bollywood shaped his writing.
What inspired the novel? Did you always want to take up writing?
An almost anthropological fascination with the sub-culture of Bhaigiri is what inspired this novel.
Also a love of the written word, and a desire to explore this milieu, as it is extremely fertile ground for fiction. I have been writing since I was a child.
I started writing with plays, but gradually moved over to prose when I studied literature in more detail, and realised that this is a medium which is fairly self-sufficient.
In other words, all I need is a pen and a piece of paper to see my work materialise, unlike other art forms which are more heavily dependent on resources.
You were a part of Saat Khoon Maaf, and also directed a play on Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. What is it about dark and eerie narratives that attracts you?
I think I learnt pretty early on, that art, in general is not merely a representation of the positive potential of mankind.
We should be able to think about things in art, that we may flinch from thinking about in real life. The job of the artiste is to examine what the scientist cannot explain.
It is our duty as artistes to put the monster under the lab lights so that we can poke its nose and tickle its horns. Art does have a spiritual dimension and can heal.
What is your writing process like? Do you have any rituals you strictly adhere to or a dedicated space where you write?
I think there are fundamentally two styles of writing — one in which you outline the story and resolve it before the prose starts to form, and the other in which you start writing the prose, not knowing where you are going to go, so that you may discover it as you go along.
I am a practitioner of the latter method. It is a fairly subconscious activity and often times when you come up with something there does not necessarily have to be a logical or rational reason for it to be there. One has to learn how to make those things work, and alter the prose accordingly.
Otherwise, especially in a murder mystery, the mechanics of the plot and the exposition layered under it can come across as too contrived. I felt reasonably certain that if I didn’t know who the murderer was until I resolved that, the reader wouldn’t be able to guess or predict either.
How has your experience in the film industry shaped your writing style?
Immensely. Not my experience in the film industry per se, but certainly my absorption in film history.
I am also a part time amateur film and literature historian, and write academic essays on old movies and books for various online blogs and journals like Cafe Dissensus, and A Potpourri of Vestiges.
I even contributed a horror short story for the fiction magazine of a leading publication. Film for me was like a gateway drug.
It opened my mind up to theatre, music, literature, poetry, architecture, sculpture, painting, dance, photography, comic books, cartoons and all the other art forms, and also all the sciences and humanities like sociology and geography, and of course history.
My favourite films are the black-and-white Warner Bros gangster films of the 1930s and ’40s, starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Edward G Robinson and others.
I am also a huge fan of Western movies, especially films by Sam Peckinpah, the silent films of Fritz Lang, B-Movies by Roger Corman, avant-garde work by Ken Russell. I have also written numerous essays on all these obsessions.
Amongst the realm of Indian cinema, my inspirations tend to come from the proletarian films of the ’70s, certain older classics from the ’50s and ’60s, the art and genre cinema of the ’70s, pulpy stuff from the ’80s and ’90s, action movies, etc. Kader Khan is a big favourite of mine.
Can you see the novel being adapted for the screen?
I don’t think so. It was very much constructed following the framework of a novel, and the storytelling seems to be more suited to the page as opposed to a primarily visual medium like the cinema or even a comic book, which is somehow more sensory.
I would prefer the reader to imagine what happens in the book, rather than see it literalised. Having said that, if anyone for whatever reason should decide to adapt it, then I would be more than glad to do it for them, or even lend a helping hand.
Any other writing projects that are currently in the works? What would you like to write on next?
I would like to explore the whole gamut of genres. I have a book of horror short stories which I have been trying to get published, also a prequel to Living Hell, which will probably see the light of day depending on how Living Hell performs, also an adventure novel in the vein of Jim Corbett or Ruskin Bond, and a science fiction novella.
Can you tell us a bit about your next film outing, Coat?
Coat is a film set in Bihar amongst the Dalit and Musahar community. I play a character called Madhav, a swine herder who dreams of wearing a coat and asks his father Mohan, played by Sanjay Mishra, if he can have one.
The father obviously denies his request as they live in abject poverty, and so Madhav starts his own handicrafts business out of bamboo, weaving baskets, and fans and ornamental decorations so that he may try to make his dream come true.
It’s an aspirational story, also a father-son story and also a love story between Madhav and an upper caste girl by the name of Sakshi. The film is written and directed by Akshay Kushwa, a young man from Bihar. It is his first film.
INR 250, Penguin Random House India.
— Simar Bhasin