Vivaan Shah: I want to be identified as a Mumbai writer

Updated: Feb 03, 2019, 15:33 IST | Jane Borges

With the release of his debut novel, a crime noir, Vivaan Shah hopes to bring alive the hard-boiled American pulp in his narrative of the city

Vivaan Shah: I want to be identified as a Mumbai writer
Vivaan Shah

An apology might not be considered a conversation starter. But, theatre and film actor Vivaan Shah, most remembered for his role in Farah Khan's heist comedy Happy New Year, offers oodles of it when he misses our call due to a network issue in Dharamshala, where he is currently shooting for a film. With this, he puts to rest our misgivings about indulgent star kids. Because 29-year-old Shah, the youngest child of veteran actors Naseeruddin and Ratna Pathak Shah, would rather see himself as a struggler. Or, at least that's how his new literary career seems to have panned out.

Shah, whose debut novel, Living Hell (Penguin Random House), a crime thriller set in the seedy underbelly of Mumbai, hit the stands this week, says it took him nearly five years and a whole lot of self-introspection, before getting published. "Unlike my brother [Imaad], who is a bookworm, I was not a huge reader as a child. I was a very visual person and had more inclination towards drawing. It was only in my early 20s, when I was getting into theatre and looking for new material to perform onstage, that I started reading up works of Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft," says Shah. "It's somewhere around that time that I fell in love with words, and started trying to write. But, a lot of what I was creating was pretty derivative. It sounded a lot like Poe and the other writers I was inspired by."

In fact, amid the release of Happy New Year in 2014, Shah had been feverishly penning a collection of horror short stories, which didn't find any significant takers. The failure led him to look at his own writing more critically, eventually making way for his new novel.

Living Hell is a noir murder mystery, which tells the story of Nadeem Sayed Khatib aka Nadeem Chipkali, a police informant with a criminal past, who gets embroiled in the murder conspiracy of his neighbour Makhija. With all fingers pointed at him, Nadeem is forced to play detective, relying on his wits and an unexpected motley crew of people from the underworld to trace the perpetrator.

A huge fan of the classical 19th-century British sleuth fiction, as well as the hard-boiled American pulp and private-eye thrillers that emerged in the post-world war era, Shah says his book is a homage to both these genres. "I'd like to see my work as a post-modern spin to this kind of genre fiction." The milieu for his novel was inspired by Bandra - the area where he grew up. "While Bandra now enjoys a reputation of being a posh suburb, in the '90s, it was infamous for a lot of street-corner hoodlums. There were several gangs in the area, and some of those goons were also marginal figures in the underworld. From an anthropological point of view, I was quite fascinated by these gangsters. Bhaigiri had almost become a sub-culture."

While writing the book took Shah about six months, he spent a couple of years just "refining and revising" the text. "I wrote nearly four drafts, before the editor found it good to go. We really wanted this book to stand out as a piece of genre fiction."

Here, he jokes about how he is likely to have put both his parents off from reading his book. "I have been writing obsessively for the last few years, and each time I wrote something new, I would rush to them and ask for their feedback. They have read some of my worst works and are very harsh critics. Now, when I give them something to read, they are like, 'Oh damn! Why do we have to read this again?' I think I will need to win their interest back and literally woo them into reading my new novel."

Having said that, Shah, whose debut thriller is undoubtedly fast-paced, is hoping to establish himself as a writer who is able to encapsulate the gritty side of his city. "Being a Mumbai writer is definitely the identity I want for myself. Of course, my first love is acting. But thanks to it, I got drawn into the world of books.

For an actor, I think it is important to have some grasp or interest in literature, because at the end of the day, we are communicating somebody else's vision on camera. The main appeal in literature for me is that it is an individualistic endeavour. Here, I am not wasting anyone's time or money to bring my own work into fruition. All I need is a pen and paper, and as an artiste, that is liberating."

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