“Acting & writing complement each other beautifully”

Vivaan Shah talks about his upcoming novel ‘Midnight Freeway’

Actor-Writer Vivaan Shah is all set to come out with his second novel titled ‘Midnight Freeway’. It tells the story of Pranav Paleja, a criminal lawyer who works at a legal Chamber- Mangesh & Mangharam. In Shah’s words, “He’s an ordinary man with an ordinary life. And while it is his job to uphold the law, he seems pathologically incapable of doing this in real life. The mystery of the novel revolves around the investigation of a horrific car crash into a toll booth on the Bandra-Worli Sealink, and the ensuing death of the person driving, who turns out to be someone our protagonist Pranav Paleja had butted heads with.” Vivaan, who made his Bollywood debut with Vishal Bhardwaj’s 7 Khoon Maaf, feels that acting and writing complement each other.

In this interview, Shah talks about ‘Midnight Freeway’ and the similarities that it shares with his debut novel ‘Living Hell,’ inspirations and influences behind it, the long term impact of COVID-19 on the entertainment industry and his upcoming acting projects.


What is your upcoming novel ‘Midnight Freeway’ about? Are there any thematic similarities to your debut novel ‘Living Hell’?

Yes, there are. The book is about a criminal lawyer who is incapable of following the law in his day-to-day personal life. The first one was about a police tipper who was a former underworld debt-collector. The pathology of certain kinds of criminality is perhaps what they both have in common. The two novels also share a similar milieu. They are both set in the sordid underbelly of Bombay, and deal with two kinds of subcultures—the sub-culture of ‘Bhaigiri’ in the first novel, and the subculture of Biker gangs in the second.

Could you tell us more about the protagonist of your new novel?

The protagonist is a criminal lawyer by the name of Pranav Paleja, who works at a legal chamber Mangesh & Mangharam, but also handles clients that come to him through external channels. He is the kind of lawyer that most wastrels call upon in the middle of the night to get themselves out of a jam. He is dependable, astute, and his defining characteristic is that he has no real defining characteristic at all. He is a seemingly ordinary, almost mundane person. But what goes on behind that wall of politeness and efficiency is an altogether different matter.

Book cover of ‘Midnight Freeway’

Were there any other inspirations and influences beyond hardboiled fiction?

Plenty! The first novel owed a great deal to Raymond Chandler, and Edgar Allan Poe. In a sense, I tried to fuse the two genres, that of the private-eye and the sophisticated sleuth. Other than that, there were certain gangster elements in ‘Living Hell’ that were identifiable as emerging from Dashiell Hammett, W.R Burnett (the figure of the sympathetic outlaw) or even Damon Runyon (the hoodlum monikers). This one really is an homage to a slightly more esoteric tradition within the hardboiled crime genre, that of the road noir, or the first-person psycho-study. It is a shrine of sorts to Jim Thompson and David Goodis; also Charles Willeford and James M Cain who usually had very mundane protagonists that were plunged into nightmarish circumstances. Cain’s protagonists were often door-to-door insurance salesmen.

You are a working actor as well as a published author. Do you have to deal with any conflicts while donning these two hats?

There are no conflicts whatsoever. The two complement each other beautifully. Acting is the art of communicating thought, writing is the very emergence of the thought itself. When one deals with the rhythm and syntax of prose, one finds that the thespian discipline is closely interlinked with the composition and communication of a sentence. If one were to use an analogy, I would say that every act of punctuation serves a dramatic purpose, i.e. a comma is a pause, a break of paragraph is a change of subject, an exclamation point is an emphasis, as are italics, the em dash serves a parenthetical or sometimes even digressive purpose. Most of the prose stylists that were my heroes such as Poe, Melville and Conrad were above all dramatists.

What kind of challenges did you have to face as a first time author in order to get Living Hell published?

Patience is of the essence. It takes time. I have been submitting manuscripts since 2016. The first thing I tried to get published was a volume of horror short stories. I started submitting the manuscript to ‘Living Hell’ around the end of that year. It was a long wait; there were numerous rejections, and the main aim was to just be read by someone that was familiar with the tradition of hardboiled crime fiction which it was drawing from. I managed to find that at Penguin. A wonderful editor Anushree Kaushal liked the novel. She said it reminded her of Walter Mosley, which was a huge compliment. The novel came out in January of 2019.

Having already published a novel was it comparatively easy to get the second one published?  

Not really. As I said, it takes time to be read. Imagine the amount of manuscripts an editor at a publishing house has to read? It is not an easy job.

How do you look at the long term impact of COVID-19 on the entertainment industry in India?

I hope that all fields and professions are able to come up with solutions and sustainable models that are safe, democratic and healthy. One of the things that COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus are the abject inequalities of our society. We live in a world of frightening contrasts. I hope that Capitalism learns a lesson from this, and curbs its greed.

Tell us about your upcoming projects.

Well, I am starting a new web-series which is very interesting. Also the film Coat which I did with Sanjay Mishra in Bihar should be out in theatres soon. The last film I did was Kabaad, which was released this May, and before that was A Suitable Boy which came out last October.


(Cover: Actor Vivaan Shah)

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Murtaza Ali Khan has been a film critic since 2010. He has curated and presented retrospectives and film festivals for various embassies and high commissions in New Delhi. He has also served on the jury for a variety of film festivals. He tweets at @MurtazaCritic