Tamil cinema's star of the decade: The Vijay Sethupathi interview

Over the last 10 years, the actor has emerged as the face of a new wave in Tamil cinema, where his constant desire for re-invention helped set him apart from his peers, and made him one of the country's most coveted performers

Updated - April 21, 2020 02:30 pm IST

Published - December 23, 2019 03:26 pm IST

Vijay Sethupathi in Mani Ratnam’s Chekka Chivantha Vaanam

Vijay Sethupathi in Mani Ratnam’s Chekka Chivantha Vaanam

Vijay Sethupathi is an enigma.

Maintaining an aura of mystery is a difficult ask for someone in Tamil cinema, especially if they have spent a good few years at the top. But VJS — as Thiagarajan Kumararaja, his director in Super Deluxe (2019), once described him — manages to throw a surprise or two, just as one starts to think that we have him all figured.

His recent choice of roles, which, if anything, has set somewhat of a precedent, is an example — like opting to play an antagonist in other heroes’ films (against Rajinikanth in Petta (2019), and now opposite Vijay in the actor’s yet-to-be-titled 64th film), especially when his own billing as a leading man is indubitably veritable. VJS draws from life to try and explain why he does what he does.

“I always tell my wife this... whenever I feel weak, life opens up a space to give me whatever I require to move forward, and when that space is ready, it pushes me to go through it and onward,” the 41-year-old actor says.

Artist’s Impression: Vijay Sethupathi in Pushkar-Gayathri’s Vikram Vedha

Artist’s Impression: Vijay Sethupathi in Pushkar-Gayathri’s Vikram Vedha

The answers only get more transcendental in nature after this, but, for now, Sethupathi explains his choices, as it pertains to his films, succinctly. “I get this sense which tells me that my stock has perhaps worn out, and that I need to refresh myself. I’m getting that sense now. It tells me things... to look to change my character, maybe even try and correct the origins. That is the sense I’m getting,” he adds.

The opportunity to meet VJS materialises after pursuing him for months. The man is, simply put, busy. His career continues to go places now (he is everywhere... in Malayalam, Telugu and Hindi cinema) as it did then, after his breakout roles in Pizza and Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom in 2012.

When I meet him, he is shooting for a short film on Harrington Road second avenue in broad daylight, and yet there is minimal fuss. For residents watching from the balconies of their apartments, it is not a surprise to spot the actor in the neighbourhood (he owns a palatial property here, which is where we sit down for a conversation).

Knowing VJS

The actor is an interesting personality; a straight shooter who relies on analogies and metaphors to make his point.

“I’m not someone who imposes my point on others. I leave it in the person’s hands. It is a bit like helping one learn how to cycle. I can teach you how to pedal, give the push, and hope that you do not stop trying,” he says.

Vijay Sethupathi in C Prem Kumar’s 96

Vijay Sethupathi in C Prem Kumar’s 96

And without a doubt, among actors, VJS has been the single biggest pusher of change in Tamil cinema over the past decade, courtesy the roles he has played and the films he has produced. His rise, however, happened along a path that was not very welcoming of his experimental ideas.

“If you try to give something other than what is already in business, and if the businessmen do not believe in it, they won’t let you do it. They try to disturb and depress you... telling you that ‘this won’t work’, ‘it is a waste’ [of time and money], ‘why even try doing this’ and some such things. That is how it happens [in Tamil cinema],” he says.

Reporter’s diary
  • Dressed in a casual black shirt and jeans, Vijay Sethupathi patiently obliges the many selfie requests from food delivery executives on Harrington Road, some of whom could not believe that they bumped into a famous man whilst working the lazy Sunday afternoon routine.
  • The scene being filmed for the short feature involves Sethupathi, his daughter Shreeja, actor Regina Cassandra and a couple of dogs. As he could not interrupt the filming for another hour, the actor asks me to wait in his office, and there I spent my time observing what unfolds in the VJS household.
  • A Mini Cooper is parked out front, and as I walk in through the gate which leads into the palatial property, I meet Sethupathi’s 15-year-old son, Surya (who played a starring role in the film Sindhubaadh ), who greets and shows me to the couch. There is already another visitor (who, I learnt later, was there to narrate a script to the actor) waiting.
  • The buzz inside the property is amplified when lyricist-director Vignesh Shivan drops in unexpectedly to say hello. “ Ennanga bungalow madri irukku ,” (It looks like a bungalow) Vignesh exclaims, as he walks in.
  • VJS, who, by this time, had returned and was in discussion with the director-hopeful over the script, is interrupted by his wife, Jessy. She wanted to inform him of Vignesh’s arrival but is met with “Hey, naa katha kettuttu irukken ,” (I’m listening to a story), which only meant one thing... that he was not to be disturbed until he finishes. No one, except for his children, work up the courage to even knock on the door after.
  • Once he steps out, the actor takes some time off to sip on a cup of coffee, when his son approaches him with a request. “ Appa , I want to buy Christmas decoration. I need to go to Parrys [Corner],” says Surya. The statement is met with a ‘Why must you do this now?’ type query in return — the kind you expect of the average Indian father. But Jessy, who had been standing next to her partner, slaps him on his back and whispers a few words into his ear. “ Seri po (Okay, get going),” promptly comes the reply from the father to his son.

The accepted common sense approach, then, is discouraging experiments, as these are commercial risks, and capitalising on what sells in order to capture the market and mint money. To circumvent these obstacles, the actor adds that he was forced to innovate with the packaging of his movies. “I started thinking how to give content with a measure of stardom.”

And VJS is truly a star these days. He is all-pervasive.

Two instances from this year come to mind: One, in the recent film Action , when he popped up on the screen before the movie started, and gave the audience a brief intro on what they were about to witness. Two, in the film Kaappaan , where a scene has Samuthirakani chide him, albeit playfully, for “managing to stay put in the hearts of women”. The actor only appears as a photo on a magazine cover in said film.

In both instances, logically speaking, he had no business being there. So what explains his universality?

“I don’t know,” the actor responds. “I was shooting in Kakinada recently for a Telugu film, and the director informed me that a crowd had gathered to see me. He told me ‘ Enna perusa panniteenga neenga inga , but unga aura adikkuthu ’ (You may not have done significant work in Telugu cinema but your aura is felt),” he adds.

This inexplicable aura is easy to unravel if one looks at the way he prefers to keep the world around him — natural and unconsumed by celebrity. It also helps him remain an instinctive actor in front of the camera.

“This is what I am,” he says, and resumes, after brooding upon the weight of his next words in silence for a few seconds. “I believe that I’m able to stay rooted because I’m natural with the people around me. When you gain that confidence over your innate nature, even if you simply stand in front of the camera, you will be able to communicate. I believe I can reflect what is natural, and the audience feel it too.”

For emphasis, he recollects a chance meeting with a high ranking police officer in the State, who, he says, was appreciative of his cop role in the eponymous film Sethupathi (2016). “He told me that my role was as close a representation of a cop in real life.”

Vijay Sethupathi in Seenu Ramasamy’s Dharma Durai

Vijay Sethupathi in Seenu Ramasamy’s Dharma Durai

When he started work on the film, VJS told Arun (the director SU Arun Kumar), that he would not wear a tight fit uniform. “Sivaji [Ganesan] sir started it in Thanga Pathakkam . Everyone since then played a cop role with a rigid body language, and yet I have never seen a police man like that in real life. A cop who is 35-40 years old, and is a father of two children, need not move around rigidly because I believe that a police man’s courage is in his mind, not in his body,” the actor says.

Changing perceptions

This explanation could change the way a commercial film is conceptualised by Tamil filmmakers. It is also what VJS has managed to achieve for himself — alter perceptions about a mainstream actor among filmmakers, producers and the audience in Tamil cinema.

Vijay Sethupathi in SU Arun Kumar’s film ‘Sethupathi’

Vijay Sethupathi in SU Arun Kumar’s film ‘Sethupathi’

“Since I did not use a cop reference in Sethupathi , it gives me the belief that we need not attune or fix something to bring it in line with the [existing] cinematic language. It also shows that there is no need to make films by watching other films. I don’t mean to say that I do not watch films or learn from them, just that we need to ensure that it appears natural,” he adds.

If anything, the trailer to his upcoming film, Kadaisi Vivasayi , is more proof of his willingness to take on uncharacteristic roles despite his status. He is not a trailblazer in this regard; he knows he is only sticking to a path previously traversed by Kamal Haasan, a personality who he deeply admires.

“Someone like Kamal sir, he has done all kinds of roles and taken on risks. He took those efforts when he was on his last penny, and even when he had no money. When I started in the industry and heard of the things he has done, I was astonished because here was a person who loved his profession beyond anything,” he notes.

It is not surprising, then, that Sethupathi is also equally disenchanted over the commercial gain his line of work offers.

Vijay Sethupathi in Biju Viswanath’s Orange Mittai

Vijay Sethupathi in Biju Viswanath’s Orange Mittai

“I think it is superstitious to consider someone with money, name and fame as a big personality. I think it is more important to keep adding to your experience though you know fully well that it will be of no use to you after your time. But it will help someone else following in your footsteps,” he says, justifying his desire to work in “all kinds of films”, and adds: “I’m not one to regret if these attempts of mine result in a loss of money, name and fame. It is actually living with these fears that is more dangerous.”

Where the actor in him rises above the rest is in his portrayal of pain — be it as a transsexual in Super Deluxe (2019), a grief stricken doctor in Dharmadurai (2016), or as the ‘40-year-old virgin’ who meets his childhood sweetheart in 96 (2018) — he does it in his own inimitable fashion.

“I can’t take this (his craft) in a lethargic manner. I know how big this is. Every day, when I wrap up filming, I feel depressed but when I’m back on camera, I feel good... I feel happy. People ask me how I manage to shoot every day. It is because the more I go, the more I find it interesting,” he says.

Vijay Sethupathi in Gokul’s Junga

Vijay Sethupathi in Gokul’s Junga

His logic for how he manages to infuse realism into the pain he depicts on screen is simple: “If real life can be turned into a story, then it is not hard to make a story become real.”

Values and beliefs

Throughout our conversation, he is interrupted by three phone calls, the last of which is his mother checking in on him (he picks up the phone and casually says, “Sarasu... interview la irukken da ma . Phone panren thiruppi ”).

One of four children born to Kalimuthu-Saraswathi couple, the actor’s understanding of faith is an off-shoot of his father’s principles.

“My father was not a believer; he had no faith in God, caste or astrology. I define faith differently. I do not look at believers as idiots. I see faith as the love you place on another human, and that is what God wills too. See, if God is someone who creates, then my parents are God, and so if I ill-treat my brother, if I carry hatred for others in my heart, or if I look down upon someone, then my parents would be disappointed to have made me. Whereas, if I treated my siblings well, then wouldn’t they love me? This is how I see God,” he adds.

He also believes that actors bear a responsibility to the society, and for that reason, the messaging in his films are something VJS too buys into. “If you present something you don’t believe in, it won’t touch the audience,” he says.

The making of VJS
  • The actor had a strong start to his early career as a male protagonist with films such as Pizza and Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom (NKPK) in 2012 besides Soodhu Kavvum and Idharkuthane Aasaipattai Balakumara in 2013.
  • “While filming NKPK, I could not figure out the character at all,” he says. There is an interesting story behind how the now famous “ Ennachu ?!” dialogue came to be. “I used to have a motorcycle and I was always forgetful about the keys. I used to misplace it all the time. One such day, I was wondering where I left the keys... was it on the cupboard? on top of the TV? in the hall? ennada ... hmm.. ennachu ?” And that was the exact moment when the dialogue was birthed.
  • “But I acted in NKPK with fear because all the other actors around me had more to perform, and I only had this one dialogue to repeat. Bugs (actor Bagavathy Perumal) then told me ‘ Yov ! Once the film releases, everyone is going to torture you asking you to repeat this dialogue’,” the actor says. And that is exactly how it turned out to be.
  • In Pizza , the actor went in prepared. He had underwent a workshop to be able to perform 30 plus minutes on his own. “It was a semma experience. I had to show variations in the fear I was experiencing for which the workshop helped,” he says.
  • But Soodhu Kavvum was a film which VJS says he did “without knowing how to do it”. “Till the end I could not understand what I was doing in Soodhu Kavvum . Nalan’s (director Nalan Kumarasamy) timing was tough to figure out. I only started to understand it when we did Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum (2016) together,” he adds.
  • With ... Balakumara , the actor was on the edge throughout. “I thought I’d die of high blood pressure because I was convinced that I did not perform well in the opening exchange between Pasupathy’s character and mine. I begged them to reshoot the four days. I even told them to bear the costs out of my salary,” he says.
  • Can he pick a favourite? “Not possible. All these films had a strong impact on me. How can I tell you which one film is better than the other? In NKPK I was confident and then Pizza moved me up a level as an actor. Soodhu Kavvum left me confused and made me ask myself if I had acted at all, and then ... Balakumara tore me apart and broke every notion of acting I had. It felt like I had graduated a course at the end of all four films,” Vijay Sethupathi says.

The stance he presents is tricky, especially for someone in the film industry, but the actor is now both comfortable in his skin and status to refuse espousing values he has no leanings toward.

Isn’t it difficult to maintain a clean image while playing the antagonist?

He offers an example of his thought process from when he recently filmed for his upcoming Telugu movie, Uppena . “I play a casteist person but I speak out against caste in real life. I know how big of a cancer caste is, and so I was telling the director that it is not difficult to embrace this character for a role because I know the original impact of its destructiveness. It is like... if someone is a good person, it is because he knows the issues with being a bad person. He knows that being bad will destroy him and that there is no point to it,” the actor remarks.

Something else he wants no part of, in his role and in his films, are scenes which demean women. “I respect women a lot. Their world is something men cannot understand, even though he is born to a woman, grows up with sisters, marries a woman and fathers a girl child.”

He also deems it necessary to lodge his craft upon a pedestal because it helps him draw strength in times of distress, hurt and trauma. Because, even for Vijay Sethupathi, people in his line of trade do not always take kindly to him.

“Recently, someone hurt me so much,” the actor says. He clarifies that it was a work-related situation but he does not want to delve any further.

“I was so angry that the next day I sat down and watched this sequence in Seethakaathi (2018) where I die. And I thought, ‘Wow, I have been a part of a film like this in my lifetime?’ I froze. In that moment, I saw my profession become the medicine to my pain. It gave me a sense of satisfaction. I rang up Balaji (the director Balaji Tharaneetharan) immediately and I thanked him for giving me the film. All of my anger evaporated, and it felt like I was being told by the art form ‘ Dai , I have blessed you da . What more do you need? Why do you bother with amateur opinions?’,” he adds.

Vijay Sethupathi in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe

Vijay Sethupathi in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe

Abstract reality

VJS admits that he cannot spend a moment without thoughts — whether abstract or otherwise — occupying his mind. “Something keeps coming, especially if the mind is prone to wandering. Romance, sex, maybe cinema, future, money, politics... I don’t avoid any of these thoughts because everything is an experience. If I’m someone living in this world and if I’m eligible for everything associated with this world, then everything should come and go through me,” he notes.

Vijay Sethupathi in Balaji Tharaneetharan’s Seethakaathi

Vijay Sethupathi in Balaji Tharaneetharan’s Seethakaathi

His penchant for abstractionism slips through at this point of time.

“I was telling my wife recently. There is no bigger idiocy than saying someone turns into ‘a ghost’ when they die. If we were to equate this multiverse we inhabit to the human body, then the Earth is smaller than a cell. If so many people can live on a planet that is smaller than a cell, then how many could actually live in your cell. If thousands of bacteria can sit on the tip of a needle, then inside of every single one of those bacteria, there can be several Earths, right? Perhaps, you haven’t realised it yet. See, time is based on a calculation you make. But what if your 100 years on Earth is someone else’s one year? Measurements are relative, too. You are five feet tall here but what if on another planet being 500 feet tall is considered to be five feet? In the same way, if you die here, you cannot become one ghost. You will disperse into crores of ghosts because that is how much life each cell in your body contains. If the little seeds of a banyan tree can hold all its characteristics, then all of this Earth’s features also rest in you. And so the qualities you choose to trigger is what that gets enhanced is my point of view,” Sethupathi says.

There are few people in his circle with whom he shares such thoughts, and they include his siblings, directors Thiagarajan Kumararaja, C Prem Kumar and Biju Viswanath, his partner (Jessy), and, most importantly, his children.

“I interact with my kids. I share all my important decisions with them,” he says.

Vijay Sethupathi in M Manikandan’s Aandavan Kattalai

Vijay Sethupathi in M Manikandan’s Aandavan Kattalai

The actor recollects an instance from around eight years ago, when he was discussing the salary component to a film he was offered. “I laughed [when the producers quoted a fee],” he says. VJS may not have felt the salary was adequate but he worked on the project anyway. “I told them I didn’t enter the industry for money. It was to act. I did not have money then but I felt adding to my knowledge and experience was more important,” he notes.

When a similar instance happened recently, the actor once again chose the same route. “I told my kids that I felt it was right to chase after knowledge. I tell them that this is my opinion, and I ask them theirs. I was trying to tell them that materialism is not worth it. I won’t say my view is right because tomorrow they may feel that I was wrong. But it is my experience,” he adds.

This quality of his is also one of the reasons why he values criticism and comments, even if it comes from the tiniest of human beings.

Vijay Sethupathi in Balaji Tharaneetharan’s Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom

Vijay Sethupathi in Balaji Tharaneetharan’s Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom

“I was in Kerala shooting for a film when a boy studying in Class V walked up to me, shook my hand and said ‘Uncle, thanks for 96 ’. He told me casually but I hold on to that comment dearly because I was surprised at the way he understood the film. If he had come up and said, ‘Uncle, 96 semma padam ’, I would not have bothered... but he said thanks,” he says, adding, “(The late) Mahendran sir told me once, ‘Thanks Mr Sethupathi’. It was either for Seethakaathi or 96 but the point is, only if you understand a person’s depth would you be able to say thanks.”

Essence of dharma

It is why he hopes his films stand the test of time, and speak up for the high calibre actor that he is, for when he is not around any more. The actor’s body of work over the last decade has already started to do the bidding on his behalf because VJS is set to make his Bollywood debut in Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha in December 2020.

Vijay Sethupathi in R Panneerselvam’s Karuppan

Vijay Sethupathi in R Panneerselvam’s Karuppan

Interestingly, he draws a reference from Kumararaja’s National Award-winning film, Aaranya Kaandam (2011), when asked to explain the rationale behind his choice of traversing film industries, and what success means to him: “ Ethu thevayo athuve dharmam (what you deem necessary is dharma ),” he says, before adding, “But what do you mean by success?”

He continues: “Is becoming a hero considered success? It was, at some point of time, for Vijay Sethupathi. After becoming a hero, what is success? Making successful films and surviving? If survival is success, then isn’t ensuring the continuity of my survival also success? Or, is growing your knowledge in the process a bigger success? What if growing your market was success? So, it is your choice, you see,” he remarks.

“Yesterday, if someone loaned me ₹5,000, I would have counted it as a success but nobody would do that. Today, people will lend me crores of rupees due to their belief in me. So, is this success? Which is why I relate very much with what Kumararaja says. What you deem necessary is dharma , and what you deem is right to satiate your need, that is success,” he adds.

And there is a good reason for why he sticks to this philosophy.

“Cinema has this thing... it has spoilt quite a few people. It creates a culture of fear where people keep telling you that this is all temporary, and so it is better to commit to as many films as possible while it lasts. People tell you to buy a piece of land and build a house when you have the money,” he says.

“But till yesterday, I never once went into a shoot thinking about [wealth]. I’m here purely for the desire to act. I’m able to provide very well for my family now, beyond even my wildest imagination. I am happy,” he adds.

Love of my life

Vijay Sethupathi in Nalan Kumarasamy’s Soodhu Kavvum

Vijay Sethupathi in Nalan Kumarasamy’s Soodhu Kavvum

So, what makes him tick?

“When I do this work, a change in knowledge happens, and there is nothing more exciting than that feeling. Money cannot give me this excitement. Seriously! Money may give you the confidence that ‘Okay, I will live’. Money is important, and yes, only the wealthy can say money is no big deal. I do make it a point to tell anyone who asks me that money only becomes a non-factor after you have earned enough. But this art form... it is like the girl you love to whom you struggle to express your feelings. You keep looking down the path she walks, and when she turns around and looks at you, your heart skips a beat,” he says, almost describing in words the emotion that was his film 96 .

“This (films) is like a time machine. It changes you into an old man, a 40-year-old guy, a youngster, a scientist, a criminal, a politician... it will make you believe. It can even turn you into God. This art form has that capacity. There is no better excitement than what it offers. It is impossible to think of losing this,” he concludes.

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