When mass meets class

October 06, 2016 05:10 pm | Updated November 01, 2016 11:36 pm IST - Chennai

Actor Vijay Sethupathi talks about his life and career, and how there’s often little difference between the two

Vijay Sethupathi

Vijay Sethupathi

It’s an innocuous-looking house at the end of one of the bylanes in Valasaravakkam. The only giveaways are the groups of eager hopefuls waiting outside and the kids in the neighbourhood who line up for yet another chance to take a photograph with the Makkal Selvan.

Inside the distinctly-masculine space of Vijay Sethupathi Productions is parked a recent acquisition — a gleaming Triumph. It’s 9.30 p.m., but there’s an air of expectation in the waiting space.

Some have come to narrate a story; others to seek a part; and some possibly to catch a glimpse of the man who’s blurred the line between class and mass, and who is proof that it is possible to be showered by elusive stardust despite being an actor.

Aandavan Kattalai , his fifth release this year, is running to packed houses and Rekka releases today, but Vijay Sethupathi’s usually animated face is devoid of any apparent expectation or joy. “Why are numbers so important? I take up a film I like, give it my best, and move on,” he says in a nearly 90-minute chat.

The actor is just back from Pune, where he was shooting for K.V. Anand’s film, and has been at office since 7 p.m. Vijay’s days are typically long. “I’ve committed to films, and must keep my word. For that, I’ve to work, irrespective of time,” he smiles.

And, every time someone mentions the number of hits he’s clocked up this year, the actor wonders why. “Before Naanum Rowdy Dhaan , people in the industry said I’d given four flops in a row. In cinema, we should attempt to do well. Some work and siladhu mokkai aagum … but the trying must never stop.”

Does Vijay ever wonder how he’s managed to lend star power to small gems?

“I do yes, but my name works well for some films. If a producer has a Rs. 50-crore budget, he’ll meet another star; he must recover the money.”

Even five years ago, the actor was not well-known; today, he’s the toast of tinseltown. However, not much has changed in his demeanour. Vijay still goes out with his family, meets fans and bonds with his buddies. “I believe life is an ‘experience ball’. You throw it at someone, it picks up their response… it grows. You play with that ball, learning what it teaches you. Your present is shaped by your yesterday, but you don’t have to advertise it.”

At the same time, he firmly believes that his stardom is “dependent on the person watching my film. And, a hit or flop is only for 10 days; what matters is what I did”.

Even as a struggler, Vijay was choosy. “I’d see a poster and go ask for a role. I’d avoid some sets; I’d never approach ‘big hero’ projects. I used to love a director for his ability to extract great performances; I begged his associates for just two days on his sets… And, before I knew it, six years passed. There was television ( Penn ), a Kannada film, some Tamil films, short films… in all this, I’d learnt how to ask questions and whom to approach. I’m self-taught. Even today, on the sets, I probe the lightmen, the stunt artistes… they are from a period I’ve not seen; I can visualise it through them.”

Does all this aid him in character study? “I don’t do that. Ninety per cent of a film’s mood is set when the writer visualises it. Like you behave differently in a temple and at a party, I transform based on the set. I’m happy even if the dialogues are given to me at the last minute,” he says. “No, I don’t have a photographic memory… I was a below-average student,” he laughs.

It’s hard to believe that when Vijay recites some of his favourite scenes — the ‘drunken prawn’ scene of Kadhalum Kadanthu Pogum , crucial sequences from Iraivi … and during moments like that, it’s hard to know if you’re sitting in front of Pandian, Michael, or Vijay . “If you don’t see me act, my work is done. The actor must never take the character beyond the scope of the movie,” he says.

For someone who does not like watching himself on screen, Vijay has a few favourite moments. The drunken prawn scene, for instance, saw him “fix a rhythm in dialogue delivery. In the same sequence, my fake anger and my laughter when asked if we could marry… all were worked on.” In a way, this Nalan Kumarasamy film also helped Vijay realise his potential. “I told him… thalaivaa , I’ve realised something as an actor. I hope I’ll approach films differently hereafter.”

Which is why he asked Arun ( Sethupathi ), Karthik Subbaraj ( Iraivi ) and his mentor Seenu Ramasamy ( Dharmadurai ) for freedom to explore his character. “In a way, it is calculated creativity. I felt that in Dharmadurai , I must break down after Aishu’s death after a pause. That, in Iraivi , I must kneel by Anjali after she makes me realise I’m wrong… I’ll give the director what he wants, but please explain the requirement. If it reaches me, then there’s communication.”

Vijay admits he’s respectful, sometimes in awe, and a rasigan of his directors and their ability to conceive scenes. “They are necessary to guide us well, not merely rein actors in. An actor is not a runaway horse, but one that is walking a different path and must be brought back.”

Among the many films he’s done, Vijay is especially fond of some, especially the ones that did not reach the intended audience. Like Pannaiyarum Padminiyum and Iraivi . “Without getting preachy, Karthik Subbaraj showcased how women perpetuate injustice against women, and how men feel entitled. It was a semma padam , but some people approach a film with a pre-fixed notion.”

Does screen image ever matter to Vijay? “Never. I want to make my kind of films, but make them work commercially too. When my presentation meets the director’s imagination, the result will be great.”

Logic drives every sphere of the actor’s life. Be it using his renovated Java motorcycle for K.V. Anand’s film (“It required a manly look!), humouring fans who clamour for photographs (“They are happy with just two minutes of your time”) or wanting children to learn life lessons and go beyond academics. But that logic is backed by solid craft and the high of creating a cinematic memory. “Director Manikandan once asked me how I balanced varied genres… but is my job not that? I’m excited and nervous about every film; once I understand the medium fully, I’ll relax,” says Vijay.

Has his success bred competition and a changed lifestyle? “I’m friendly with all; we share cinema. But, I have my personal friends who come home. And, I keep my family away from all this, because I’m afraid stardom will affect my children. I might gift them an expensive watch, but it should be precious because appa bought it, not because of its monetary value.”

Vijay’s films might have raked in crores at the turnstiles, but did you know the actor has stepped out of Tamil Nadu only thrice, and travelled abroad just once for shoots? “That’s true. Anand sir took me to Pune and Bangkok. Karthik took me to Wayanad and Kochi,” laughs the actor.

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