Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Vijay Sethupathi: Living his dream, his way

He feels fear but is not driven by it, thinks deeply about his characters but is instinctive on screen, and gets a dopamine rush while going from 'action' to 'cut'. Makkal Selvan has had a phenomenal 2023, and he is hungry for more

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Dec 22, 2023 02:34:13 PM IST
Updated: Dec 23, 2023 03:45:30 PM IST

Vijay Sethupathi: Living his dream, his wayIt’s very difficult to earn people’s trust, no matter how much you plan. It’s magic, and I’ve earned it: Vijay Sethupathi, actor Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India; Clothing And Styling: Sahana Prabakar; Makeup: Mohideen; Hair: Amulraj

A conversation with Vijay Sethupathi can go from funny to philosophical in no time.

One moment, he’s telling you how he was naïve enough to think that being photogenic is enough to become as an actor, and the next he talking about how he loves sitting by the car window, watching the world go by as his subconscious mind talks to him about the characters he is playing on screen. What are the character’s motivations? Why is he behaving this way? What excites him and what is he scared of?

If Sethupathi is enthusiastic about playing someone on screen, he has to know everything about that person, even beyond the scope of the script. He calls this the act of “surrendering to his craft” and it’s the only thing that makes him really happy.

We are speaking over Zoom in early November, and the actor has just wrapped up a long day of shoot in Malaysia for director Arumuga Kumar’s yet-untitled project. He’s in a new country, but does not like to travel and see new places. He simply goes from the hotel to the shoot location and back, occasionally breaking the pattern to take walks at night or be driven around the city as he simply stares outside the window, replaying in his head the shots he’s given and the conversations he’s had, all the while conjuring up ideas on how to perform a particular scene better.  

This year has been particularly rewarding for the makkal selvan (people’s treasure) of Tamil cinema. A week after our interaction, the actor would be in Goa, delivering a masterclass at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), where his film Gandhi Talks, helmed by Marathi filmmaker Kishor Belekar, would become the first silent film to be screened at the prestigious festival.

Sethupathi has also been basking in the success of his Hindi film Jawan, where he earned praise for being a fitting antagonist to Shah Rukh Khan’s double-role avatar. He also made his Hindi OTT debut this year with Raj & DK’s Farzi, playing a parallel lead alongside actor Shahid Kapoor. That apart, Sethupathi has also had another OTT film release with Santosh Sivan’s Mumbaikar, and three other theatrical releases, including Telugu film Michael and Tamil film Viduthalai: Part 1. He is also listed as one of the most popular actors in India in 2023 by IMDb.

The next year is looking eventful too, starting with the release of his next Hindi film, Sriram Raghavan’s Merry Christmas alongside Katrina Kaif, in January 2024. Then there is the second instalment of Viduthalai, his 50th film, Maharaja, and a Tamil OTT show, among other projects.

Before he was cast for Farzi, filmmaker Raj Nidimoru remembers asking Sethupathi if he could speak Hindi. The latter replied that he had worked in Dubai for a few years and could manage speaking the language. “That’s good enough for us,” Nidimoru remembers saying. And the rest is history.

Vijay Sethupathi: Living his dream, his way

Sethupathi’s successful cross-over to Hindi films and OTT series signifies an important time in Indian cinema when a Hindi film hero or villain “doesn’t have to sound like a Hindi film hero or villain”, says National Award-winning film critic Baradwaj Rangan.

Before this, for instance, Tamil actor R Madhavan had a successful Hindi film career. But being born and raised in Jamshedpur, he was already fluent in Hindi. Today, on the backs of subtitles and OTT platforms that have been democratising entertainment and making films more accessible, Indian cinema has reached a point where an actor like Sethupathi does not need his character to be written or pronounced as a South Indian on screen, even if his Hindi is laced with a heavy South Indian accent. “He is being cast in Hindi projects despite his Southern-ness, and doesn’t have to give up the fact that he’s South Indian,” says Rangan, who is the editor-in-chief of Galatta Plus.

For Sethupathi, 45, it’s like he’s a young debutant in his 20s again. “You’ve been an actor for 10 years, but when you go to a new industry, work in a new language, with new people, it feels like you are starting from scratch,” he says.This means sitting down with assistant directors on the film set, reading out his lines and acting the scene in front of them many times before he goes for a take. “Tamil na padichiduven, Hindi na oru 100 murai padikunnam, flow varathuku.” He can easily read and deliver his lines in Tamil, but for Hindi, he has to read the lines a 100 times to get the right flow. And this flow is important, he adds, because you cannot keep thinking twice before acting in front of the camera. It has to be intuitive.

Vijay Sethupathi: Living his dream, his way

According to the actor, the only difference between today and when he was starting out in the 2000s is that earlier, neither did people have any expectations of him, nor did he expect himself to succeed as an actor. Today, he has to live up to the faith and respect people show in him when they watch his work.

Sethupathi says he is constantly finding new ideas to elevate a character’s impact on screen, something he executes by having conversations with his directors, who then re-mould the scenes with the right lines. “No matter what language you see me in, what I bring to the table is not words, but ideas. And ideas do not have a language,” he says.

Also read: Business of Entertainment: Some post-Covid recovery in 2023, but choppy waters ahead

‘I didn’t know who I was’ Cinema was not always a part of Sethupathi’s life.

He moved to Chennai from his hometown in Rajapalayam in 1988, when he was in class 6. He was almost invisible in school, he says, as he was neither good in sports nor studies. When his classmates did see him, they made fun of him because he was short. His mother never took him to the theatre to watch films because he would “start crying whenever someone cried on screen”. Even while getting a BCom degree from DB Jain College, films in theatres used to be a rare outing.

His relationship with cinema changed when he started regularly watching films on television at home. But he needed to support his family and took up a job as an accountant in a cement distribution company. Then, between 2000 and 2003, he went to Dubai to work there. He came back to Chennai, got married to Jessie—with whom he has two kids today—and started an interior decoration business with his friends, which bombed. “If my business had taken off, I would have never become an actor,” he says. Destiny, clearly, had other plans.

He went back to a 9-5 job as an accountant in a theatre company called Koothu-P-Pattarai, where he started observing the making of plays: How actors prepare, the terms they use while talking about their craft, how space on the set is managed, how props are utilised. The magic of this world, as he puts it, enchanted him into hoping that he too could try his luck as an actor.

That’s a huge jump for a middle-class man, I say, leaving behind the security of a steady income. Sethupathi just shrugs.

He had no ambitions or direction in life, he says. All he wanted was to build a home to live in, own a car, and have the ability to repay loans faster. “I didn’t think there was more to life than that,” he says. So when someone told him he might earn up to ₹5,000 a day acting in tele-serials, he decided to give it a shot. Just like that, with no acting background or connections.

Vijay Sethupathi: Living his dream, his way

In retrospect, he says that if he had known about all the struggles of making it big in films, the fear would have probably deterred him from trying. “Sometimes, innocence is a blessing,” he says. One thing he admitted to himself early on is that he did not know anything about films or acting. And that, he adds, became his strength.

“I started learning what is cinema, what is script, what is dialogue delivery. It’s only after that I started understanding.” He made friends with assistant directors and watched films with them. “They used to say things like ‘this BGM is good, this scene is lagging, this shot is good’, and I was just learning about everything,” the actor says.

Although he landed a good role in Tamil tele-serial Penn in 2006, the stint was short-lived. The serial—unlike popular Tamil serials that run for a year or even two—wound up in six months. Believing that being a tele-serial actor is a good career path, he went to TV serial companies to ask for work, but never got the opportunity. Around this time, he also started working as a background artiste in films. He remembers he got paid around ₹250 for his work in Dishyum (2006).

He even landed a cameo in Dhanush’s film Pudhupettai (2006), an opportunity he got because he happened to be standing next to the actor and was randomly picked. His family was worried about him, he says, and he feared for his future too. “How could my family support me? I was myself unsure about who I was. I didn’t know if I had it in me to become a hero,” he says. But even during those days, despite the fear and uncertainty over his future, the actor says he refused to do a film just for the sake of it. He had to be convinced about the story.

Sethupathi’s fortunes started changing in 2009 with the Tamil reality show Naaliya Iyakkunar, which provided a platform for aspiring filmmakers, and in the process, budding actors, writers and technicians. He started working with new-age directors like Karthik Subbaraj and Nalan Kumarasamy. He was cast in the lead role in small-budget films that ran on the strength of their content and had no star power. It was after working with these directors that Sethupathi realised, perhaps for the first time in his life, that he could “understand scenes and deliver dialogues the way the director expects, without fear”, he says.

Sethupathi’s early films were among those that heralded a refreshing time in Tamil cinema. He still remembers and rattles out the exact release dates of his first three film outings as the hero. His first film was Thenmerku Paruvakaatru (2010), and although he shot for the cult classic Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom second, it released after Subbaraj’s Pizza.

“These films were all super hits. They were made on a small budget so they got multiple times of the amount invested,” says film critic Ashameera Aiyappan.

Sethupathi began to be known as an actor who backed unpredictable and unconventional scripts. “That continues to be true of him,” she adds. “While he has been ambling around the entire gamut of cinematic experiences, meandering at times, he is an actor who continues to pick interesting scripts.”

Vijay Sethupathi: Living his dream, his way

These films are the earliest examples of Sethupathi’s calm, genial personality and his trademark wry sense of humour, which can pop up even in the unlikeliest of scenes. Take the case of Jawan, for example. In the climax sequence when the lead father-son duo (both played by Shah Rukh Khan) are engaged in a super-emotional scene amidst an action sequence, Sethupathi’s antagonist Kaalie Gaikwad, punched and on the floor, springs to his feet, and says, “Abhi yeh log gaana shuru karenge, sunn na padega. Khatam karo.” (Now these people will break into a song and we’ll have to listen. Shoot them).

I remember people in the theatre in which I was watching the film break into laughter at this point.

“That’s a classic Vijay Sethupathi moment,” agrees Aiyappan. Many a times, these humorous quips are completely inconsistent with the character he might be playing, like in Jawan.

“But the audience loves him for it. It’s like breaking the fourth wall. You say what the audience is thinking at that moment, bring their attention back to the scene and keep them engaged,” she says.

Moving forward in his career, Sethupathi began to pick a mix of parallel and commercial projects, and there was a time in 2018-19, when he was doing so many films that there was almost a film of his releasing every month.

Many of these films, like Annabelle Sethupathi and Laabam, were disliked by critics and audiences alike. “Some of these movies just felt strange, for the lack of a better word,” says Aiyappan. “But even during that period when he had one release a month, you were not bored of him or uninterested in what he does on screen. I think a big part of what makes Vijay Sethupathi tick is that his charisma and energy come from being strange, unconventional and unpredictable.”

Vijay Sethupathi: Living his dream, his way

The actor, who won a National Award for his role in the Tamil film Super Deluxe, admits that through his career, he has had a problem saying ‘no’ to people, and it’s just now that he is learning how to do it.

Also read: Manoj Bajpayee: The relentless, stubborn genius

‘An actor without vanity’

Filmmaker Nidimoru believes that Sethupathi exudes a certain “joie de vivre” (joy of living) that comes out in his characters. On the sets of Farzi, he saw Sethupathi constantly doing homework on the sidelines. In between shots, when the unit is waiting, he would not go back to his van. “There are always people around him. He is sitting with them, regaling them with stories and philosophy. He can talk on a range of topics,” he says, adding that Sethupathi is completely stripped of vanity. He is unconcerned about how he looks, what he wears, and does not even bother looking at the monitor after every shot, as long as the director is satisfied. “I don’t think he’s even watched most of his own films in the theatres,” Nidimoru says.

The actor has the passion to do something new in each scene, and the good part is that he breaks it down to the director and explains his thought process with a lot of patience. “He is a commercial actor with ‘arty’ sensibilities. He is a great mix of both cinemas, and can fit in parallel cinema and commercial roles with equal ease,” the filmmaker says.

Vijay Sethupathi: Living his dream, his way

Sethupathi is always casual and in the same mood. “You don’t see him go low, hyper or angry, or even have crazy laughter fits. There is a certain band he exists in. He is chatty. But somewhere in his head he is constantly thinking about the scene he is going to perform,” says Nidimoru, who first met Sethupathi on the set of his OTT series The Family Man, starring Manoj Bajpayee.

R Madhavan, who was Sethupathi’s co-lead in Tamil film Vikram Vedha (2017), remembers the camaraderie he struck up with Sethupathi. “We had never worked with each other before, and had decided to train and rehearse separately for the film,” he recollects. So when they eventually met, they were shooting the first confrontation scene between their on-screen characters, cop Vikram and criminal Vedha. “Even as actors, we tried to bring the ‘Let’s see who’s better’ attitude, which was the tone of the characters on screen. But much to our dismay, it lasted all of 40-45 minutes, because after the take, we sat on a box and started talking. He told me how he’s been in awe of my work, and it was a mutual admiration club.”

Madhavan says that Sethupathi doesn’t make an effort to look different or stand out, which makes him a breath of fresh air. “He is natural and spontaneous. He never labours over a performance on-screen, even though there is a lot of effort that’s gone into it.”

Most actors are distracted. They will be on your film set, but busy on their phones or talking about something else, filmmaker Nidimoru says. “Very few actors are listening. Very few actors are present in the moment and therefore mining themselves to do better. That’s what Vijay does.”

Sethupathi says that all he wants to do is be in the company of great artistic minds on a film set, and learn from their process. And to be able to do this, he has never hesitated to ask people for work. For instance, a few weeks after our conversation, he would start shooting for the Tamil film Train with acclaimed director Mysskin. But there was a time, a few years ago, when Sethupathi had requested the filmmaker to write two scenes for him in a film just so he could watch Mysskin in action.
It was a similar case with Jawan, when he approached Shah Rukh Khan and expressed his desire to work with the superstar. “I want to know how they are on film sets, how they approach a scene, what ideas they get, and how they interact with that idea. That’s a beautiful moment,” he says.

The actor wants to work across languages and formats, but doesn’t have a plan. If his biggest fear when he was a nobody was that he would waste his life over his passion to be an actor, today he fears letting down the audience. But he adds that he can’t keep living in that fear and let it drive him. “People believe I’m a good actor. They trust me. I had never expected that,” he says, calling it his biggest achievement. “It’s very difficult to earn people’s trust, no matter how much you plan. It’s magic, and I’ve earned it.”

(This story appears in the 29 December, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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