Vijay Sethupathi: The average Joe who made it big in Tamil films
An accountant who wasn’t meant to be an actor, Vijay Sethupathi has established himself as a saleable, mid-level actor. His recent successes include films like Dharma Durai, Sethupathi and Naanum Rowdy Thaan.regional movies Updated: Sep 08, 2016 14:13 IST
Vijay Sethupathi is one of the busiest actors in Tamil filmdom today. His latest release Dharma Durai is his fourth film this year after Sethupathi, Kadhalum Kadanthu Pogum and Iraivi, and so far, it looks like two more will be on his list before the year is out. Dharma Durai, with a budget of Rs 13 crore, has already garnered Rs 11.50 crore a week after its box office release, according to its makers. For an accountant who had no interest in cinema until his mid-twenties and then spent six years struggling as a junior artiste while he was married and had kids, what makes this 38-year-old ‘Sumar Mooji Kumar (Average Joe)’ such a sought-after star in the Tamil film industry?
Vijay Sethupathi has been a permanent fixture in films made by Karthik Subbaraj and Nalan Kumarasamy, who along with a bunch of other directors are often credited with making script-focused, critically acclaimed, low-budget movies. While Subbaraj’s 2012 hit Pizza made people sit up and take notice, Kumarasamy’s Soodhu Kavvum in 2013, flagged him as an important star to watch out for. Today, Tamil film analyst Sreedhar Pillai places Sethupathi somewhere in between a Dhanush and Siva Karthikeyan in terms of his popularity and commercial viability. “Vijay Sethupathi is a very saleable, mid-level hero. He has strategised to fit himself into the position,” he says. But exactly how Sethupathi got to this position is one of the most fascinating stories of current Tamil cinema.
Rejected for being too short
Sethupathi, who grew up in Rajapalayam in Virudhunagar district in Southern Tamil Nadu, says his earliest memory associated with cinema is from when he was around 16 years old. “We were once taken to watch the shooting of Kamal Haasan’s Nammavar. A few of my friends were even picked to appear in the film. But I was rejected saying I was too short,” he says.
“I had no interest in cinema until I was 24 years old. My friends had posters of their favourite stars in their houses, but I was far from a film buff - very detached from films,” he says. Ultimately, it was financial need that did the trick. “I came to cinema for money. I had to settle a loan of Rs 10 lakh. I had no other go, so I thought I’d try my luck in films. I was earning Rs 25,000 at that time. It was not even enough for my family,” he explains.
Sethupathi had worked his way through college taking up a few part-time jobs, only because he was a workaholic, he says. “I worked as an accountant in an auditor’s office, at a textile showroom, a telephone booth and a fast-food joint while studying. My dad found it odd, but he never interfered in any of my decisions.” Sethupathi’s first real job after passing out of college was with a cement dealership firm that earned him Rs 3,500 a month. “I used to work there from 9 am to 7.30 pm. Then I would man a telephone booth from 8 pm to midnight. That would get me around Rs 1,200. My father’s work was dull, so I needed to support my family,” he shares.
A search for a better life and job took him to Dubai in November 2000. “It was an accountant job too, but paid me around Rs 12,000,” he says. While in Dubai, he started a long-distance romance with Jessy, an HR professional in a private firm in Chennai. They married a few months later. “She was my friend’s colleague. We used to chat up online. In November 2003, I flew down to marry her. I was just 24,” Sethupathi recalls. “If you ask me how and why we got married, I’m at a loss to explain. I don’t overthink such things,” he shrugs.
The acting bug bit him while he was working in the sales department of a friend’s interior design firm, just months after his marriage. “I used to be very photogenic. My brother took a lot of pictures of me in Dubai. I thought maybe I could be a movie star. There was a hurdle though - I didn’t know anything about films. I don’t believe in luck, I knew I wasn’t going to make a cut without some professional training. So I found out Koothu-P-Pattarai [a prominent Tamil theatre group in Chennai] offered workshops for aspiring actors.” Unfortunately, he learned they had discontinued their acting course but they had an opening for an accountant. “It paid really less, but I decided to take it up, without even telling my family. I thought I could observe actors who would come there, and learn,” Sethupathi recounts.
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“My kids were still young, so I took the risk. My wife was very upset when she found out and made me promise I would stop doing this. But I continued and she gave up talking me out of it,” he elaborates.
While at Pattarai, he went on to stage a street play on the tsunami in around 50 villages. “I lost all my inhibitions and it gave me confidence,” he says. “I was always under the impression that acting is an innate gift. One of the first things I heard them say at Koothu-P-Pattarai was that actors should realise the art of acting through their training.”
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While still hunting for sizeable characters to play, he appeared in minor roles in Pudhupettai, Dishyum, M Kumaran S/O Mahalakhsmi, Lee, Naan Mahaan Alla and a few other films. He was cast in the lead role in a TV serial called Penn aired by Sun TV. “The channel folks would say, there’s no expression on his face. But sir [CJ Bhaskar, the director] egged me on and told me I had very expressive eyes and if I realised my potential, I would be a big star someday,” he recollects.
In 2011, Kalaignar TV’s popular reality show Naalaya Iyakunar (Tomorrow’s Director) had started and contestants like Karthik Subbaraj, M Manikandan (of Kaaka Muttai fame) and Nalan Kumarasamy were making their own short films. Sethupathi starred in interesting ones like Thuru, Angel, Wind and Kadhal Suttru. He considers this phase a great learning curve in his acting career.
“I wanted to make a short for Naalaya Iyakunar and I wanted to cast a decent actor,” says Subbaraj. “Manikandan, who was the cinematographer for my film, said ‘Let’s go for someone professional.’ I didn’t have the budget for it.” Manikandan introduced Subbaraj to Sethupathi, who was then acting in small roles in feature films and short films. “I was an amateur. After I saw Vijay Sethupathi’s acting, I understood what a good actor can do to my script. After the first short I did, I knew he would go on to become a good actor,” Karthik says. “One thing that’s always struck me about him is his confidence that he’d make it big somehow,” he adds.
His first big break
Sethupathi’s journey in film was by no means easy. He says he was signed on to be the hero in a few films, all of which got dropped. One of them was later made in Kannada, titled Akhada, where Sethupathi played the villain and was paid a disappointing Rs 10,000 for the film, which still hasn’t released. Then came Seenu Ramasamy’s Thenmerku Paruvakaatru in 2010, his first major film. Ramasamy also has him starring in his latest, Dharma Durai. “He loves me very much. He’s my mentor, friend and a brother. He keeps track of my works and whenever we met, he kisses me on forehead and gives me a hug. It’s great to be able to share your complete happiness with someone who cares for you,” he says.
When Subbaraj went on to make his feature film debut Pizza in 2012, Sethupathi was his obvious choice for a hero. Pizza was a horror film that featured Sethupathi as a pizza delivery man who has a paranormal experience when he delivers pizza at a house. “Actually, Jigarthanda was the first script that I had in hand, but I couldn’t find a producer, that’s when I wrote Pizza, which required only a small investment. When I wrote Jigarthanda, I had envisioned Vijay Sethupathi in the role of Sethu - the role that finally went to Bobby Simhaa. When we were making Jigarthanda,Vijay Sethupathi was busy with a lot of other projects and we went with Bobby for the role. Even then I had a small role for Vijay,” Subbaraj says.
“Karthik had already done a few short films with Vijay,” says CV Kumar, Pizza’s producer, “so when he said he was comfortable with Vijay, I agreed.” Pizza was made on a budget of Rs 1.5 crore. After over a month’s run at the box office, the movie grossed over Rs 4 crore in Chennai alone.
The 2013 hit Soodhu Kavvum, a black comedy about a botched kidnapping directed by Nalan Kumarasamy and produced by Kumar, was another highlight in Sethupathi’s career. “By the time we did Soodhu Kavvum, he had already established himself as an actor with Pizza, Sundarapandian and Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanam. Soodhu Kavvum was made at a budget of about Rs 2.6 crore and it became a big hit,” beams Kumar. Film critic Baradwaj Rangan’s review of the film concluded saying, “Vijay Sethupathi, the poster boy of this cinema, was welcomed in his first scene with cheers and claps usually reserved for mass heroes making their entry. It’s the sweetest sound I’ve heard in years.”
Over the next couple of years, Sethupathi appeared in several low-budget entertainers like Itharkuthane Aasaipattai Balakumara, Pannaiyarum Padminiyum, Jigarthanda and Orange Mittai, a film about a paramedic and a heart patient that he says is close to his heart. He decided to produce the film, investing his salary for one film as the budget. Although he incurred a loss of about Rs 2 crore, he feels it’s one of his best roles so far. His recent films like Naanum Rowdy Thaan, Sethupathi and Dharma Durai, though non-formulaic, have been successful commercial entertainers. “I don’t differentiate a film as off-beat or commercial, because I just don’t understand the difference. Naanum Rowdy Thaan for example wasn’t written for me. It came to me by chance after two or three other heroes turned it down. I agreed to do the role as I liked the script immensely,” he says.
The actor’s craft
Sethupathi says that when he picks a film, he isn’t looking to see if it offers him enough scope to perform. He believes an actor’s importance in the film will be decided by the script, whether it’s a 10-minute role or a half-hour one.
“I have always felt that doing too much of homework makes the performance look plastic,” he says about his working style. “I don’t even watch the monitor after I finish my scene because I can’t reprise it. I just go with the flow.” But Subbaraj says Sethupathi’s performance is a result of a bit of both homework and spontaneity. “He doesn’t come to the sets without having any idea of the script either. He gets into the skin of the character very quickly. In Iraivi, the first scene we shot was the one where he gets out of the jail. It only appears in the second half of the film, but he right away got into that mode and started performing. We had discussed the script a week before and he had tuned his mind accordingly,” recounts the director.
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Subbaraj describes him as “comfortable” actor who understands the script he’s performing from. “He tries to conceive the scene and then act. He tries to give his inputs as well. What I like about him most is his thought-process while acting and while conceiving a scene. I have a habit of discussing my scene with all my actors. I ask if they have anything to add and I always got the best inputs from Vijay Sethupathi,” he notes.
The director also notes his eagerness and unpretentious nature. “I remember an instance during my first short film, when I told him that I’d bring him a costume for him to try on. The next day we met at a tea shop and I showed him some T-shirts. He said he’d try them on and he just removed his shirt right there and tried it on. He’s that kind of guy.”
A bankable hero?
Vijay’s choice of scripts and his affordability as an actor have made him a front-runner in a league of actors like Vimal, Vishnu Vishal and Dinesh Ravi, who can draw crowds for movies made on shoe-string budgets. His flexibility and non-demanding working style too mark him a favourite.
“I remember we paid Sethupathi Rs 4-5 lakh for the first film, Pizza. As a producer, I always cast people according to what the role demands. But Vijay Sethupathi is a star in his own right. Now he may be getting around Rs 3 crore,” says producer Kumar. “He is very cooperative and has never pressured us with too many demands,” he adds.
Analyst Sreedhar Pillai believes that in the long run, Vijay’s viability as a hero depends on keeping his demands low and the budgets tighter. “He should only concentrate on low-budget films and should do at least 4-5 films a year. If he goes over-budget, he would not be very saleable. He is a Tamil Nadu figure at the moment and his market is limited to the space here. We need such heroes for the industry to survive as opposed to overpaid heroes who do not deliver at the end of the day,” he pronounces.
In the meanwhile, the films are rolling in for Sethupathi. Aandavan Kattalai, an entertainer about moving abroad directed by Manikandan, is expected to be released in September while his masala action film Rekka is slated for release in October. Two more films, Mellisai and Idam Porul Yaeval are also completed and awaiting release.
(In arrangement with Grist Media)