The year was 1998. A 20-year-old Vijay Sethupathi was seated in the second tier of a popular auditorium… an anonymous young man among a sea of junior artistes. It was a shooting, and the film in question was Gokulathil Seethai starring Karthik and Suvaluxmi. The young Vijay Sethupathi was there for the high of being part of a film, and of course, for his wage of `100 and the “free curd rice and lemon rice”.
Irked that he was seated too far away, he climbed downstairs to increase his chances of being spotted in the film, only for another actor to unceremoniously send him back. “I felt humiliated,” he says. Twenty years later, in the sort of dramatic turnaround that only life can script, he found himself in the same auditorium, but this time, he was on stage dressed as King Aurangazeb, shooting the first scene for Seethakathi, his film with Balaji Tharaneetharan.
“I think life sent me back to the second tier that day because it didn’t want me among the audience. It wanted me on stage, and as a king, no less.” He feels not pride, but a detached sense of surprise at life’s turns. While shooting for Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe, the team used a framed photo of a younger Vijay Sethupathi that was taken many summers ago for a bus pass.
“The photo seemed to come to life when I looked at it. It’s like it was telling me, ‘Did you think this photo was taken for a bus pass, idiot? This was taken for the shooting of Super Deluxe.’ I remark that his life seems quite rewardingly ‘designed’, but he will have none of it. “I think everybody’s life is like that. The individual moments of life may seem ordinary, but if you pay close attention, you’ll notice they are anything but.”
In any case, the last few years of his acting career have been quite rewarding, and he recognises the growth he’s undergone since he did Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanum (NKPK) with Balaji Tharaneetharan in 2012. However, very little has changed between them, he says. “We are still the same people, at least when it comes down to our very core. A few minutes of interaction is enough to tell you whether a person has changed decisively. If you don’t have that perceptive ability, you can’t survive in the business of telling stories.”
He respects directors like Balaji, Prem Kumar (96), and Thiagarajan Kumararaja for never shirking from pointing out when something’s not working. “Sometimes, it’s hard for a director to communicate why a scene isn’t working out. As an actor, I try hard to be perceptive, to pay attention to the unsaid words, and change my performance.” Among other things, their first collaboration, NKPK, was notable for its unique story. “Balaji’s innocent and brilliant. He’s not one to thump his chest about coming up with such wildly original ideas. He is wise enough to know that just because a story comes through him doesn’t mean it belongs to him,” he says. Is he talking about Balaji’s lack of ego as a creator? “A creator doesn’t need to show his ego, not when it concerns matters of creativity and the audience. The ego should come into play when in the presence of someone who disrespects art and creativity. Even then, I’d advise that it’s best to ignore the ignorant. It’s not an artist’s job to convince philistines about the importance of art.”
I ask if he’s aware that he’s widely considered to be among the best actors in the country. “Yes,” he says, “But I don’t have the same faith in my own ability. I’m not saying this to sound modest. As an actor, I just try to satisfy my director and give them what they are looking for.” That’s why he believes that the idea of taking pride in finishing a shot in one or two takes is “stupid”. “We aren’t in the business of lifting weights. This is art. We must do a scene as many times as necessary. It’s an experiment in a sense,” he says. “If I did any of my characters again, they would come out differently each time. It’s all about trusting a director and paying attention.”
When Thiagarajan Kumararaja told him that on account of demonetisation, they would be taking a break from shooting Super Deluxe, Vijay Sethupathi’s first response was to ask if he’d done something wrong. “I wasn’t sure if I’d screwed up,” he says. “This office we’re sitting in is the same place where I begged him to let me play the character of Shilpa. I desperately wanted to belong in that film, to let that character inhabit me.” The actor refers to his characters as though they were real people. He speaks of acting almost as an exercise in possession. For him, acting is about internalising the identity of a character, including their motivations and belief system, and then letting them come alive through his body.
On playing the character of Ayya in Seethakaathi, he reveals that he was nervous about one continuous eight-minute shot. “The make-up took about four hours. During that time, I fed the dialogues to Ayya,” he says, as though Ayya were a person in flesh and blood by his side.
When the scene was shot and a crew member asked Vijay Sethupathi how he aced such a complicated scene, the latter apparently responded, “But I didn’t. Ayya did.” But how would, hypothetically speaking, an above-average actor be able to play the role of a terrific actor, a mahanadigar? “Ultimately, the maha-prefix is a sign of maturity. Mahaan is someone who understands the transience of things like gold, power, vengeance, women… Adhu oru thanmai,” he says.
This is why he doesn’t believe that he’s transforming into other people. He’s just letting them breathe through him. “Ayya is a real person for me. Isn’t reality ultimately just the conviction that something’s real? We recognise a dream only when we wake up, right? This life could well be a dream, could it not? Perhaps we just haven’t woken up yet?”On a related note, he introduces me to a popular saying in the film industry. “Till you become successful in the industry, you are invisible. Your reality is in question. The moment you become successful though, you become real, you become tangible. People suddenly see you, and can reach you no matter where you are.”
Ayya, the protagonist of Seethaktahi, is a theatre actor, and for Vijay Sethupathi, who was an accountant in Koothu-p-pattarai, it wasn’t unfamiliar territory. He still remembers his first day at Koothu-p-pattarai when he was asked if he could do actor impressions. “I’d tried for many years to impersonate Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan to no avail. So I told them I was no good at it,” he says. This is also why at the recent audio launch of Petta, he refused to mimic Rajinikanth when requested by the anchors. “Koothu-p-pattarai taught me that my inability to mimic another actor is a positive quality. Being an actor, ultimately, is a feeling. It’s about sensing acting.”
He’s all praise for Muthuswamy, the founder of Koothu-p-pattarai, who recently passed away. “Muthuswamy ayya is god. He had the ability to see people equally. He’s a banyan tree, and I was a leaf. Actually, no, I was a being that lived under the shadow of a leaf.” Seethakaathi also touches upon the fall of theatre; Vijay Sethupathi believes that theatre is just going through a lull. “It will never die. It’s just taking rest,” he says. “Also, as a cinema actor, I don’t think I’m the right person to discuss theatre. It wouldn’t be right.”
He attributes his eagerness to collaborate with director Balaji Tharaneetharan to the trust he reposes on him. “I trust that he will always draw good work from me. I know that if I’m bad, he won’t hesitate to cast me away,” he says. Ever since he’s become a star, he’s had to be wary of filmmakers looking to cash in on his stardom. “It’s important that a director not put up with a mediocre performance simply because I’m a star,” he says. “As an actor, I’m anxious that the audience not feel a sense of aversion when they look at me.” This was something his well-wishers warned him about when he signed quite a few films in 2016.
“They told me that the audience would get bored of me, but I didn’t understand why, considering I was showing variety,” he says. One incident that happened in 2014, however, had already convinced him he was on the right track. “We were shooting in a village with actor Vadivukkarasi. I was introduced to her as the actor who was in the Kooda mela kooda vechu song,” he says, with a hint of a laugh. “I noticed that the entire village had come to meet her. She was famous because of the serials she was doing. That’s when I wondered: Dhinamum ivanga moonji therinjum yaarukkum bore adikkaliye? Why should it be any different for me?”
This, of course, wasn’t the first time he had received well-meaning, but misleading advice. When he started off doing a serial or two, he was warned that he would become a ‘serial actor’. “Back then, Dinesh (of Attakathi fame) and I were going around, looking for acting opportunities in TV serials. They paid Rs 1,500 per day, and if we had three-four serials, we knew we would be set for the month.” In fact, he credits serials for breaking his self-consciousness. “Once when I took to the stage for a Koothu-p-pattarai play, I couldn’t stop giggling. It took me a while to get past such hurdles.”
These days, he has other hurdles to overcome — like having to say no to a strange producer who insists on funding an Rs 100 crore film starring him. “I told him I’m not worth investing so much money on.” The actor remains aware of how much business he can command, and is wary of beig drawn into the ‘budget game’. “Content is king. In simply hiking up budgets, filmmakers get forced to shoot even normal scenes in a grand manner. Neenga vekkara wide shots laam brammandam kaata dhaane?”
Professionals usually crave success for selfish reasons, and understandably so. However, Vijay Sethupathi believes that the success of his career could well show a future generation of actors the existence of a new path. “If I fail, I become a bad, frightening example for this road. They will point at this route and say, ‘That’s where Vijay Sethupathi died.’ For this reason, I must not fail. My success is important.”
For the moment, there’s no questioning his success, given he’s got films like Seethakaathi, Super Deluxe, and Petta lined up. All this success, he attributes to one realisation: “Naan naanaa irukardhu saabam nu nenachen; actually adhu varam nu purinjikitten.” He pauses to reflect on his evolution as an actor, and in his inimitable way, he does that with a series of metaphors: “When I began my career as an actor, I was a kite. I was able to fly only when my directors wielded me. Slowly, I transformed into a bird, but I was still a prisoner of my wings. Now, I think I’m like a feather. I glide along, resting only when the wind lets up. Apdiye karanjipoidanum nu paakkaren.” He takes another thoughtful pause and continues: “People sometimes feel sad when a withered leaf falls. Who knows, maybe the leaf is happy that it’s transforming into something else. I love the surprise of transformations. As long as I enjoy this, I know there’s no limit to this. Idhu oru sema feeling. Ipdiye ponaa, you’ll become a slave of art.”