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‘People’s man’ of Tamil cinema Vijay Sethupathi never plays a character. He becomes them

In Sethupathi's latest film 19(1)(a), his character is silenced by a bullet. But the actor is much like the film—he speaks only through his performances.

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In a wildly discordant world where Bollywood veers away from politics and Southern cinema produces films that are almost never apolitical, nestles the recent Malayali film 19 (1)(a). What stands out for the Disney+ Hotstar drama is its refusal to be loud on the issue of freedom of speech. If the contemplative mood of the film is a trump card, its other ace is actor ‘Makkal Selvan’ Vijay Sethupathi.

The biggest and strongest voice, that of Sethupathi as rebel writer Gauri Shankar, is silenced by a bullet early on in 19(1)(a). But the actor is much like the film—he speaks only through his performances, and those induce everything from claps to anger and tears.

At 44, Vijay Sethupathi is a household name — dabbling in Tamil, Malayalam, and Telugu movies. He is a chameleon in a movie industry where superstars stay rigid, from the hit Super Deluxe (2019) to Thenmerku Paruvakatru (2011).

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Hero, villain and everything in-between

What is common between Vikram (2022) and Vikram Vedha (2018) apart from similarity in the names? Is it the fact that both are Tamil blockbusters? Or that they are thrillers? Both films feature Vijay Sethupathi—the man director Seenu Ramasamy called ‘Makkal Selvan’ or the ‘people’s man’. And with that, he joined the league of actors in the Southern film industry who all have special names, including Suriya, Vijay and Rajinikanth.

The moniker is quite apt for the actor who spent a considerable part of his life doing odd jobs for money—a retail store salesman, a cashier at a fast food joint, and a phone booth operator. Before he became the actor he is today, Sethupathi was the proverbial ‘common man’, looking for a job, and love. He found both before venturing into acting in 2006 when he was 28. As cliche as it sounds, the rest is history.

Dhanush, known for his impressive array of performances once said of Sethupathi, “Just wait and watch, he will become bigger than me.” That was 2013. Whether or not you agree, Sethupathi has gone from strength to strength since. Be it the almost-diabolical Bhavani in Master (2021), who manipulates juvenile inmates to take the fall for his criminal activities, to 19(1)(a), where he plays the rebellious writer Gauri Shankar who would rather die than give up his freedom of expression, Sethupathi is a versatile genius.

As someone who has seen him in real at an event, you probably won’t be able to recognise him as Vedha from Vikram Vedha (2017). Sethgupathi does not just play a character, he becomes it—the two are not separate from each other. From hair to mannerisms to body language, he is every bit Vedha as he is Bhavani or Gauri.

He has played everything—hero, villain, sidekick, and ‘character-actor’ roles. What makes Sethupathi a brand in himself is that he has created a niche. He can be anybody and everybody. He can be Manickam aka Shilpa, a transgender person in the comedy Super Deluxe (2019) or an auto driver in Maamanithan (2022).

The actor who was initially paid Rs 100 for small roles in films or shows now has a net worth of nearly Rs 110 crore.

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Common man, unconventional roles

One wonderful trait that Bollywood actors should learn from the Southern film industry is the art of not being the superstar. What often transpires in superstar roles is that the actor becomes larger-than-life as the character he plays, creating distance from the common man, who is the primary audience. This is precisely where actors in the South make their mark.

The quest to not be the hero makes Sethupathi the inevitable hero. It is not that he cannot play the larger-than-life guy. In the 2016 film Sethupathi, he plays a police officer whose swagger matches Salman Khan’s in the Dabangg franchise. In fact, the success of his film made many ask: Are Sethupathi’s days of ‘offbeat’ films over?

There is also a need to define ‘offbeat’. What most of us understand as offbeat is a Bollywood hangover of commercial vs so-called ‘art’ cinema. What the Southern film industry has always successfully pulled off is a merging of the two without sacrificing either.

Sethupathi’s breakthrough year was 2012, when all his three films—PizzaNaduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom and Soodhu Kavvum were commercial and critical successes. While Pizza is a horror thriller, the rest two are dark comedies. Each film is distinct from the other but Sethupathi displays his formidable prowess as an actor who can pull off any challenge.

His on-screen presence even eclipses a formidable actor like Kamal Haasan in Vikram. His villainous roles are often better crafted than the hero roles. While the grapevine is abuzz with the rumours that Sethupathi might be a part of Shah Rukh Khan’s upcoming Jawan, he does not really need a Bollywood film for anything, except to probably teach everyone how it’s done.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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