In the Tamil film industry, there are only two roads to stardom, which travel on parallel lines.
Everybody wants to do masala films, playing larger than life characters to become the next Rajinikanth. The road less travelled taken by actors who love cinema, is doing meaty and experimental roles. However at the end of the day whether you do commercial or off-beat films, it is box-office success that determines the road an actor takes.
Vijay Sethupathi is an actor of substance, who was known more for his brilliant portrayals in trend setting films like Soodhu Kavam where he played a 45-year-old kidnapper with a paunch and grey hair.
He has been more than willing to do unusual films like playing the Pizza delivery boy in the thriller hit Pizza, and as a guy with short term memory loss in the comedy entertainer Naduvula Konjam Pakkattha Kannom. With the slapstick comedy Idharkuthane Aasapattai Balakumara, he came across as an actor who could reinvent the stereotypical hero image in Tamil cinema.
Last week Vijay Sethupathi’s new action packed film Sethupathi, where he played a Dirty Harry-type cop, released along with Jayam Ravi’s zombie thriller Miruthan. Sethupathi has been more liked by the mass audiences and the film has also been declared a hit.
The reason Sethupathi worked at the box-office is because of Vijay Sethupathi’s screen presence, mass dialogues and typical Tamil cinema family sentiments (a loving wife, played superbly by Ramya Nambeesan, and two children).
The director of the film, Arun Kumar, had earlier made the brilliantly classy Pannaiyaram Padminiyum, a story about an old man and his love for his vintage Premier Padmini car, with Vijay playing the crucial role of the chauffeur. The critically acclaimed film was a box-office dud.
This was followed by a series of films like Purampokku, Orange Mittai where he had meaty roles but the films failed. It was around this time Vijay took a decision that it was not enough to be known a fine actor; he had to get a larger audience for his films, which should be commercially successful.
So he roped in his favourite director Arun Kumar to make a mass cop story, Sethupathi, which had ingredients like action, powerful dialogues and family sentiments. Meanwhile, Vijay Sethupathi’s last release, Naanum Rowdy Dhaan, where he played a meek guy who wants to be a rowdy, was a huge hit. However, the film trade gave all credit to Nayanthara, the numero uno heroine in Tamil cinema, as the film revolved around her.
One of Tamil cinema’s most popular genres, especially among aspiring superstars, is to play the larger than life cop who cleans up the society's scum. This format has given popular heroes like Vijay (Pokkiri), Vikram (Saamy) and Suriya (Singam) super hero images and box-office success. Some of these films have turned franchisees like Suriya’s Singam, as a third part is getting ready.
Vijay Sethupathi, in an interview to The Hindu said that he did the moustache twirling cop in Sethupathi only because he wanted director Arun Kumar to have a commercial hit. Vijay said, “Arun is a talented director. People need to know who he is, and recognise him as a brand. That will not happen if he only does films like Pannaiyarum Padminiyum. Once he does a couple of mass films he will be recognised as a brand, and become free to do any type of film.” In a way the same thing is applicable to the hero too.
Now the big question being asked is whether Vijay Sethupathi would stop doing meaningful and different films, and take the easy highway to stardom? The answer lies in his next two releases, films from directors who gave him the “solid actor” image.
In March he has Kadhalum Kadaaandhu Pogum directed by Nalan Kumarasamy who gave him Soodhu Kavam, followed in April by Iravi from the critically acclaimed director Karthik Subbaraj who made Pizza with him. Only time will tell.