Vijay Sethupathi: 'Safe roles bore me to death. I want to explore the darker side of human personality'

Vijay Sethupathi opens up on being a pan-India star: 'The audience wants to watch good films, no matter what the language'

Subhash K Jha January 16, 2022 12:16:21 IST
Vijay Sethupathi: 'Safe roles bore me to death. I want to explore the darker side of human personality'

Is Vijay Sethupathi the finest living actor in India? He could well be, going by his ravishing repertoire of majestic performances built in over just 15 years. I first noticed Sethupathi as the gender-crossing father in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe in 2019. It made me turn to all his earlier accomplished performances in Seethakathi and Pushkar-Gayathri’s Vikram Vedha.

“Sir, you have joined in very late. I have been around for long,” Vijay rebuked me affectionately when I connected with him. Since then I’ve been an ardent fan of his work. Lately, he has done some awful films. But his performances remain spectacular, sometimes incomprehensibly so: how can an actor be so good in a film as bad as Annabelle Sethupathi?

If you ask me about my most favourite Sethupathi performance to date it would have to as Dheena, the silently smouldering guilt-stricken murderer in Edhiri the ‘Karuna’ episode of Mani Ratnam’s omnibus Navarasa. Vijay Sethupathi kills it. Literally. As a man who craves for atonement for his sin, Vijay’s face is a map of the human heart.

Speaking about this silently screaming performance Vijay said to me “Luckily for me Bejoy Nambiar is a very democratic director. He listened to my suggestions. They may not have been all great suggestions. But they were interesting. After the shooting was over, Bejoy called to say, “Whatever you suggested, Vijay Sir is all very good for the film.’ Thank God the dictatorial directors are getting rare. Abhi bhi hai…whatever I say is the final word. They still exist. I can’t work with those directors. For me, filmmaking is a collaborative effort. I always have suggestions to make, and yes I will be directing my own film soon. What stops me? Only my busy schedules as an actor.”

In Edhiri, Vijay contributed quite a lot. “I wrote my own dialogues. Even that Tamil song which Prakash Raj sang, I chose it for him. It’s a famous song from an old Tamil film. I gave it to him with the lyrics and he memorised it. It’s such a pleasure to work with veterans like Ravathy ‘M’aam and Prakash Sir. They bring with themselves so much experience and talent.”

Vijay Sethupathi Safe roles bore me to death I want to explore the darker side of human personality

Vijay Sethupathi in a still from Navarasa

How does Vijay see his character Dheena in Edhiri? “As a victim, Sir, as a victim of circumstances. He kills because he is cornered. When pushed against the wall, he retaliates. He has no other choice. I saw my character as Karn in the Mahabharat who is forced to kill and Lord Krishna explains why it is sometimes imperative to take to the weapon. Dheena wouldn’t have dealt that fatal blow on his victim’s head if he wasn’t cornered. Sometimes justice is more important than staying on the right side of the law.”

But Vijay believes life must not make a man an eternal protester. “You have to choose your battles in life carefully. I keep telling my children not to waste their time in frivolous fights. If you are making a journey of 1000 kms and you keep getting down from your car to fight every time someone overtakes you recklessly, you will never get where you want to in life.”

It is Dheena’s silences in the Edhiri episode of Navarasa which speak the loudest says Vijay, “That’s the way I wanted it to be. I wanted the audience to hear my character’s silent screams of protest. Like Om Puri in Aakrosh.I always believe the words come in the way of my performances. I always feel I speak best through my silences.”

Doing Navarasa was a learning experience for Vijay Sethupathi. “There is so much unspoken anger and unshed tears in my character. I wanted to know Dheena better. I didn’t want to play him. I wanted to know him.”

The versatile actor has also been playing quite a number of grey/black characters. Vijay Sethupathi is very happy that his two back-to-back villainous turns in the Tamil Master and the Telugu Uppena have paid rich dividends.

The magnificent performer says he will suffer an abiding sorrow regarding his Telugu debut in Uppena. “I couldn’t dub my own lines in Telugu. It was my first Telugu film and I did not have a strong enough command over the language. I tried my best. But everyone felt I was speaking Telugu with an accent. Best to get someone else to dub. Audiences saw two different performances up there. The one that I gave on screen. And the other one given by the dubbing artiste. It’s two different performances.”

Happy as he was by the film’s success Vijay is troubled by the linguistic lacuna. “If I had to do it again I’d make sure I know the language well enough to be accepted by audiences in Andhra and Telangana.”

The performance in Upenna was warmly received in the Telugu belt.

“It is their kindness, their love for me. That makes me even more conscious of making sure I speak Telugu like a local next time,” Sethupathi vows.

Vijay Sethupathi Safe roles bore me to death I want to explore the darker side of human personality

Trisha, Vijay Sethupathi in aa still from '96

Another Vijay Sethupathi performance that I loved was in ‘86 I couldn’t help think back to Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyan where Vicky Kaushal and Taapsee Pannu couldn’t keep their hands off each other. C. Prem Kumar’s ’86 is an ode to lost love, where if Sethupathi’s hand accidentally touches Trisha’s hand he recoils as though hit by an electric current. And no one laughs. The myth that today’s generations equate love with lust and a love relationship without sex is like a meal without dessert …or whatever…is effectively demolished in this game-changing love story. In this era of lustful cynicism, it requires a whole lot of guts to make a film as plunged in the platonic as a seer immersed in his holy chants that no amount of temptation can detract him from.

Ram in ‘86 played by Sethupathi loves Janu (Trisha Krishna) with religious devotion. For the want of a better word, worship is what Ram does. For half the film the younger Ram, played with brooding vulnerability by young Adithya Bhaskar, sits in the classroom glancing anxiously at Janu. He cannot speak to her. On her birthday friends have to bodily lift him and bring him to her to say ‘Happy Birthday’

Then school ends. The love-smitten pair moves in separate ways. 22 years later they reunite at a college reunion. The sparks fly. Ram still won’t say the three magical words. He would rather just adore his beloved, a sort of Radha in reverse worshipping Krishna.

86 provides a refreshingly revisionist look at love and romance. There are no villains separating the couple in love, the culprit is the hero’s taciturnity rooted in his spiritual attachment to the object of his adoration. He can’t bring himself to confess his love even when he gets a chance to do so 22 years later.

I fell in love with this ostensibly obsolete variety of love where once the love confession is made the magic disappears. Ram won’t say it aloud. He is willing to pay the price. He will remain without his loved one all his life. But he won’t drag his sublime feelings down to earth. Let them float freely in the universe. Let love be. That’s what Gulzar Saab wrote in one of his finest love songs: 'Humne dekhi hai unn aankhon ki mehekti khushboo haath se chuke ussey rishton ka ilzaam naa do sirf ehsaas hai yeh rooh se mehsoos karo. Pyar ko pyar hi rehne do koi naam do.'

86 is a unique take on love. This is love with no strings attached. Sex is not even a thought. The delicately persuasive film says, in not so many words, that love remains even when the one you love is not with you physically. To make a film so passionate lucid engaging and moving about the idea of love, requires a whole lot of guts.

Vijay Sethupathi Safe roles bore me to death I want to explore the darker side of human personality

Vijay Sethupathi in Super Deluxe

I once asked Vijay Sethupathi his criteria for selection of films and why he ended up in a turkey like Labaam. His quiet but firm reply left no room for debate. “I must say, not every film is done for artistic satisfaction. I agree cinema should be aesthetic, and cinematic. But it needs to be a lot more. I don’t think cinema is only for mass entertainment, though I do films that are for entertainment only. But I also do films that are informative. I don’t believe cinema is for timepass. It is and must be an important tool for reformation. Laabam, I did for this reason."

The National award for Vijay Sethupathi for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Tamil game-changer Super Deluxe as a transgender man coming out, to the utter confusion of his little son, is not only richly deserved, it is an acknowledgement of the growing socio-political awareness of diversity in sexuality. Expressing his joy over the award for a performance that broke many taboo barriers, Vijay Sethupathi spoke to me on the morning after the National award was announced.

Did Vijay have any reservations about playing the transgender Shilpa in Super Deluxe? “None at all. As an actor I am always hungry. I am constantly in search of roles that will take me out of my comfort zone. The safe roles bore me to death. I want to explore the darker side of the human personality. That’s why I take up villains’ parts. I want to explore what makes them what they are.”

Looking at his career peaks I couldn’t stop myself from congratulating him. Vijay refuses to acknowledge his achievements. “I have done nothing, Sir! I never planned anything. Not my life, not my career as an actor. The transition, as you call it, is also happening on its own. I always believe the work I am doing is not in my hands. There are powers far stronger than me guiding my destiny.”

He believes there’s no language barrier in cinema, no language barrier in art.

"The audience wants to watch good films, no matter what the language. Recently, the lockdown taught all of us so much about world cinema. I think the lockdown broke down all barriers between regional and mainstream cinema.

It’s very good thing that happened. Sitting at home we watched Korean films, Iranian, films, Malayalam films....Everyone was discussing world cinema from home. This is a wonderful thing to happen.”

Why does he purposely choose roles that take the audience by surprise? Vijay replied, “It is J Krishnamurthi who said, ‘To transform the world we must begin with ourselves’. Art unites the world. I am a small part of that world. What is language? It is nothing but a collections of sounds. To be a good successful artiste you need to listen to those sounds. Maybe I am a good listener. Language is the sound of the soul.”

Though he has seen hard days he would never do a film for money alone. “By God’s grace I’ve managed to make enough money to look after my family. I live in a good house and move around in a luxury car. For a man of my humble beginnings, that’s more than enough. I can work in the films I want to without worrying about my home expenses. It’s the soul that I look for in every role. I can afford to support good cinema without thinking of salary. It is my duty to do so. 4-5 years after I started my film career when I became popular, anxious distributors and producers came to me asking not to do the non-mainstream film. ‘Aapka image kharaab hoga, aapko pagaar kam milegi. Don’t do it.’I told them, ‘Yeh sab chhor do.’ I am here to make a difference, not to make money. That Vijay Sethupathi who came into the film industry looking for small roles is still alive. I want to make sure he remains alive. When I came to the industry, all I wanted to do was to stand in front of the camera and say my dialogues. Even today I feel so alive when I’m in front of the camera.

Vijay loves playing both black and white, preferably both in the same role. “Whether it is good or evil, it is all within all of us. It’s up to us to tap which side of our personality we want to show. I can tell you with confidence that I am not a basically good guy. But I want to be a good guy. The idea of killing two kids in Master really worried me. I didn’t want to make the violence anything but disturbing for the audience. The director and I had several discussions on this. We decided not to show the actual killings of the children. We wanted to show how evil the man is. When I play a violent character it is like cleaning my house and throwing all the dirt outside.”

Vijay Sethupathi takes something away from each character he plays. “Every character I play brings something to me and takes something away. Now I am working on my first Hindi film with Sriram Raghavan and my first webseries with Raj-DK. I love my character in both. But I don’t know how I’ll approach it. Every time I start a new film I feel like a nervous student giving my exams. I need 4-5 days to settle down with every project, the team, the set, the director. I’ve to take them all in.”

I asked Vijay about his favourite performances: “I can’t say because I love every character I played so far. But in Super Deluxe my character Shilpa is my guru. I learnt so much from getting into her body and mind. When I was playing Shilpa, I became Shilpa. I was transformed into a transgender character. The other character of mine that I enjoyed playing was the 75-year old man in Seethakathi. These two characters were so distant from me and so inspiring. They changed my life. I don’t know how I did it .”

Plans to direct? “ I don’t think I’m mature enough yet to direct a film. I believe it’s a job of great responsibility. But I can tell you I love the idea of directing film. And I will direct a film soon.”

Happy Birthday, Vijay Sethupathi. You have redefined the acting space in Indian cinema.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based journalist. He has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out.

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