The Vijay Sethupathi interview: The actor, the philosopher

Vijay Sethupathi opens up about playing the ‘devil incarnate’ in Vikram Vedha

It’s a question actors are often asked. What would they be if they hadn’t become actors? In the case of Vijay Sethupathi, there’s no reason to ask. A quick exchange with him, and you know, he would have made for a pretty decent philosopher. His responses are thoughtful, and it doesn’t take much to get him turning pensive. “The greatest thoughts in the world aren’t manufactured. They are simple lines,” he says, and shares some of the offhandedly-uttered, deep lines by Vedha, his character in Vikram Vedha. He enacts one, and his speech quickens to match Vedha’s rate of speech: “Muttai odanjidchu, muttai odanjidchu nu polambitte irukka koodadhu. Odanja muttaya omelette pottoma, saaptoma nu irukkanum (Don’t fret about a broken egg; make an omelette of it).” He remembers another: “Life na prachanai vara seiyum. Appo dhaan adutha kattathukku poga mudiyum (Obstacles present you with the chance to evolve in life).” No wonder then that Vijay Sethupathi thinks Vedha is among the roles closest to who he is as a person.

There was little he had to do by way of preparation, and in any case, he doesn’t believe in the idea. “If I overthink my performance, I’m scared I’ll end up looking plastic.” He is dismissive of the need for minor changes in body language for different roles. “I play every role like Vijay Sethupathi,” he says. “Vijay Sethupathi as a policeman. Vijay Sethupathi as a gangster. Vijay Sethupathi as a fraudster. It’s what you do in a scene that defines you, not how you look.” But he adds little things of value to the scenes he’s part of. “For a chase scene, I felt it would be good to have a branch to step over. I felt it’d be a decent symbol of the argument I’m having with Maddy’s character,” he says. But he doesn’t care that the audience may not recognise the symbolism. “As long as they like the taste of the food, it doesn’t matter that they don’t know the ingredients that went into its making.”

He isn’t a fan of, say, walking or talking differently to make each role seem different. “If I focussed on those aspects, I fear losing out on the main stuff. I’m talking only for myself here.” And these are disclaimers he uses in the conversation. He’s ever careful to not talk on behalf of someone else. Like when he refuses to wonder why no Tamil filmmaker has considered making a film based on the Vikram-Vedalam stories. “Let’s talk about the fact that Gayathri-Pushkar have now done it. I read the stories as a child, and for the longest time, I remember being fascinated by the image of Vedalam sitting on the shoulder of king Vikramaditya.” In a car scene in Vikram Vedha, they’ve attempted to recreate this image, as Vedha, sitting the back seat, leans over Vikram, the driver of the car.

The Vikram-Vedalam stories are exercises in morality and ethics, and the film itself, crafted in similar style, is an argument against distinguishing people as black and white. “That’s the firm conviction of Maddy’s character, Vikram. But Vedha knows that every time you decide to do something, a part of you always says no. It’s a conflict within each man. That’s what the film’s about.” The essence of the Vikram-Vedalam story, Vijay Sethupathi explains, is in its question-and-answer structure. “Vedha keeps returning to Vikram to ask questions. In one scene, he tells Vikram’s wife that he keeps coming back because questions can only be asked of those who know answers.”

It’s good for Vijay Sethupathi that he could relate a lot to Vedha, for, the actor has a tendency to be influenced by the characters he plays. “I don’t just enact the dialogues. I have understood Vedha’s motivations, his character, his way of looking at life. So, his worldview affects my life on some minor level, at least.” And that, he says, is the beauty of films. “We are forced to move on from one set to another, from one story to another,” he smiles.

Seven years back, in Gayathri-Pushkar’s last film, Va: Quarter Cutting, Vijay Sethupathi played a part as a junior artiste. He’s today of bigger stature than the director duo. “Perhaps,” he says, non-committally. “I loved that film’s ideology, and over the years, I’ve become great friends with them. If someone told me they don’t like Gayathri and Pushkar, I’d judge them in a heartbeat.” Vijay Sethupathi and the director duo have spent many nights in philosophical conversation. “Paramasivan kazhuthula paambu irukku. Paambu sivan ku protection-a? Illa sivan paambu-ku protection-a? (Lord Shiva has a snake coiled around his neck. Is the snake for his protection, or is he its protector?),” he asks. “This is the sort of stuff we would sit and talk about. Oh, and we have included that line in the film.”

It has been a while since Vijay Sethupathi felt such feverish excitement about a film. “It’s a story about how all of us have grey shades. We all behave differently in the presence of different people. Vijay Sethupathi-um appadi thaan.” I suppose it’s only fitting that he ends the conversation on a reflective note.

This interview was written for The New Indian Express.  All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share it.

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