Vijay Sethupathi: Super Deluxe's Shilpa is pure and taught me how to be her
The actor talks about his upcoming film, playing a transwoman and his approach towards cinema
Vijay Sethupathi is convinced that the formula for all the days of our lives can be found in one day, similar to how the existence of a tree is encapsulated within a seed. For him, this day was when he was first signed as the lead of a film. “I was really excited. I couldn't sleep,” narrates Vijay Sethupathi. In excitement, he woke up at 3am and went to the gym to find that it was closed. “The film got dropped, and since then, I think I have also lost the idea of hitting the gym,” he says with a laugh. For him, it was a moment of realisation: That if he reaches the peak of excitement and the topic of his excitement fails, it is tough to recreate that euphoria again. Super Deluxe, he says, is about ‘one such fine day’ in the lives of five characters. “That day might have started on a dramatic note but ends with love and wisdom. All of us have that day, that important day, when someone unconnected to our lives, gifts us epiphanies.”
Every character Vijay Sethupathi has played has helped him discover something. He talks about them as though he were referring to real people. He wasn’t drawn to playing Shilpa due to the apparent external transformation. It was the depth of her character that made him beg Thiagarajan Kumararaja for the role. “Be it a king or a beggar, it is ultimately who he is as a person that matters. I don't think anyone else can write a character with such depth. Shilpa is pure,” he says, getting a tad emotional.
He acknowledges Shilpa for having given him the best lesson of all -- that one should surrender himself to art. It is now common knowledge that the Vikram Vedha actor took multiple takes during the shoot. “When I took those takes, I was trying to teach something to that character. I was sticking to a formula. But when I threw all I knew out of the window and surrendered, when Shilpa became the teacher, things fell in place. It felt as if she was saying, 'Nee vaa da Sethu, naa pathukaren.” He maintains that the characters should communicate with the actor. “It might seem dramatic, but that is the truth. It is there -- you have to sense it and believe it.” The idea of a ‘one-take actor’, he believes to be a big farce. “You're in the industry because you love the art, and that is why it has let you in. Your performance shouldn't be about impressing the director. The art will decide when it will use you as a conduit.” The job of an actor, he says, is to keep working until that happens. As an example, Sethupathi narrates what Kumararaja told Guru Somasundaram during the production of Aaranya Kaandam. “You are a parotta master and you make good parottas. I am here to eat. You should give me parottas until I am ready to eat,” he recounts.
That’s why he isn’t a big believer in homework. “En vazhkaila naan naana iruka homework panla. Maybe you need homework to behave a certain way, but not to realise character traits. I understand my characters, the people they are." This point of comprehension came to him during Super Deluxe when an assistant pointed out that he wasn’t behaving the way women do. “I sat with my legs apart. It was Madhi who told me that women, instinctively, don't sit that way. Until then, I hadn't understood Shilpa. That helped me understand Shilpa.” Sethupathi doesn’t feel the need to impress or convince anybody, except his characters. Perfection, he says, exists in only the audiences’ mind. “If I fit what you have in mind, it seems perfect to you. It is not a tangible barometer. I don't aspire for that. I am happy to just be here, to be in this art form.”
But he realises that his name has a value that one can’t discount. He uses this to rubbish my question over the importance of trans actors being cast to play trans characters. “When does a story become a film? When there is intent for that story to reach people. When a star acts, the story will reach people. That’s the ultimate aim.” He questions whether people will come to the theatres if a star doesn’t play the role. “There are several people who make good films. I don't just want this tag of being an actor who does ‘good films’. I will be happy when the audience carries something back.”
‘Believe’ is a word that Vijay Sethupathi uses frequently. He believes that art is above all of us, that it should use the individual and not the other way around. He believes ‘Ellarukullayum ellaarum irukaanga’. He believes that if you are sincere with what you do, no matter what it is, it will protect you. Good stories, he says, are around you, like oxygen in the air. “What we choose, becomes part of us. I believe that when you search for something, it leads you to someone who is on a similar journey.” His sense of philosophy comes from life itself. “If someone fails you, it is a result of what they have accumulated over the years. You can't change that in an instant. You don't know what they are going through, where they come from.”
Is it possible to be so secure, with such zen-like faith in life? In response, he narrates another anecdote; this time a conversation he had with his daughter. They were travelling in a car when Sethupathi quipped that all of us are one. “She asked me how. I told her that when we see from the road, we see vehicles and buildings. But what about if we were looking from the top of the building? What about, if we were sitting in a plane? What about if you are in the moon, from where you can see the Earth as a whole. As our psyche evolves, these things become apparent.” This is how he perceives his characters too. “If you understand the sense they are written with, analyse the sense of justice that they embody, you can become that character.”
Vijay Sethupathi has an incredible line-up of films. Alongside, he’s working on the screenplay of a film, and is also hosting a television show. As we wrap up our conversation, I ask him what fuels all this energy. “Learning. Only I know what I have learnt -- what my weaknesses are and where I am empty.” He takes the example of his TV show and lists a number of things he learnt from it -- to think freely, to enunciate and pace his words, to keep the conversation engaging and more. He says that there are only two things that are perennially exciting. “Learning and revenge. Everything else wanes,” he states, and then quickly adds love to the list. “Everything else wanes.”