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South Indian actor Vijay Sethupathi, who had just witnessed the trailer of his new film, ‘Maharaja’, light up the Burj Khalifa among a sea of screaming fans, looked out of the window, pointing to the buildings dotting Shaikh Zayed Road.

“I remember distributing free ad [pamphlets] every Thursday morning to those in the building,” said Sethupathi in an interview with Gulf News. The year was 2000 when he worked as an accountant in a UAE-based firm and was learning how to hustle in this bustling metropolis.

“I had come to Dubai to earn money, and my salary was around Dh1000, plus Dh300 for my food and accommodation. That was not enough for my family, and so I kept asking everyone for part-time jobs … any part-time job to keep things going,” he added.

Vijay Sethupathi in 'Maharaja', out in UAE cinemas this Eid

But a lot has changed in Sethupathi’s life in 24 years. The 46-year-old actor has become one of Tamil cinema’s most bankable and highest-paid talents. With blockbusters like ‘Super Deluxe’ and Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘Jawan,’ Sethupathi, who’s fondly called ‘Makkal Selvan’ (People’s Treasure), enjoys a cult status among his rabid fans. He began his career with minor roles, but courted fame with critically acclaimed performances in films like ‘Pizza’ and ‘Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom.’

So how did it feel to come to Dubai as a superstar who got the red carpet welcome and didn’t have to worry about where the next dirham was coming from?

“More than proud, I feel happy because it’s not necessary that all your dreams come true in your life … But there was a time in my life where I had only dreams … But now when I think of my old times, I marvel at how I was focused on my life and that gives me hope even now. It feels great to know I was right in my past days,” said Sethupathi. He believes his life, which will rival any rags-to-riches movie spectacle, might prove inspiring to all those who are working hard in the UAE.

“I just pray that they all have the strength to understand and pursue their dreams … While I was watching my film teaser on the Burj Khalifa, I remembered how that if you wish for something, life will design something for you as long as you are sincere … Working with Shah Rukh sir, Kamal sir, Rajini sir, and Chiranjeevi [big stars] is not an easy thing and you just can’t plan for these things,” said Sethupathi. He lets us in on a secret.

Vijay Sethupathi
Vijay Sethupathi played the villain in Shah Rukh Khan's blockbuster 'Jawan'

“Honestly, when I was in Dubai, my plan was to become a serial actor and earn at least two or three lakhs (Dh10,000 to Dh15,000) a month. All I wanted was to buy an old apartment and an old car … But life designed something big around my dreams and gave it to me.”

Reaching a career milestone:

This Eid, his career hits a significant milestone. His latest film, ‘Maharaja,’ directed by Nithilan Swaminathan of ‘Kurunga Bommai’ fame, is his career’s 50th film. In this thriller, Sethupathi plays a helpless barber who claims that his home was burgled and his “lekshmi” has gone missing since that traumatic episode. But he doesn’t dwell on that 50th film career milestone.

“50th isn’t a landmark milestone as such. It’s just a number which tells me that I have come this far. This means that I have listened to 400-500 stories and out of those stories, I chose to act in 50 films … I still have a long way to go,” said Sethupathi. He’s the kind of actor who has no qualms about admitting that he went up to Shah Rukh Khan during Nayanthara and Vikki’s wedding, telling the Bollywood superstar that he would love to play a baddie opposite Khan in ‘Jawan.’

Vijay Sethupathi
Vijay Sethupathi at the International Film Festival in Goa last year

He says he’s the kind of actor who doesn’t shirk from going after roles. But what surprises and irks him are the gossip mills that inflate his star status.

“People keep imagining the most bizarre things in this industry … I hear so much gossip around me. But to clarify, I am not building any Rs200 crore [Rs2 billion] mall near Chennai. In so many years, I haven’t earned that much money nor am I giving tourists a tour of Rs25 crore [Rs250 million] home. I live in a 1,300-square-foot apartment with my wife and kids,” said Sethupathi. He wants all his loved ones within his grasp.

“I don’t even have a dining table in my house and I still eat on the ground … I like a small house because I want my kids and wife to be reachable … But I do have four or five expensive cars,” said Sethupathi, displaying a hint of guilt that people who have worked from the ground up feel.

Interestingly, his wife isn’t very gung-ho about him being a top actor in Tamil cinema. But his kids are chuffed about him being in the world of movies. His son, Surya, who’s also an aspiring actor, wants him to take on more “masala” entertainers that appeal to the masses. So what kind of dad is he? When we asked him if he was a hands-on dad, he looked thoroughly perplexed at that label.

“I don’t know … I teach them about life. I share my experiences in life with them. I tell them about where I was an idiot or how stupid I was or where I was wise in life. I tell them about the cheap things I did in life … I try to teach them about the purpose of money and how human beings tend to behave. I teach them the importance of how to survive.”

And who else other than Sethupathi to arm his children with tools to survive? He’s what you call an extraordinary hustler who believes that the knowledge that you gain from living a life is true power. He doesn’t shirk from giving auditions if his director seeks it. In ‘Maharaja,’ also starring Bollywood director and producer Anurag Kashyap and Mamta Mohandas, Sethupathi wasn’t asked to audition. He was confirmed based on his robust body of work in Tamil cinema.

“I surrender myself to my director and then I come up with ideas. But my ideas are taken only if my director chooses to accept it … In ‘Maharaja,’ I play a common man who’s silent and introverted. It’s difficult to engage or entertain the audience based on my behaviour, but the audience will look at the plot and the script to immerse themselves.”

Vijay Sethupathi plays an ordinary man in the thriller 'Maharaja'. Anurag Kashyap (left, above), Abhirami (left, below), Mamta Mohandas also feature in this film.

Sethupathi, who has just finished watching Anurag Kashyap’s gritty crime saga, Gangs Of Wasseypur, remembers a time when he met Kashyap to discuss a Bollywood film which never got made.

“I met him in 2016 in Chennai for a Hindi film and I was shocked to know that he respected my work and films … Anurag Kashyap is a great personality … He’s crazier and wackier than me,” said Sethupathi with a laugh. His philosophy in life and career is pretty simple, just like the man he seems to be. At the time of meeting, Sethupathi was dressed in a casual short-sleeved shirt and pants with open-toed sandals. Unlike the conventional heroes, his hair wasn’t carefully styled nor was his beard perfectly trimmed.

“I explore and I don’t experiment in cinema. Experiment sounds very serious and you are worried about whether it will work or not … But explore is a more colourful way to live. Experimental films make it sound like those foreign films that not everyone can understand. I want to do films which everyone can watch. I want to be a common man’s hero.”

Don’t Miss It!

‘Maharaja’ is out in UAE cinemas on June 14.