Vijay Sethupathi
Vijay Sethupathi. Image Credit: Supplied

Actors are notorious for being narcissistic and often loving the sound of their own voice, but National Award-winning South Indian actor Vijay Sethupathi isn’t cut from that traditional cloth. In an engaging masterclass at the ongoing 54th International Film Festival of India (IFFI), moderated effectively by seasoned actress and politician Kushboo Sundar, Sethupathi kept warning his fans that he doesn’t feel confident to spearhead any kind of class.

“It’s not a class at all. I don’t even know what to do in front of a camera. Just treat me like one of you. Let’s create and share. And if you don’t understand my language, please refer to my face,” said Sethupathi in his halting English, eliciting claps and cheers with his opening line.

Sethupathi, one of the biggest success stories to emerge from Tamil Nadu, is self-effacing to the point of appearing diffident. In that hour where the ‘Super Deluxe’ star spoke from the heart about his craft and journey in films, he put it out there that he’s constantly insecure about his art, and his performance, and harbours serious self-doubts about his ability to pull off a scene. But that’s precisely what makes this man the darling of the masses. He also has a wacky sense of humour. Sample this:

Vijay Sethupathi
Vijay Sethupathi in conversation with Kushboo Sundar. Image Credit: Supplied

“This morning, I spoke to my daughter, and she was asking me what I will teach in this masterclass. I said: I would boil the water, put the tea powder, and add milk for the tea to be ready. It’s going to be a masterclass on making tea.” If that joke didn’t make sense to you, you are not alone. But the room filled with his ardent fans didn’t mind that the joke was silly; it just made him more endearing. And that’s the power of Vijay Sethupathi, who makes you believe that he’s one of them.

“The only thing I know is that I know that I don’t know, so I want to know what it is. So, I try to understand films through directors, assistant directors,” said Sethupathi, who seems to have a penchant for speaking in riddles. He also spoke about how he’s this textbook case of an accidental actor. Before he took a plunge into the world of cinema, he was working in Dubai as an accountant. He claims he was that regular bloke who believed in “going with the flow.”

I don’t want to be trapped in any hero image. I want to try everything. I am in my forties and I want the freedom to choose roles.

- Vijay Sethupathi

“But then I fell in love with my wife during a wedding in India. She didn’t allow me to go back, and then I just went with the flow,” he said. Initially, he played supporting roles like the leading hero’s friend but gained widespread recognition and critical acclaim for his role in the film ‘Super Deluxe,’ showcasing his ability to take on complex and unconventional characters with depth and authenticity. This film got him the National Film Award for Best Supporting Actor. But he claims he’s equally surprised at his own stupendous success.

“I can’t focus on anything continuously, nor do I have the consistency to keep at one thing … During my childhood, I enrolled in learning how to play Mridangam in T-Nagar, but after one week, I quit the class … That’s how I am … My intention was to become a businessman and earn a lot of money. But I ended up here,” said Sethupathi. He’s now one of Tamil cinema’s busiest actors and was seen as a villain in Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘Jawaan’. So what’s the secret to his success?

“Knowledge is all about people whom you interact with. I got to know some great minds who work in cinema. Who we interact with and the minds that we discuss things with are so important. They plant ideas into your head,” said Sethupathi. So, is he a method actor or a spontaneous one, asked Khushboo.

“To be frank, I don’t know what method acting is. When a director is narrating a script, I wonder why he’s telling the story and why he wanted to make the story. I ask a lot of questions, stupid questions. I understand the essence, and I try to understand the director who’s telling the story. But I don’t follow any formula.”

In his eyes, formulas don’t work in films, and an actor who’s worried about his carefully sculpted image won’t last long.

“I strongly believe that audiences are not coming to see the star; they are there in the cinemas to see the story. The story is the most important,” said Sethupathi. He also remembers a time when he was insecure as an actor in his first film, but has now learned to survive in films. He takes the example of how his “happily married” wife and he get bored of watching their wedding videos.

Vijay Sethupathi
Vijay Sethupathi says he does not follow any formula while acting. Image Credit: Instagram/vijaysethupathi

“After some years, a marriage video shows nothing happening other than us greeting guests and taking presents, so it is boring,” he pointed out. But a formula that works for him in life is to stay grounded in his roots. He recalls how he felt like an ill-dressed misfit during the opening ceremony of IFFI earlier this week when stars like Karan Johar, Shahid Kapoor, and Sara Ali Khan dressed in their finest designer wear.

“I looked like an alien that night … But everything designer is very expensive, and I am like this way. I can’t be comfortable in a suit … But I was insecure when I was there, to be honest,” said Sethupathi. But going by the claps that this comment received, it was clear that the fans love and adore him – dapper or not. Star moderator Kushboo was also quick to jump in that he looked amazing, to which Sethupathi had just one comment.

“She was our dream girl, and this is the most romantic moment in my life,” he pointed out. And for his fans and cinephiles gathered at IFFI 2023, their incredible moment came when they realised that humungous stars like Vijay Sethupathi battle the same demons of self-doubt and insecurity as the rest of us mortals.