In many of Vijay Sethupathi’s roles, there is the hint of mischief in the eyes, the half-smile that reveals something but you don’t quite know what, the feeling of lightness however immersive the performance. One of cinema’s greatest tricksters, who gives his all to his characters and yet manages to leave you wanting more, Sethupathi finds himself right at home in Merry Christmas.

In Sriram Raghavan’s new thriller, Sethupathi’s Albert and Katrina Kaif’s Maria meet on Christmas Eve in 1980s Mumbai. Maria is accompanied by her teddy bear-clutching daughter. Albert brings along the suggestion of a past as puzzling as the present.

Sethupathi saw Albert as a romantic. “Albert is a good guy, he wants love, he is waiting like a baby to receive that love,” he told Scroll. “Albert and Maria are victims of circumstance. Life is like a rummy game. It depends on what cards we draw.”

Sethupathi was recently in Mumbai to promote Merry Christmas, which will be out in cinemas on January 12. “I like Mumbai, it has a great vibe, a nice energy,” the Chennai-based actor said. “I don’t feel like leaving when I come to Mumbai, even though I don’t have many friends here.”

Vijay Sethupathi and Katrina Kaif during a photo call to promote Merry Christmas in Mumbai.

At a press conference on Thursday in the megapolis, one of Tamil cinema’s most encomium-laden performers charmed the entertainment media scrum with gentle assertions. Low-key, laidback and witty, Sethupathi stood out without trying to, just like in his movies.

There is no difference between stars and actors – anybody who is in front of a camera needs to act, he told a reporter: “We are here to support storytellers.”

There is no such thing either as a simple or a complex role: “Everything is complex. Standing in front of the camera is difficult.” He enjoyed playing villains, he told another journalist – and by now he was almost winking – “I can’t torture or kill anybody in real life. This way, I can express myself.”

In the sly company of Vijay Sethupathi, it’s not always possible to tell what’s coming next. Self-awareness and self-deprecation, gnomic pronouncements and coruscating insight, inscrutability and revelation – he emits a playfulness that animates his image on and beyond the screen.

That perception smoothly meshes with Merry Christmas, Raghavan said: “Albert is an enigmatic man. He’s full of angst, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at him or talking to him. He’s charming, with a sense of humour. If you look deep and close, you may find clues to his past, but he isn’t saying anything.”

Merry Christmas (2024).

Merry Christmas is Sethupathi’s fourth Hindi-language production after the web series Farzi and the movies Mumbaikar and Jawan. He is among the actors from the South who have torn down the linguistic drawbridge protecting the Hindi film industry, either with the assistance of dubbing artists or by speaking Hindi themselves. (Merry Christmas has also been filmed in Tamil, with the same leads and different actors in certain roles.)

In a previous interview with Scroll, Raghavan recalled that when he approached Sethupathi for Merry Christmas, Sethupathi told him in Hindi: “Main teen saal Dubai mein raha hoon.” I lived in Dubai for three years.

That was the time, in the early 2000s, when the commerce graduate was working in Dubai as an accountant. After returning to Chennai in 2003, Sethupathi briefly joined a theatre group before snagging small parts in Tamil movies, serials and short films. Since his first lead role in Thenmerku Paruvakattru in 2010, he has had a meteoric rise through a staggering variety of parts, from hero to antagonist, lover to senior citizen, cop to revolutionary.

Vikram Vedha (2017).

One of 44-year-old Sethupathi’s attributes, part of a naturalistic performing style that instantly draws viewers to his corner, is a distinctive speaking manner. “Sometimes when Vijay is speaking, the last syllables will slide away,” said Gayatri, one half of the directing duo Pushkar-Gayatri. The couple directed Sethupathi in one of his most acclaimed movies, Vikram Vedha (2017). “Here is also a casualness, even the menace is casual,” Gayatri added.

It’s no surprise that Sethupathi’s name in credits is heralded by the honorific “Makkal Selvan”, or “Treasure of the People”. Southern film stars are often conferred with grandiose titles. Rajinikanth is “Superstar” and Yash is “Rocking Star”. Sethupathi, who was first called “Makkal Selvan” by his Thenmerku Paruvakattru director Seenu Ramaswamy, has a matching public image of being grounded, straight-forward and unspoilt by fame.

Through his speech and mannerisms, Sethupathi embodies “earthiness”, director and occasional actor Rajiv Menon said. “There is an idea in Tamil cinema that dialogue delivery is a sacred thing, but Vijay made it conversational, thereby making his characters everymen,” added Menon, who starred alongside Sethupathi in Vetri Maaran’s Viduthalai (its second part will be released later this year). “He is also willing to push the envelope in terms of his characters, such as playing vulnerable men or a trans woman in Super Deluxe.”

Super Deluxe (2019).

Sethupathi’s particular enunciation served him well during his ascent, which came at a time when mumblecore-ish films were being made in Tamil. These movies, about men involved in gabfests while tackling relationships, friendship or undesirable jobs, included Soodhu Kavvum (2011), Pizza (2012) and Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom (2012).

Balaji Tharaneetharan’s comedy Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom, in which Sethupathi hilariously plays a man who has retrograde amnesia two days before his wedding, was said to be based on the film’s cinematographer Premkumar Chandran. In 2018, Chandran directed Sethupathi in one of his finest roles.

In 96, Sethupathi and Trisha indelibly play school sweethearts who meet again as adults. Trisha’s Janaki is married, Sethupathi’s Ram is an unattached virgin. Over the course of a night, they exchange memories, re-kindle their mutual passion, and weep for what could have been.

“Ram has gone through so much, he has so many layers,” Chandran said. “Sethu [Sethupathi] did it in a very easy fashion. I would give him so many explanations for the character and he would distil the essence into one concentrated drop.”

96 (2018).

Raghavan and Gayatri too attested to Sethupathi’s curiosity as well as his tendency to draw parallels between fiction and his own experiences. This practice helps explains the lived-in, highly convincing quality Sethupathi brings to his roles.

“Vijay and I used to have long discussions about Albert and he would narrate stories about similar people he had met,” Raghavan recalled. “It’s like you want a samosa but you are being offered ten more options.”

Gayatri added, “When we pitched Vedha to him, he was very excited to play a character who couldn’t be pinned down. He has a childish excitement, he is inquisitive, he likes to theorise. He brings a lot to the table. He has a sweet way of putting it. He says, I will make different kinds of dosas. If you don’t like one, I will offer you another.”

Whether consciously or sub-consciously, actual experiences invariably informs performances, Sethupathi observed.

“A character’s past life may not be reflected in the script, but if you dig deep, who knows what nuances may come?” he said. “To spend lots of time with a director and ask unnecessary, stupid questions is a good thing. When a director says, you have brought out what I wrote on the page – that is what an actor lives for. I read my lines but I don’t fix anything, otherwise it can’t be changed later. I absorb.”

Maamanithan (2022).

Sethupathi’s filmography is littered with duds too. His journey has reached a point where he is often the one dependable factor in dross projects, even while there is speculation that he is overstretching himself or doing roles unworthy of him, such as the rebirth-themed comedy Annabelle Sethupathi or the Hindi-language vigilante thriller Jawan.

“I keep saying this to Sethu in a good way – he’s like a caged lion that is being unleashed only in a circus,” Premkumar Chandran said. “That’s not fair for the lion even if the lion prefers it. The lion has to be unleashed in the wild, and you need to see it from a distance to know how majestic it is.”

If there have been disappointments alongside triumphs, Sethupathi takes it in his stride. He rationalises some of his recent choices by pointing to the meat-and-potatoes pragmatism that must exists alongside the caviar-only approach.

“If I knew what was best, then I would always give my best,” he said. “It is an actor’s job to do all kinds of roles, whether commercial or otherwise. If you are successful, you will get the commensurate budget for your next movie. Investors come when the actor is bankable, so that matters too.”

Over the course of his career, he has evolved, and is mindful of the need to stay alert to shifting expectations, he added.

“A friend referred me to a piece of wisdom – if you think you are the greatest, you stop learning new things,” Sethupathi said. “Secondly, when you get angry and you don’t know why, that’s something to battle. Lastly, if your eyes are bigger than your stomach, it will kill you.”

Petta (2019).

Sethupathi produces movies too. Some of them, such as Kadaisi Vivasayi (2022) by M Manikandan – who is also one of Sethupathi’s close friends – and Lenin Bharathi’s Merku Thodarchi Malai (2018), are uncompromising projects, created with passion and the hope that audiences will be as enthused by their themes as were the makers.

“While production just happened, I haven’t really made money from my films,” Sethupathi declared. “We hope that people will like the stories just like we did, which is why we invest in them. It’s a personal choice to take a risk. Sometimes it doesn’t work.”

Between acting, producing, and occasional singing assignments in his films, Sethupathi is a certified workaholic. “When you work, you think,” he said. “When you are committed to something, that’s when you live. When my brain is working, it keeps me both young and mature.”

Chandran, who is working on a sequel to 96, said writer-directors were duty-bound to preserve Sethupathi’s unique gifts. “The zone he is ruling is confined to him,” Chandran said. “He flows, like water. Like is the case with the best of actors, he doesn’t know how he is doing what he is doing.” The more we know of Vijay Sethupathi, the more there is to discover, it appears.

Also read:

Sriram Raghavan on ‘Merry Christmas’ movie: ‘A slow-burning wild ride’