Ask any Tamil director about the hit formula for a Vijay film and pat comes the answer. “An entertainer with a message,” said SJ Suryah, the director of one of Vijay’s superhits, Kushi (2000).

A Vijay starrer is a complete package – romance, drama, and action sequences peppered with comedy. The 42-year-old screen icon’s mass entertainers usually manage magical results at the box office. Vijay’s most recent release, Atlee Kumar’s Theri, is 2016’s biggest blockbuster thus far, and it’s precisely the formulaic elements such as emotions, humour, family sentiments, fights and songs that have worked in its favour.

In Theri, Vijay plays a former police officer who seeks to avenge his wife’s death. “If you’re doing a Vijay film, you need to know your target audience,” Atlee Kumar said. “It needs to be a pucca commercial film.”

Vijay is more familiar to Hindi moviegoers than they realise. The Salman Khan starrer Wanted (2009) was a remake of the Telugu blockbuster Pokiri, which starred Mahesh Babu and was remade in Tamil with Vijay as Pokkiri. Bodyguard (2011), also starring Khan, was a remake of a Malayalam movie that featured Vijay in the Tamil version. Vijay’s Thuppakki (2012) was retooled as the Akshay Kumar starrer Holiday (2014). There are rumours that Theri will be remade in Hindi, by either Akshay Kumar or Shah Rukh Khan.
The trailer of ‘Theri’.

The box office business of Theri extends beyond Vijay’s home turf. Made for Rs 65 crore, the movie has done unprecedented business overseas, said producer Kalaippuli S Thanu. “We sold the US rights of Theri for three crore rupees and it made Rs 2.6 crore within just three days of its release,” Thanu said. “The film has done extremely well in Australia too. It’s made over Rs 150 crore of business so far and is still doing well.”

Vijay’s reach extends to the Kerala market. Theri’s Kerala rights alone have fetched the producer about Rs 5.5 crore. This is much higher than the Rs 3.5 crore that a film starring Suriya, another Tamil star with a fairly large following in Kerala, is likely to fetch.

Right from his debut, Vijay’s career has been carefully scripted, mostly by his father, the popular director SA Chandrasekar. By the time Vijay was launched as a hero in Naalaiya Theerpu in 1992, he had already appeared in half a dozen films as a child actor. The big break came in 1996, with Vikraman’s Poove Unakkaga. “He was not a Hrithik Roshan, who was a superstar right from his first film,” said G Dhananjayan, the founder of BOFTA Film Academy in Chennai and the author of two books on Tamil cinema. “Vijay did a spate of romantic films like Love Today, Once More, Kadhalukku Mariyadaai and Thullatha Manamum Thullum and slowly worked his way into the audience’s minds. He struggled for a good five-six years before he got a firm grounding in the industry.”

After several romantic entertainers, Vijay slipped into the action hero mode with films like Thirumalai (2003) and Gilli (2004), and he has never looked back. His boy-next-door looks, which haven’t changed much over the years, continue to work to his advantage. He is often commended for his comic timing and his dexterous dance moves.

‘Appadi Podu’ from ‘Gilli’ (2004).

Fondly called “Ilayathalapathy” (young chief) by his admirers, Vijay’s image as a principled hero has earned him fans in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. “He comes across as a mild-mannered guy who is never aggressive or rude,” Dhananjayan said. “In the South, these values are always appreciated. For the audience, he is the ideal son, husband or brother.” Vijay has been mindful of this image while choosing his films, avoiding roles with overtly negative traits, unlike his box office rival, Ajith.

Vijay is also said to be bereft of the star trappings that are often associated with a celebrity of his stature. His co-workers describe him as an easygoing star to work with. SJ Surya, who has directed Vijay in Kushi (2000) and Ajith in Vaali (1999), compares the two: “Ajith is a storm who lives like a breeze, while Vijay is a breeze who lives like a storm.”

Vijay’s producers also find him flexible when it comes to his remuneration. “He accepts his payments in monthly installments instead of a lump sum,” Surya said. “That eases our pressure. He also compensates producers in case they incur losses. He is very amenable, self-restrained and punctual – these are qualities any producer would like.”

More than his manners, it’s his moolah-raking ability that makes Vijay a viable proposition for Tamil film producers. Vijay is a minimum guarantee hero, whose movies are sold at a specific rate to the distributors before a film’s release. “Even if the film is not a box office superhit, it still makes money for his producers,” Dhananjayan said.

The actor isn’t without his share of flops. In 2010, theatre owners refused to support Vijay’s films, pointing out that they had incurred losses with Azhagiya Thamizh Magan, Kuruvi, Villu, Vettaikkaran and Sura. The release of Thalaivaa in 2013Thalaivaa bombed at the box office. The 2015 fantasy drama Puli, which also starred Sridevi, also tanked.
The trailer of ‘Thailavaa’.

When Vijay’s movies work, they work very well. His films are usually made within budgets of Rs 60-75 crore, and the ones that succeed are estimated to collect about Rs 80-90 crore at the very least for the producers. Vijay has also assiduously cultivated his public image, unlike other stars such as Rajinikanth and Ajith who prefer to keep away from the promotional campaigns of their upcoming releases. Vijay, in keeping with his image as a mass hero, is present at almost all such events and is even available for media interactions. Ajith has officially disbanded his fan associations, while Vijay continues his interactions with his devotees, at times even on social media sites like Twitter.

Regional magazines and websites often pit Vijay against Ajith in a bid to name a successor to Rajinikanth. Stepping into Rajinikanth’s large shoes is, however, a challenge for any Tamil film actor. With well over 150 films to his name, Rajinikanth’s star power and commercial value remain unparalleled. Such comparisons only serve to infuriate fans of Vijay and Ajith, often resulting in nasty verbal sparring on social media.

For Vijay’s legions of admirers, his journey has only just begun. He has started shooting for his 60th movie with Bharathan, who has previously directed him in Azhagiya Thamizh Magan (2007). Keerthy Suresh will be the heroine of the untitled project, while Santhosh Narayanan is composing the music. The film is expected to hit theatres in January 2017 in time for Pongal, the harvest festival that has reaped huge benefits for Tamil movie stars over the years.