The last time Vijay shared screen space with another big male star was six years ago, when he did Jilla with Mohanlal. But Mohanlal is from the previous generation of actors and isn't from the Tamil film industry. That's why Lokesh Kanagaraj's Master, where he will be acting with Vijay Sethupathi, his contemporary in the industry and a star in his own right, has created so much excitement among Tamil cinema fans.
Male stars in most industries are territorial. While they may have acted in multi-starrers in the process of building their careers, they rarely come together again after they've reached a certain level of stardom. They don't wish to step on each other's toes, and the director, too, has to be wary of offending fans if one star gets priority over another in the story. Even in the Malayalam film industry, where actors have usually given more importance to the script than their stardom, Fazil had to write two different endings to the 1998 film Harikrishnans, which had Mammootty and Mohanlal playing lead roles. There's the question of budget too – can a producer afford to pay two top stars the same remuneration, and expect the film to recover costs and make a profit?
In the Tamil industry, the turf wars are much sharper. But those who've followed the career trajectory of Vijay Sethupathi won't be surprised that Vijay is willing to share screen space with him. They also won't be surprised that Vijay Sethupathi is all right being absent from the film's posters so far (yes, it's a big deal if you know what the egos in the industry are like). Vijay is, of course, a bigger star than Vijay Sethupathi if you consider their net worth, but the former reportedly insisted that 'Makkal Selvan Vijay Sethupathi' appear along with 'Thalapathy Vijay' in the same line of the posters (yes, it matters). It's an acknowledgement of the love the audience has for Vijay Sethupathi, even though his fans are used to the actor stepping back if the film demands it. It's also a recognition that Vijay Sethupathi isn't here to compete for Vijay's throne; he's on a path he's carved for himself.
Last year, Vijay Sethupathi had four releases where he had substantial roles (Marconi Mathai, his Malayalam debut, was only an extended cameo role). While Sangathamizhan and Sindubaadh joined the list of 'Why-Vijay Sethupathi-Why' films, Super Deluxe and Petta had a good run at the box-office. Petta was a tribute to Rajinikanth, and Vijay Sethupathi, who is friends with director Karthik Subbaraj, jumped at the opportunity to act with the superstar. Not only was he cast as the antagonist, he played a man who's duped by the hero in the end. Tamil cinema heroes seldom allow themselves to be insulted on screen, and if at all they do, it is to set up a bloodthirsty revenge. But Vijay Sethupathi was willing to let the audience watch him fail because that's what the script required; he was a villain in the film who got his due, and his off-screen image or the future projects where he may play the hero, didn't hinder him from making this choice. In fact, it's this unpredictability of his role choices that his fans love.
In Master, too, it is said that he is playing the antagonist. Quite a few actors have started out as the villain, but it's rare for them to play a role with negative shades once they've established themselves as the hero. If at all they do, they play "flawed heroes", or they may turn to villain roles if they feel their career is going nowhere.
But Vijay Sethupathi's career is far from over. With Super Deluxe, where he played Shilpa, a trans woman, Vijay Sethupathi broke linguistic barriers to reach new audiences. The crowd beyond the Vindhyas, which caught Super Deluxe on Netflix, couldn't stop raving about his performance and the delicate relationship Shilpa builds with her son Raasukutty. Sarathkumar played a trans woman before Vijay Sethupathi did, but that wasn't in the prime of his career. Ajith played an effeminate Bharatanatyam dancer in Varalaru, but it also included a horrendous sequence where the character rapes a woman to "prove" his masculinity. Shilpa's character wasn't just written with empathy, she had plenty of spunk and agency. Although some trans people took issue with a particular plot point in the film, many welcomed Vijay Sethupathi's performance.
Vijay Sethupathi in Super Deluxe
The actor's filmography is full of such instances, when he has valued the script over his image. Take 96, where the build-up is for the heroine, and not the hero. It is when Trisha enters the scene as Janaki that the audience erupts. Ram, Vijay Sethupathi's character, is just as important in the film – but that's the point. How many Tamil films have we seen where the hero and heroine have equal roles? In fact, in the opening credits, their names appear at the same time and not the hero followed by the heroine as is convention. In 96, Vijay Sethupathi allowed himself to play a hero who is gentle, caring, and would rather live in his dream world than put up a fight in the real one. He'd rather let the woman he loves go than make a move that could potentially disrupt her life. While most people loved the film, a few found it unreal that a man would be so hung up on his old love and wouldn't have moved on. Yes, it is perhaps cinematic, but what have the cinematic interpretations of such characters been so far? Alcoholism and an assertion of toxic masculinity, not the narrative that we watched in 96.
In Seethakaathi, an experimental film, he was willing to disappear after an hour of screen time and let the other, lesser known stars, take the film forward. It wasn't an extended cameo, it was a substantial role that came to an end while the film is still going on. This is unheard of in a film that's headlined by a male star – he will either stay alive right till the last scene or will make a comeback as the dead hero's son and fill every frame. He doesn't just vanish. But Vijay Sethupathi is fine with doing that, too.
His filmography is a curious mix of all kinds of roles – from the cranky old man in the offbeat Orange Mittai, to the completely bizarre Junga in an inane Junga; from the comic wannabe rowdy in Naanum Rowdy Dhaan, to the swashbuckling villain in Vikram Vedha. He does films with solo leads, he does multi-starrers (he made his Telugu debut last year in one, Sye Raa). He does films with Vijay and he does films with Aamir Khan (the upcoming Laal Singh Chaddha).
Those who watch his films never go in thinking it will be a "mass" film, they don't even go in thinking the film will be worth it (he's starred in enough duds). All they know is that Vijay Sethupathi will be darned entertaining in it. And they're willing to spend their money to take that chance.
At a time when the antagonist role has lost its value in big budget, mainstream Tamil cinema, it will take an actor of Vijay Sethupathi's stature to stand up to the hero effectively without the audience resenting it. And that's why, like everyone else, we're excited for Master too.