When Vedha makes an appearance in Vikram Vedha, 30 minutes into the film, the audience erupts.
We still haven't seen Vedha's face. We're shown the swagger, the salt and pepper hair, but it's enough to make the crowd delirious.
No, it isn't Ajith we're talking about. It's Vijay Sethupathi, who may not be among the kings of Kollywood yet, but has become a phenomenon in an industry where stardom is often the nemesis of an actor's growth.
Vijay Sethupathi or VS as he's known, has been around in the Tamil film industry for 13 years now. For many of those years, he appeared in small, uncredited roles. As he once told TNM, as a struggling young actor he'd go around dropping off his photos at production houses and wait till late in the night to go home, to give his family the impression that he was really busy.
Making it big in the film industry is no simple task, but it's harder still to mess with the formula once you've tasted success. But perhaps that's VS's secret, which lets him continue experimenting with a range of roles, from a caustic-tongued old man to a villain with swag – he never had a formula to begin with.
An absolute natural on screen, VS mumbles his dialogues half the time. And yet, his seemingly throwaway lines like "Yei, hi!" (addressed to a paati in Vikram Vedha) or "chutneya centrela oothu" (Aandavan Kattalai) evoke spontaneous mirth in the audience. He's a thorough entertainer and doesn't disappoint even if the film itself happens to be a dud.
VS is what one would call a "mass" actor, but the adjective doesn't restrict the kind of films he does. His apparent lack of "sophistication" works to his advantage. For instance, when Madhavan says "enakku power venum possison venum" in Ayutha Ezhuthu, you can tell that the actor is deliberately mispronouncing "position".
When VS says, "chaaice" instead of "choice", however, it slips out of him with ease – there is a realism he's able to bring to his roles, blurring the boundaries between star and audience. He creates the illusion of playing himself, in his own skin, every time he creates a character and yet manages to play a diverse range of roles with conviction – from a driver in a village in Pannaiyarum Padminiyum to a suited-up journalist in Kavan.
VS is the "unnaipol oruvan" (commoner like you) man as far as the audience is concerned, and he's managed to achieve this without resorting to building himself up as an all-conquering hero, in the mould of quickly rising superstars like Sivakarthikeyan.
He seems uninterested in ticking the usual boxes that actors seem to think the audience wants. After he won the State Film Award for Sundarapandian for his role as villain, VS acted in Pizza – the dark horse Karthik Subbaraj horror film that went on to become a superhit. He was fantastic as Michael, who wins the audience's sympathy as the hapless pizza delivery boy caught in a haunted house. By the end of the film, however, you realise that he's been hoodwinking you all along.
VS followed up Pizza with the hilarious Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanam (directed by Balaji Tharaneetharan), the tale of a man who suffers from memory loss two days before his wedding.
As he stands onstage, exclaiming "PPAAAHHH" in horror every time he sees his bride, you can't but explode with laughter. In the hands of a less talented actor, the film would have become repetitive and predictable. But though VS repeats sequences and dialogues almost throughout the film, he never gets boring.
The black comedy genre demands an actor who understands irony and VS has delivered exemplary performances in such films - be it Soothu Kavvum, a screwball "kednapping" drama, Orange Mittai, a film about a disgruntled old man who calls an ambulance to entertain himself, Naanum Rowdy Dhaan, in which he tries to be a hardcore criminal to impress his girlfriend, or Aandavan Kattalai, an existential drama on ordinary people tangled in bureaucratic red tape.
He has tried his hands in "masala" and action films like Rekka and Sethupathi, but has refused to be typecast in such roles and has quickly moved on to breaking the mould before it traps him.
And though VS is amazing in humorous roles, he's equally capable of wringing tears. Be it Dharma Durai or Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum, he brings a certain vulnerability to his face, displaying pain and hurt without ever overdoing it.
As an actor, he's willing to share the screen with others and doesn't grab every frame for himself. He's also willing to play grey roles – whether in an Iraivi, where he plays a violent man who cheats on his spouse, or in his latest release Vikram Vedha with Madhavan, as a smart villain with a heart.
Unlike the reigning kings of Kollywood who do only a couple of the same-old high budget flicks a year, VS does several films and what's more, he appears to be having fun in each of them.
Vijay Sethupathi's arrival in Tamil cinema is more than just a mark of his personal success – it speaks of the evolution of the audience, too, which may continue to celebrate the superstars but is developing an appetite for films that reject tired stereotypes and storytelling. Vedha's time has come and the kings might well have to make their way.