Music
In this exclusive interview, the singer speaks about his relationship with his famous father, his music career and his upcoming debut film.
Facebook/Vijay Yesudas

At seven, Vijay Yesudas stood with his famous father onstage, singing. To anyone looking at the young boy, his life would have appeared to be a bed of roses. However, despite his famous last name or perhaps because of it, Vijay had to struggle to make it on his own.

He recalls how he used to fall sick whenever he was called for a recording, especially if it was for Vidyasagar for whom he first sang – he’d catch a cold or suffer from a headache out of nervousness. It took a while for Vijay to break out of his inhibitions and become the confident singer that he is now.

For someone who used to sit in class and knock on the desk, humming a tune while the teacher taught Physics or Biology, taking the plunge into the music industry was a no-brainer. Now, 18 years since he started, Vijay has numerous hits across languages under his belt. And he’s looking to debut as hero in Dhana’s Padai Veeran.

Ahead of the film’s release in June, The News Minute caught up with the man whose Malarey song from the blockbuster Premam turned him into a pan Indian sensation.

The title of your new film Padai Veeran sounds like an action flick but the poster suggests a romance. What is it about?

It’s not a battle film or a warrior film. It’s in a rural setting. It’s about this one guy in the village and what happens to him. The most important things that happen in his life – falling in love, fighting with somebody…an arch nemesis. Then there’s also the people he listens to, people he admires, his friends. The story is one year in this guy’s life. It starts at a festival and ends at a festival.

How did the film happen?

Dhana was Mani Ratnam sir’s assistant and he knew me from the time when I recorded for Kadal. He’s the one who narrated the lyrics to me then. After Kadal and OK Kanmani, he gave me a call in February last year and said ‘I need to meet you’. He told me that he’s doing his first film and that he wants to talk to me…I thought it was for recording a song. But it ended up being a story narration for the main lead.

I listened and asked him why me, what makes you think I’ll fit the role. And he told me that he wants somebody with a name but not someone who is known as an actor…not someone popular such that people can identify his type of acting and characteristics. He wanted someone who will go into the character, not take his characteristics into it.

Why did you decide to take the leap into acting?

I did a cameo as a singer in a Malayalam film first. That was just a try…I just wanted to see what I looked like on camera. And the pay was good, to be very honest. That was just a job. You get it done with and you get paid. But I’m looking at this to establish myself as an actor…to see if I can do it or not. Maari was proof of that but that was a film with an actor like Dhanush, it was a big banner. This film, it’s for me to see what I can do. I never got offers like this when I was younger. And I probably wouldn’t have done it then anyway. Guys start looking better when they grow older. You look more confident as you age, I suppose! I’m just going with the flow.

These days it’s not enough for a singer to sing. They must also perform. Do you enjoy this aspect of it?

I started singing with my dad onstage when I was only seven. But going to the University of Miami, going through vocal training and all that stuff…you learn so much. It gave me a lot of perspective on how you can perform. I used to just stand there onstage before that. And performances evolve, you know…I’ve been one of the first few who began dancing and performing in the industry back in 2001-2002.

What does your father think about it? Does he think singers should also perform?

He doesn’t believe in doing it. But see, performance doesn’t necessarily mean dancing. You don’t have to move your feet. For people, just listening to him is a mind-blowing performance. He doesn’t need to tell them to clap their hands…they’ll do it on their own. With the kind of repertoire that he has, every other song he sings, they know what reaction to give. If anything, he needs to tell them to keep it down a bit!

We’re younger and we can do it. Actually, when he was younger, he also used to do costume changes to suit his songs. Dress like a Hindu, Muslim or Christian when he was singing devotional songs. With age, you become like fine wine and can stay classy!

Looking from the outside, people must assume it must have been easy for you to establish yourself…

Even my colleagues and friends, if I tell them I’m struggling financially, they kind of laugh at it… they’re like, you are one of the top singers, what are you talking about? You have this, you have that. They don’t believe me. It’s the same thing when I say I had to struggle to become a singer. They say you have your famous last name.

To a certain extent yes, it did help. Maybe I got to meet music directors easily but then, being my dad’s son, I couldn’t go to them and say, “Please give me a chance.” They were like, “Aiyo, why are you coming and asking for a chance. We’ll call you.” But then they won’t call!

I had to just keep waiting…till what had to come to me came. You can push all you want, call people, text them, be very social. But if you get into that studio and don’t do your job properly and you don’t have a voice, nothing matters. And then, they have to give you songs that matter. It has to be at least one of the main songs, in an important position in the film. Otherwise, if you’re just singing a song and it doesn’t come in the film, then gone! You don’t get that impact.

In Malayalam, it took me Kolakuzhal and the Kerala State Awards for the doors to open. It was then that people trusted in me and gave me good songs. Until then, there were people who were giving me chances…but not like what it is now. There are many music composers who want to work with me now because I’ve got the songs to prove myself. But in order to get to that stage, you need a breakthrough hit which will open up the market for you. All that you can’t plan…

What about your children? Have they taken to music as well?

Ammeya is 8 and Avyan is going to be 2. Ammeya is learning but Avyan is too young. He’s humming tunes though…he loves Ed Sheeran’s Shape of you. He’s picked up the “Ooah ooah ooah” and he’s already humming it correctly. My daughter is learning classical music and piano as well. She did well in her first piano exam. But she sees me traveling all the time and she doesn’t want to do it professionally. Hopefully that will change with time!

They listen to all kinds of music. When my daughter was born, there was an M Jayachandran song…Koovaram Kili…whenever it played on TV, she would become quiet and stop crying. So, everybody had to learn that song!

Everyone must have asked you what you learnt from your father. But what about your mother? Managing a busy husband and three boys can’t have been easy.

She was with us all the time. There was not one moment when I felt oh my dad is not around. She was our glue. She’s also the most sensitive person in the house…handling four guys, she’d become the punching bag! But she was a good punching bag (laughs).

Are you close to your dad? Do you share everything with him?

Not everything. My parents are quite orthodox. For instance, if I took selfies with my friends and there are guys and girls standing together…they don’t exactly understand that we respect each other’s space and we’re comfortable doing this, not crossing the line. Even now, my parents ask me and my brothers where we’re going, why we’re coming so late! It doesn’t change. My parents brought up the three boys like three girls – we had all these restrictions. You wouldn’t be let out after evening to go for the movies, for example. It was much later that we got a chance to do all this.

What’s your view on the SPB-Ilaiyarajaa spat?

It was just a legal notice sent by Ilaiyarajaa’s lawyers to the organisers. The media made it into a clash between the two of them. IPRs was made initially for that – to ensure royalty collections when people use their songs for any entertainment purposes. In this case, Raja Sir was able to hire lawyers to ensure that it’s done. When the tour was announced, they sent a notice…they didn’t say you can’t perform. They said this is what you have to pay if you’re singing these songs.

The thing is, we’re just starting to make this a proper system now, we’re not there yet. We now have people like Javedji and others coming together to create a new IPRs…the system isn’t clear as of now. The same issue happened with us when my brother sent an email to Unni Menon and others asking what are the songs you’re performing, let us know…that was turned into “Oh Yesudas is asking for royalty”. It was unnecessary hype.

Do you feel the music industry has become more democratic now?

Oh yes. The new generation is much more chilled out. Hopefully less ego with music directors, singers and everywhere. People just want to make good products and work with each other well. That’s what we need…there’s no No.1 or No.2. There’s also independent music and a lot of people are doing that now…lots of rock bands…people are using social media, YouTube channels, Instagram etc to connect with the audience. That’s a big advantage for people creating their own stuff. Nobody can say you can’t do this or that as a singer. 

All images courtesy: Facebook/Vijay Yesudas