Born Joseph Vijay Chandrasekhar, Tamil actor Vijay is among Kollywood's top stars who holds tremendous power over the box office and commands big openings across the state.
Among the generation of heroes who came into the scene after the heydays of Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, he's probably the only one who has succeeded in inventing a formula for himself and sticking to it.
Actors like Vikram, Ajith, and Suriya who also made their debut as the male lead in the 90s, at a time when college romance was the most popular genre, have since experimented with characters, appearances, and genres.
Prashanth, who was also quite successful in this period, slipped into oblivion gradually. His attempts at trying to stick to the chocolate boy image failed as Tamil cinema evolved and newer stars came into the picture.
Vijay, however, has stuck to doing the same kind of cinema ever since he became a big star, towards the beginning of the new millennium. Surprisingly, though his films are firmly of the "masala" type and have repetitive elements, they remain entertainers that are in the "paisa vasool" category.
While Vijay's romance flicks like Kadhaluku Mariyadhai, Kushi and Priyamanavale - with Shalini, Jyothika and Simran respectively - did well at the box-office, it was his reinvention as an action hero which really gave him the kind of fanbase that he has today.
His 2003 film Thirumalai, in which he plays the role of a mechanic who falls in love with a rich girl (Jyothika) established him as a "mass" action hero. Since then, right from the title of his films to the kind of components they have, follow a pattern, no matter who the director is.
A Vijay film usually has a short, "punchy" title - Gilli, Pokkiri, Sura, Kaththi , Theri etc - which doesn't really tell you much about its genre or story because there is no need to say anything else about it other than the fact that it's a Vijay film.
The characters he plays tend to be from a lower social economic strata - a fisherman, welder, mechanic - or middle-class, when he wears a uniform, but firmly rooted in the "local". Just like Rajinikanth, he never attempts to be "sophisticated" (except maybe in a film like Nanban which was the remake of 3 Idiots), not wanting to risk alienating his primary audience.
The issues he confronts in his films broadly fall under "social justice" even if the crusades remain surface-level. Taking on corporates, corrupt politicians, terrorists - all of these are part of the Vijay film template.
He's always on the side of the right and plays up a kind of morality that's of "mass" appeal. He will speak up for the poor but also include righteous advice to women on how to dress and behave (remember Sivakasi?) even as the heroines are always fair-skinned and glamorous. He stands for a brand of street-smart, aggressive masculinity and is unapologetic about it.
Vijay is an excellent dancer and all his films, without a fail, include a fast dance number or two. Songs like Appadi Podu Podu still have fantastic recall value because of how alive his dancing was.
He's also good at comedy. His comedy scenes with Jayaram and Kajal Aggarwal in Thuppaki worked because he has a decent sense of timing and is surprisingly good at self-deprecating humour although it's not something we see him do often. This was also one of his few films which had a heroine who drinks, occasionally smokes and is the kind of "modern" that he generally doesn't go for as a rule in his other films.
Though younger actors like Sivakarthikeyan are attempting to emulate Vijay's success formula and occupy the position that he does, they're not quite in the same league as he is in yet. He slips up occasionally (he flirted with fantasy in Puli and that didn't quite work), but the average Vijay film is a promising entertainer with a decent plot, catchy music, thrilling fight scenes, and popcorn romance. He's come a long way since Naalaiya Theerpu, his debut film, which was a box office disaster.
You don't have to think too much while watching Vijay's films and while that might not sound like a compliment, it speaks highly of his screen presence and ability to draw audiences to theatres even at a time when Tamil cinema is transitioning to more meaningful films. Bairavaa, Vijay's Pongal release, sounds every bit like...well, a Vijay film. And that's more than enough to keep his fans happy. The formula shows every sign of working once again, big time.