Sriram Raghavan was on a flight to Australia for an award ceremony when he watched Premkumar’s Tamil romantic drama 96 (2018). He was blown away by Vijay Sethupathi’s performance in the film – a brooding photographer still in love with his childhood sweetheart – and was happy to run into the actor at the same event in Melbourne. That’s how Sethupathi became a part of Merry Christmas, a delicious neo noir thriller with an undercurrent of romance.
“Vijay Sethupathi’s character, Albert, was originally not written as a Tamil character,” revealed Raghavan. “When we met for the film, we used to spend a lot of time just talking about the character and the story. He interacts with a whole lot of people though he’s a star. He’s full of anecdotes and experiences. He remembers a good line someone told him somewhere. We might be talking about a particular scene, but he will happily meander to 4-5 other things. But somewhere, it all adds to the kind of actor he is,” said the director.
Raghavan had been looking for casting options for Merry Christmas even before he worked on his blockbuster film, Andhadhun (2018). “Most people would have expected me to do a film similar to Andhadhun, but I didn’t want to follow the same template. Katrina Kaif came on board first because she was keen to work in this zone, and I was wondering who to get for Albert,” he said.
In Merry Christmas, Kaif plays Maria, a married woman with a child, who meets Albert at a restaurant. The film hoodwinks you into believing that this is an innocent romance only to pull the rug from under your feet. “Since they are strangers, I wanted an oddball pairing. I didn’t want the viewers to have preconceived notions about them. I was toying with various people from the Hindi film industry, but nothing clicked,” said Raghavan.
That’s when he met Sethupathi at the award ceremony – the latter was picking up a trophy for his performance as a trans woman in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe (2019). “I’d watched him in his earlier films, too. Films like Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom (2012) that he did before he became a star. I tentatively asked him if he speaks Hindi and he told me – in Hindi – that he’d lived in Dubai for three years and knew the language well,” said Raghavan.
Still, it was 2023 by the time Vijay Sethupathi – who’d built a formidable reputation in Tamil cinema since his debut in an uncredited role in 1996 – forayed into Hindi. His first role in Hindi was in the OTT space – Farzi (2023), directed by Raj & DK and streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Incidentally, Farzi, also starring Shahid Kapoor, Raashii Khanna and Kay Kay Menon, has emerged as the most watched Hindi web series of all time with an estimated lifetime viewership of 37 million. Sethupathi plays the role of Michael Vedanagayam IPS, a Special Task Officer and the head of a unit tracking counterfeit currency.
“It’s a show about the middle class. The angsty young men who have a certain skill set [counterfeiting] but not recognition. They’re one among the millions. They want an identity and lack scruples. Making the notes is not only about getting rich but also a f*ck you to society,” said Raj & DK, explaining why the show connected so well with the viewers.
Michael, who is hunting these angsty young men, is also a middle class man but a middle-aged one. “While shooting The Family Man 2 in Chennai, Vijay Sethupathi dropped in to say hello to Manoj Bajpayee and us. This was the first time we were meeting him though we had watched and loved his work before that. We chatted and found him to be a very interesting person. Right then and there, we had this thought of casting him in our next series, Farzi,” the director duo said.
Among Michael’s baggage is his strained relationship with his soon-to-be-ex wife. Much like Srikant Tiwari (Manoj Bajpayee) of The Family Man series, Michael is good at his job but struggles with his closest relationships. Sethupathi plays the role with a kind of black humour that comes naturally to him.
“By default, a lot of people are disgruntled by the time they reach a midpoint in their lives. Most of it stems from the relationship they are in. If you take a typical setup, you will see these cracks. Either you work on them or it breaks. These flawed characters are necessary because if life is all good, the story ends there,” said Raj & DK.
In Merry Christmas, too, Albert is a flawed character, weighed down by his own actions. These grey characters that Sethupathi has explored aplenty in Tamil cinema, be it Pizza (2012), Soodhu Kavvum (2013), Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum (2016), Vikram Vedha (2017), Master (2021), Vikram (2022) or Viduthalai: Part One (2023), sit easily on his shoulders. The actor is able to humanise the characters, to an extent that even when he’s playing the villain or someone who has done a terrible deed, the viewer understands his story and where he’s coming from.
There is a sequence in Merry Christmas where Albert and Maria unwind together at Maria’s home, chatting, drinking and dancing. At this point, we haven’t yet learnt of their respective histories and motives. They just look like two people having a great time. “The chemistry between Katrina and Vijay Sethupathi was so good,” said Raghavan. “I didn’t want it to play like a song sequence. I wanted it to be like a scene. We didn’t want to rehearse it too much. I wanted Vijay [Sethupathi] to be reluctant to dance but then give it his all and have fun. I wanted an improvised feeling. It was very quickly done. Ninety percent of it was a single shot. I wanted the viewer to be a fly on the wall.”
As Sethupathi does the bee’s knees dance, it’s difficult not to be charmed by his awkwardness that gradually gives way to gaiety. We’re lulled into believing that this is the beginning of a great love story; it is, but not in the way we think. Anyone who has followed Sethupathi’s filmography would affirm that there is a lot of his real life personality in the characters he portrays. This may seem contradictory to what “good acting” is supposed to be – where the actor disappears into the character. But that’s not necessarily true.
“An actor can transform completely, so much so that you don’t even recognise the actor. It’s a great feat. But I think it is as great a feat if you still see the actor but you’re not tired of it. You’re enjoying their personality in any role they do. That is the charm of the actor,” pointed out Raj & DK.
Between Farzi and Merry Christmas, Sethupathi did two Hindi films – Mumbaikar (2023), a forgettable remake of Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Maanagaram (2017) that streamed directly on Jio Cinema, and the massively successful Jawan (2023). In the Atlee directorial, Sethupathi plays Kaali Gaikwad, an arms dealer who is of Maharashtrian origin but has a south Indian link (he studied in a corporation school in Srikakulam). Pitted against Shah Rukh Khan, Sethupathi brought his characteristic goofiness to Kaali’s role though he was playing a rather stereotypical antagonist.
Tanushree Ghosh, film journalist and critic with Moneycontrol, said that there are boxes in which south Indian actors tend to be cast in Hindi cinema – either as cop or villain. “I think Hindi cinema needs to evolve to make more organic, character-oriented scripts/cinema, not flat cutouts and templates where actors like Sethupathi can not only fit but elevate the whole experience of the film,” she noted.
Has the Hindi audience accepted Vijay Sethupathi? It’s too soon to tell, considering his choices have been so varied, from an unapologetically mainstream multistarrer like Jawan that made over Rs 1,000 crore to a more cerebral Merry Christmas that appeals to a niche audience and has raked in around Rs 15 crore so far. But, that’s pretty much how the actor has gone about building his career. His filmography is a mixed bag, full of hits and misses, wonderful films and clear misfires. Yet, he remains Makkal Selvan because he’s almost always good even in a terrible film.
Sriram Raghavan has an interesting way to describe Sethupathi’s approach to acting – he’s a buffet meal. “We might be shooting a very important scene and I’d be focused on getting it right. But he would be very casual, having a samosa outside or something. If I called him, he would gobble it up and come,” the director said with a laugh. “I once asked him if he didn't psych himself up or prep for a scene. He told me that it wasn’t necessary because we’d had all those conversations about the story and the character. It seems effortless but I’m sure it isn’t. Some of his ideas on the set would be radically different from what I had in mind but they would work. He’s a guy who gives you a buffet when you want one piece of a dish.”