With promotions for Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Leo underway in full speed, fans of Joseph Vijay are geared up to celebrate their star in a piecemeal fashion with every tiny update they can get until its release in October. But a culmination of this revelry will be in a dark theatre when they see the word ‘Thalapathy’ thunder the big screen of the film’s opening roll. It might be hard to imagine a time when Vijay didn’t go by this cherished moniker — a title that is now a recurrent presence in just about every poster, trailer and visual material about the actor. How did this title come about for the actor? On Vijay's 49th birthday, let’s revisit his career in Tamil movies through his fan-favourite title cards — some fabled and some obsolete.
Son of director and producer SA Chandrasekhar, Vijay’s first taste of cinema was through his child appearances in his father’s films. In his debut — in which he is credited as Master Vijay, the last name in a line of other actor names — he is Vijay (the first of many films that saw him lend his real name to his character), a younger version of protagonist Vijayakanth, who wants to avenge the death of his dad after seeing him being lit on fire as a young boy. More flashback roles in Vijayakanth-led films followed such as Kudumbam and Vasantha Raagam (eagled-eyed fans might spot director Shankar in a blink-and-you-miss-it role in the movie), before he finally made his starring debut in Naalaya Theerpu (1992).
The SAC film launched the actor at the age of 18 with a note in the beginning of the film, encouraging audiences to accept and bless his son at the movies. After teasing audiences with strategic back and side shots of muscle-flexing and weightlifting, we see an adult Vijay for the first time on screen — and he is in the middle of chiding his mother for doing his chores. The screen freezes on his face and the lines “Vijay, arimugam (Introducing Vijay),” appear.
Although the film was a flop, Naalaya Theerpu, which was about a socially-conscious college student striving to give a better life to his single mom, gave the actor the first platform to mouth call-for-revolution punch dialogues, something that came to be a staple in his brand of films later on. In Sendhoorapandi (1993), SAC’s second film with his son, Vijay got his first prefix. But it wasn’t Ilaya Thalapathy. Seconds after a bus halts at Arasampatti, a Tamil Nadu village where much of the film unfolds, the camera freezes on a grinning Vijay as ‘Ilaya Natchathiram’ appears in the opening credits.
Two years after making his starring debut, the actor got his popular moniker — a prefix that stood by him up until Atlee’s Theri (2016) — in 1994 romance flick Rasigan. The actor, a self-proclaimed Rajinikanth fan, was bitten by the cinema bug because of the superstar. And it was only fitting that his prefix was inspired by a superstar film. Around the release of Rajinikanth and Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi (1991), Vijay received a letter from one of his fans, referring to him as Ilaya Thalapathi. “Ilaya Thalapathi means young captain. I don’t know, ever since then the title came to be,” Vijay said in an interview to News 9, a few years back.
The actor then went on to do a series of films, with the prefix frequently pasted an inch before his name. However, in Chandralekha, an interfaith romance which saw him battle bigotry as a young Muslim man in love with a Hindu woman, ‘Ilaya Thalapathy’ was dropped, and the actor was just introduced as Vijay. A year later, in 1996, it was in Vikraman’s Poove Unakkaga, yet another interfaith romance drama that Vijay got his first big hit. The film, in characteristic fashion, saw him unite a Hindu woman and her Christian lover by converting each of them to the other religion. “Now, you’ll get a Hindu son-in-law and a Christian daughter-in-law. Are you happy,” he asks her parents, in a mic-drop moment in its climax. “There might be places with many kinds of believers and non-believers. But there is no place without love,” he says, even as he is battling heartbreak himself. And in the Vikraman film, he goes back to being credited as Ilaya Thalapathy — the name appears moments after the rivalry between the two religious families are established.
In the 1996 film Vasantha Vaasal, Vijay’s moniker was given a rest with a prefix that was a complete departure. The words ‘Ilam Thendral’ (roughly translates to young breeze) appear on screen, introducing Vijay as an aspiring actor entering Chennai with a heart full of dreams. Was this perhaps an indication that the actor was back to playing the breezy romantic hero with the film?
Ilaya Thalapathy slid right before his name as quickly as it disappeared with his next few hits Once More (1997) and Kadhalukku Mariyadhai (1997). Some films used opening credits with hints of innovation, deftly packing in details even while saying very little. In Vasanth’s Nerukku Ner (1997), the credits roll almost ten minutes after the film begins — what starts off as a cute domestic quarrel turns into a confession that eventually crumbles a marriage. It is here that Vijay and Surya are introduced, as if to show us that along with a marriage, it is also a friendship that’s about to take a hit.
In SJ Suryah’s romance romp Kushi (2000), Vijay and Jyotika’s names appear right after the director takes us through their birth, as if to show us that they’re connected at birth.
And then came Dharani’s Ghilli (2004), a critical and box office darling that changed the trajectory of Vijay’s stardom. Ghilli has an unusually dramatic introduction for the actor, almost as if it knew it was going to change the course of Vijay’s fate. Even before the film’s title card appears, Vijay’s Saravana Vel (his character in the film) walks towards us in his signature black tee, as if hinting us to hop aboard his power-packed adventure with Dhanalakshmi, his name marked with lightning.
A few more typical title cards followed before Bharathan’s Azhagiya Tamil Magan (2007) came along, which switched the ‘Ilaya’ with ‘Idhaya’, making it out to be Idhaya Thalapathy (captain of the heart) for a split second, before his usual moniker appeared.
In 2012, with films like Nanban and Thupakki, which stayed true to the actor’s stardom even while grounding his realities on screen, the actor got relatively sober title cards that blended with the universe of the film. In Nanban, his name appears right as Harris Jayaraj’s ‘En Frienda Pola’ begins, as we’re taken to Ooty along with two friends desperately looking for a friend that changed their lives. And in AR Murugadoss’s thriller Thupakki, his name emerges as an animated montage of the Mumbai metropolis comes alive in the background.
And just like how Ghilli changed the game for the actor, Atlee’s Theri recalibrated the actor’s presence on screen, acknowledging his age and making him a young father. In the 2016 police saga, Vijay plays alter-egos — bakery man Joseph Kuruvilla and ferocious IPS Vijay Kumar. Bursts of lightning and flying stars come together to form his title on screen, with Deva’s title song blasting in the background. The title card, which played out almost like a glorified fan service, also went on to be used in the actor’s Bairavaa (2017).
It was also yet another Atlee film that gave Vijay’s moniker a much-needed updo. Mersal (2017) knocked off the Ilaya before his name, and bestowed a new title we all knew was coming — Thalapathy Vijay. A more stylised title card came in Atlee’s Bigil (2019), which saw the letter ‘V’ shaped with a football and dagger overlooking the actor’s name. The film follows the life of a football coach who shares a painful past with Chennai’s underbelly.
Finally, with Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Master, we got yet another Thalapathy title template marking the Anirudh-Loki era. The title card sequence, which is arguably one of the actor’s most popular till date, has now become the actor’s signature, with Anirudh and Arivu’s Vaathi score reverberating in the background, the beats of which can be heard in the opening credits of Beast (2022) and Varisu (2023). Only October will tell us if Leo will give the newer generation of fans newer title traditions and a different side of their star to chew on.