Vijay Sethupathi: Tamil Cinema's Postmodern Hero
Vijay Sethupathi's take-off as Kollywood superstar is unprecedented. Achieved, as it were, by subverting the industry's heroic conventions.
There's a special place in the hearts of Tamil cinephiles for a good rag to riches story. With stories of drastic upturns in fortune, whether on-screen or in real life, the mystique of the parvenu lingers. A most recent trailblazing ascent from bit-part obscurity to whistleblowing pre-eminence in Kollywood has mythoclastic resonances, achieved, as it were, by vitiating the industry's totemic hero cult. Out of the wreckage of Tamil popular culture, with its defunct anachronisms, hackneyed formulas, and eviscerated binaries, a new bricoleur emerges. A protean artiste who is de rigueur for liberating the Tamil cinematic protagonist from the straitjacket of history, canon, and orthodoxy. Meet the postmodern Tamil hero, Vijay Sethupathi.
A progeniture of the cinematic efflorescence that was the Tamil New Wave in Indian cinema, Vijay Sethupathi (Sethupathi, to differentiate him from coeval and antithesis megastar Joseph Vijay) got his breakthrough as the leading man in independent Tamil films in 2012. This after obscurity in the noughties doing short films and uncredited walk-on roles in feature films. Lavished with critical acclaim for his naturalistic performances, Sethupath has became the icon of the Tamil indie; even attracting the attention of auteurs from Hindi indie cinema. Expanding his oeuvre in a prolific output of films these past years, Sethupathi now knocks on the doors of Kollywood's A-List megastar duopoly.
Yet, Sethupathi's take-off is unparalleled. Concomitant with Tamil cinema's postmodern turn with the onset of the Tamil New Wave, his popularity was achieved by subverting the industry's heroic conventions. Reflexively dismantling the myth of the questing hero and abnegating his messianic impulses, Sethupathi's protagonists are the fragmented decentered entities of post-industrial society. Indeed, Sethupathi's protagonists exist in and contribute to petit recits that resist the imposition of a master narrative and spurn didacticism. He may very well have carved a niche in playing well-meaning but dysfunctional characters unable and unwilling to serve any grand teleological function. Collapsing binaries and eschewing moral dichotomies, his insouciant nihilists defy archetypes. Probably speaking to a collective existentialist anomie, Sethupathi has enjoyed great critical and commercial successes as the postmodern Tamil hero. As he continues an inexorable ascent to become a superstar it becomes instructive to hermeneutically dissect this Sethupathi persona.
To recapitulate an argument I have made before in an article published with this magazine: the foremost symptom of Tamil cinema's postmodern condition was the disavowal of the heroic quest that has been its coalescing modernist feature. Very much a product of modernity in India, cinema as an art form creates legitimizing myths that are bounded, coherent, and structured in a linear fashion. The occasional flashbacks, comedic interludes, and song-and-dance items notwithstanding, a grand mission provides the teleological outcome underpinning the metanarrative for every film text.
Whether he's a swashbuckling prince, bleeding heart reformist, die-hard romantic, suffering patriarch, supercop, mafioso, vigilante, or social bandit, inter alia, the valorous and righteous Tamil film protagonist from the late '50s to the mid-'00s is a centripetal force providing the narrative with a rational objective as the emissary of postcolonial modernity. However, with the efflorescence of postmodern Tamil films, the hero has been unburdened from the weight of a transformative quest.
Indeed, as the postmodern Tamil hero, the Sethupathi-persona seems to suggest: since omnipotent heroes do not exist in reality, why bother with them on-screen? His characters demonstrate what Jean-Francois Lyotard refers to as "incredulity toward metanarrative" – a rejection of the postcolonial modernity in Tamil cinema. These figures throw the entire ideological mission associated with each film text into disarray.
In the most recent addition to postmodern Tamil cinema, the dark comedy Naanum Rowdy Dhaan (2015), as 'Pondy' Pandi, Sethupathi can only be loosely referred to as playing the hero. Not only does Pandi hijack his lover's quest for vendetta, as film critic Ranjani Krishnakumar points out, he also completely bungles the entire task.
Far from being a formulaic hero, Pandi in Naanum Rowdy Dhaan is a cowering, manipulative, lying, and scheming Mummy's Boy, who weasels his way out of dangerous situations or gets very lucky. Only redeemed by his affection for loved ones as well as a quick-thinking opportunism, this comic hero can neither fulfil a messianic role nor does he profess to be truly interested in one in the first place. Antithetically, in the more orthodox Bairavaa (2017), the eponymous action hero, played by Joseph Vijay, not only commandeers the heroine's quest but also singlehandedly accomplishes the mission.
In the end, Pandi abandons his childhood aspiration of being a gangster preferring to become a cop – a job his equally manipulative policewoman mother pulls strings to get him into. Self-reflexively undermining the edifices of messianism associated with the cult of the omnipotent Tamil hero, the decontructivist project in Naanum Rowdy Dhaan and even the recent Junga (2018) augments Sethupathi's mythoclastic persona.
Sethupathi appears at ease in deconstructing presuppositions about the Tamil hero. Whether he is the lovable hooligan Kathiravan in Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum (2016) who is hyped as a pugilist but is the one always getting beaten up, featuring in a cameo in the filmmaker protagonist's stylized vision of the gangster 'Assault' Sethu in the meta-cinematic Jigarthanda (2014) who is nothing more than a cold-blooded killer feared by all and loved by none, or playing the incorrigible Michael in Iraivi (2016) who finds no redemption, Sethupathi has torn down the Tamil movie monomyth.
The spirit of postmodern Tamil cinema is best exemplified in one of its earliest manifestations: the dark comedy caper Soodhu Kavvuum(2013). Soodhu Kavvum is about a band of kidnappers, made up of four unemployed losers and slackers who could not make it anywhere else in life: Kesavan, Pagalavan, Sekar, and their ringleader, Das, played by Sethupathi. The quietly eccentric Das has an imaginary girlfriend -- a nod to postmodern icon Tyler Durden in Fight Club (1999) -- who instigates him to get rich quick and goads him on in his crime spree.
Soodhu Kavvuum is the triumph of the absurd and the taboo over the predictable and the orthodox. Like Pandi in Naanum Rowdy Dhaan, the ne'er-do-wells in Soodhu Kavvum led by Das do not triumph over the odds as they stumble into one mess after another as a result of their incompetence. Das and his posse scape from extra-judicial murder by a crooked cop only by the skin of their teeth.
Uninterested in being high stakes daredevils on a noble mission or ascribing some ideological merit to their enterprise as social bandits do, they go about their business with the professionalism of a corporate executive as though their toil is a legitimate means to make money. In petit recits like Soodhu Kavvum, or a similar comedy caper also headlined by Sethupathi, Oru Nalla Naal Paathu Solren (2017), there are neither heroes nor noble missions nor didactic messages only farcical comedy.
Even if it may be true that Tamil cinema in its postmodern stage was "losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal," to borrow Lyotard's conceptualisation, it is also probable that Tamil film fans have just grown tired of seeing archetypical hegemonic Übermenschen on-screen.
Realizing the hero is no longer sacrosanct, the postmodern films gleefully dismantled the cult of the hero, supplanting him with protagonists who are nobodies and reprobates, too incompetent and unwilling to 'save the world' or change society, let alone change themselves. Albeit charming, endearing, and likeable.
If abandoning totalizing grand paradigms ruptures ties between the past and the present, since notions of progress and national histories are kept at abeyance, the product is historical discontinuity and loss of memory. The postmodern Tamil hero may very well be a reification of this cultural condition. In Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom (2012), Tamil cinema's sleeper hit comedy that year, a young man, Premkumar, played by Sethupathi, suffers short-term amnesia and forgets an entire year of memories two days before his wedding.
Disjuncture and disrupted sequentiality precipitate an identity crisis that plays out as a tragicomic situation. Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom reminds us of, what philosopher Ziauddin Sardar refers to as, the consequences of the postmodern condition: undermining memories, the negation of history, and the resultant loss of identity. Similar sentiments were echoed in another Sethupathi vehicle, Orange Mittai (2015) about geriatric loneliness.
The struggle of the decentered protagonist in Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom to make sense of his fragmented memories on the day of his marriage, despite the best efforts of his friends, is a statement on the centrality of historical memory to identity formation. Released the same year as Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom, the horror comedy Pizza also plays with disjunctures, discontinuities, and sequentiality in the narrative enterprise but this time to subvert our expectations of genre cinema.
The entire sequence where Pizza's protagonist Michael, played by Sethupathi, experiences a supernatural haunting is narrated from a subjective point-of-view. Utilising a non-linear narrative structure from an unreliable narrator, until the very end, the viewing audience is unaware, like the characters in the movie, that Michael's experience in the haunted house is nothing more than an elaborate fabrication. Dramatic irony is spectacularly overturned.
If Premkumar and Michael expose the crisis of narrative and time, the apotheosis of Sethupathi's persona as the postmodern hero eschews binaries altogether. In the critically acclaimed neo-noir film Vikram Vedha(2017), Sethupathi pulls off his finest performance to date as the postmodern gangster Vedha.
The undercurrent of postmodern relativism that permeates in Vikram Vedha deconstructs, vitiates, and redefines hierarchical oppositions (good/evil, legal/illegal, ethical/unethical, hero/villain). Using the nihilistic Vedha as a mouthpiece, this narrative demonstrates an insouciance towards grand paradigms like the law and jurisprudence seeing them as binary structures that are oppressive, dehumanizing, and ethically restrictive.
Vedha interrogates his inquisitor, the supercop, and film's other protagonist, Vikram, using a series of 'micro-narratives' or petit recits to evoke a response about the contingent nature of ethical action, seeing the state's law as a totalizing system to be rejected. The film openly acknowledges the strategy of petit recits, as really a neo-traditionalist hark back to the 11th century Vetala Panchavimshati folktales in Sanskrit, popularly known as the tales of Vikram Aur Betaal as the inspiration for Vikram Vedha.
More so than Sethupathi's hangman character in Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai (2015), who questions the ethics of capital punishment, in a deconstructionist enterprise that would have made postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida proud, Sethupathi as Vedha in Vikram Vedha strips bare the epistemological limits of jurisprudence.
Vijay Sethupathi as Vedha in Vikram Vedha (2017) (source: IMDB)
Extra-textually, earlier this year when Sethupathi went on stage to receive an award for Best Villain at a film ceremony for his role in Vikram Vedha, he expressed an incredulity towards receiving the award because he was informed by the filmmakers that neither of the two protagonists was a clear hero or villain. Interchangeability of hero and villain aside, some fans of the film have even made videos comparing Vikram Vedha to Christopher Nolan's masterpiece, The Dark Knight (2008), with Vedha being compared to another postmodernist icon, The Joker.
However, the contrasts are just as critical. Whereas The Joker is an anarchist, Vedha is a postmodern gangster who pursues justice as an ethical course of action that must supercede and transcend the law; corruptible as the law is to manipulation by the powerful and the well-heeled. In its place, Vedha wants to construct a system of morally relativist justice conditional on situation and context, unlike The Joker who just wants "to watch the world burn." Whether Vedha accomplishes this remains to be seen. Vikram Vedha even ends in the most postmodern way possible: without proper narrative closure.
Continuing his assault on binaries, our postmodern icon looks set to play a transwoman in his forthcoming film Super Deluxe. Since transgendered or polysexual identities have been hitherto suppressed in Tamil cinema. Superstars of the past have played hypermasculine heroes who cross-dress as masquerade in their films for drag humor as film critic Ranjani Krishnakumar again points out, but rarely have transsexuals been authentically portrayed on the Tamil silver screen. If reports are to be believed Sethupathi looks set to establish a precedent as 'Shilpa'.
That being said, Sethupathi was not shirked from performing archetypical heroes. Whether as a fascist supercop in Sethupathi (2016), a broadcast journalist fighting fake news in Kavan (2017), or avenging heroes in the action film Rekka (2016) and the psychological thriller Puriyatha Puthir (2017), speaks of the Sethupathi persona's protean qualities. As do Andavan Kattalai (2016) and Dharma Durai (2017), where well-meaning but suffering subaltern heroes go through transformative heroic quests with rave reviews.
Yet, these minor exceptions do not detract from the dominant cumulative image behind the Sethupathi-persona: that of the postmodern Tamil hero. This new style and sensibility may have even catalyzed a shift in industrial practices via -- what is known in the industry as the 'multi-starrer'. There is certainly a case to be made that ensemble casts were a once in a blue moon rarity before Sethupathi's ascent Kollywood.
Sethupathi's willingness to shed the weight of history and shift the centripetal Tamil hero away from monopolizing screen space has allowed him to play prominent roles in a host of films with ensemble casts. This includes films like Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai, Iraivi, Kavan, and Oru Nalla Naal Paathu Solren, and of course, the trendsetter for Kollywood multi-starrers: Vikram Vedha.
Apart from an important cameo in the multi-starrer Imaikkaa Nodigal (2018), in the recent Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018) has Sethupathi assembled alongside three other Kollywood stars in a big budget blockbuster. There's more to come. In the forthcoming Petta, Sethupathi features alongside his Bollywood analog, Nawazuddin Siddique, and Indian screen legend, Rajinikanth, demonstrating the way he may very well have precipitated an industrial transformation.
When Vedha asks his interrogator Vikram, the custodian of modern law, whether he could tell him a story, he leaves the emissary of the state in a conundrum. Eventually, Vikram is convinced of Vedha's ethical position, which attests to the superordinancy and triumph of the petit recit over the metanarrative. Even as Vedha becomes an iconic figure in the history of Kollywood his performer Sethupathi will only continue to dismantle the edifices of formula and convention that lionize the Tamil hero as messiah.
As hierarchical oppositions erode with binaries as well as dichotomies collapsing, the efficacy of these structures is also being called into question. These new forces introduced into society have also ineluctably precipitated a cultural shift. Sethupathi's characters epitomize and reify the changing nature of discourse as empathisable figures on screen. This may account for his growing fan base.
Sethupathi has also introduced new idioms that obviate the need for omnipotent questing heroes. It appears that people seem to find it far more entertaining to watch well-meaning and lovable but dysfunctional and incompetent protagonists fumble and stumble through life. Sethupathi reminds us that not everyone aspires to some kind of questing mission or messianic purpose with a grand teleological end, getting through the grind of existence is itself a noble fight. Kollywood has had enough with superheroes.
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