Vijay 50: Actor, leader, the undisputed ‘GOAT’

Vijay's transformation from a hero into a leader is remarkable. Whether he will become a beacon of hope for the people; only time will tell.

BySujatha Narayanan

Published Jun 22, 2024 | 8:15 AM Updated Jun 22, 2024 | 9:21 AM

Actor Vijay warns youngsters of the drug menace in Tamil Nadu and failure of DMK government

Actor Vijay turns 50 today. Reflecting on the 90s, brings to mind, his roles in films like Friends (2001) and Kadhalukku Mariyadhai (1997). During this era, Vijay was known onscreen as “Ilayathalapathy”, a title first bestowed upon him in Rasigan (1994). Fans fondly remember the title card that would appear in the middle of a song whenever Vijay sang. It wasn’t until 2017 that he transitioned to being referred to as “Thalapathy”.

Since then, we’ve witnessed the evolution of brand Vijay mirroring his career trajectory, which has consistently soared higher. The “Ilayathalapathy” moniker paid respectful tribute to reigning superstar Rajinikanth, who starred in the widely celebrated Thalapathy, directed by Mani Ratnam, released in 1991.

Calling Vijay “Thalapathy” (Commander) early in his career would have been inappropriate. Referring to him as “Ilayathalapathy”, was also a sign of respect to MK Stalin, who was known as “Thalapathy” in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

There are two films according to me that propelled Vijay’s graph towards a higher peak. One was Ghilli (2004) and another was Mersal (2017). Of course, there were films like Thuppakki (2012) and Kaththi (2014), and before those, Pokkiri (2007), Thirupaachi (2005), and Kushi (2005; his last rom-com). However, it was Ghilli and later Mersal that elevated Vijay’s image to Himalayan heights during two distinct phases of his career.

Ghilli, and Mersal, the game changers

In 2017’s Mersal, director Atlee dropped “Ilaya” and introduced “Thalapathy” not just as a title card, but as a character name for Vijay in the flashback. In the film, he was called Thalapathy by Nithya Menen, who played his wife, and by other characters. While Ghilli solidified his status as the prince, Mersal marked his ascension to king. Atlee’s film marked the completion of Vijay’s transition from heir-in-waiting to independent ruler of the box office.

Vijay in 'Mersal' poster. (X)

Vijay in ‘Mersal’ poster. (X)

Vijay has never minced words when it came to his film idols. It was always MGR and then, Rajinikanth. Vijay’s films followed their template. Today, even a re-run of a Vijay film, like Dharani’s Ghilli, remains profitable for producers, distributors, and exhibitors.

Ghilli’s box-office success in 2024 is a testament to Vijay’s enduring “messiah image” among both old and new fans. While cinema needs good actors who are also stars, Vijay keeps trying newer storylines within the masala genre (a tough genre to crack), consistently exploring new storylines and characterisations to stay relevant with changing times.

For example, his role in Lokesh Kanakaraj’s Master (2021) where he locks horns with Vijay Sethupathi, is a favourite performance.

Many mass film heroes aspire to emulate MGR, whose film and political personas were intricately intertwined to the fullest extent possible. MGR was also a product of his times. Vijay, however, faces more competition in the onscreen messiah realm compared to MGR, including from longstanding superstar Rajinikanth and Vijay’s contemporary, Ajith Kumar.

To be fair, until a few years ago, Vijay didn’t entirely dominate the box office throne. However, even his recent flops, like Nelson Dilipkumar’s Beast (2022), which was perceived as such, still outperformed other films released alongside it, showcasing his enduring popularity and box office clout.

This gave Vijay the supreme might of being the sole actor, whose every film release, brought in adequate monies to the production and distribution chain.

The hero of the masses

'Thalapathy 70', is scheduled to be funded by AGS Productions, the same production company behind 'GOAT'. (X)

‘Thalapathy 70’, is scheduled to be funded by AGS Productions, the same production company behind ‘GOAT’. (X)

Only a handful of stars across the Indian film industry have enjoyed such enduring popularity and box-office success over many years. While the south Indian film industry is still dominated by the superstars of the 80s across various languages, Vijay’s command over the box office in the southern states and overseas cannot be ignored.

However, this prolonged success also brings significant pressure—both on Vijay and his filmmakers—as his films are now scrutinised more intensely than ever for their entertainment value. Expectations of Vijay, as an actor, often take a back seat to satisfy the demands placed on Vijay, the star. Still, Lokesh Kanakaraj’s Leo (2023) had that single-shot sequence that was heartening to see, as the actor in Vijay, bloomed in these portions of the film.

Also read: ‘Pokkiri’ and ‘Thuppakki’ to re-release ahead of Vijay’s 50th birthday

A charismatic personality

A still from 'Leo'. (X)

A still from ‘Leo’. (trishtrashers/ X)

In my interactions and observations, Vijay has consistently shown a remarkable ability to absorb ideas and instructions. He effortlessly reenacts his lines and scenes with a cool and nonchalant demeanour, as if there has been no rehearsal or effort, resulting in a charming performance every time.

One of Vijay’s roles which might not be a crowd favourite, but which I enjoyed, was seeing him outshine Aamir Khan in Nanban. (Shankar’s 2012 film, was a remake of Aamir Khan’s 2009 Hindi film, 3 Idiots).

Vijay exudes immense charm not only in his onscreen roles but also in his off-screen persona. This charm, when dealing with a massive crowd, becomes charisma.

Some icons prefer to remain quiet off-screen, and some express themselves more freely behind the scenes. Vijay falls into the former category, but even when he speaks sparingly off the record, his words are clear, articulate, and authentic to his intentions, much like any of us would strive to be.

The low-angle shots of him, walking and delivering his punchlines, in his messiah roles, naturally, convince anyone that Vijay is that invincible hero—who has an answer to all problems plaguing our people. And he enters into electoral politics with full awareness and confidence, seeking to occupy this very space.

In a move seen by many as expected, Vijay launched his political party, Thamizhaga Vetri Kazhagam (TVK), and announced his intention to fully commit himself to politics after fulfilling his film commitments.

Vijay’s transition from a mega matinee idol to a political leader, referred to as Thalaivar (a moniker commonly used for Rajinikanth), is reportedly timed for the 2026 Assembly Elections. By then, TVK aims to solidify alliances, finalise its candidates, and secure the necessary funding for a statewide election campaign.

Although Vijay’s statement indicated he would fully commit to politics after completing a couple of films, it’s reasonable to assume that The Greatest of All Time (GOAT), directed by Venkat Prabhu, will not be his final film.

The continued reign of Vijay

Vijay's fan base includes teenage boys and girls who see him as their "Anna". (X)

Vijay’s fan base includes teenage boys and girls who see him as their “Anna”. (X)

Vijay’s 69th film will be directed by H Vinoth, known for his work with Ajith in Nerkonda Paarvai (2019), Valimai (2022) and Thunivu (2023). Subsequently, Thalapathy 70, is scheduled to be funded by AGS Productions, the same production company behind GOAT.

With so much at stake in both his film and political careers, this birthday signifies more than just a milestone for Vijay.

In interviews, Vijay comes across as softly spoken and candid, resembling the man-next-door, whose exceptional talent as an actor, lies in his ability to transform into an extraordinary hero.

Political pundits predict that Tamil Nadu will require a strong opposition to the ruling party in 2026. Therefore, someone with a substantial voter base, like Vijay, could potentially fulfill that role, if not emerge as the outright winner.

This assessment considers the significant effort Vijay’s father, filmmaker SA Chandrasekhar, has invested behind the scenes. He aimed to establish his son, as a prominent figure, in cinema (a goal achieved) and now looks towards achieving similar recognition in politics, where Vijay is seen, as an independent decision-maker.

While SA Chandrasekhar and Vijay were seen previously aligned with Kalaignar Karunanidhi and the DMK, the actor’s recent years of superstardom have propelled him into a distinct political spotlight. This shift is attributed to the challenges his films, such as Kaavalan (2011) and Thalaivaa (2013), faced during release under the previous regime.

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There’s no stopping him

Vijay's selfie with fans became "the most retweeted post" in 2020. (X)

Vijay’s selfie with fans became “the most retweeted post” in 2020. (X)

During the IT raids and the treatment he faced while shooting Master, Vijay, unexpectedly, displayed bold defiance, standing atop a caravan amidst overwhelming support from the crowd. This moment could be seen as the pivotal transition from Vijay, the star to Vijay, the leader.

Vijay’s fan base includes teenage boys and girls who see him as their “Anna” (elder brother). For young women in their twenties, he remains the sweet guy next door, especially in his songs. Among young men in the same age group, he is revered as their “Thalapathy.”

This comprises Vijay’s voting base—the youth of the state—who are constantly seeking a new icon to lead them; someone relatable yet embodying the qualities of a hero. Vijay fits this bill first, however, it remains to be seen how well his party will be able to toughen up against Dravidian parties that have been around for several decades.

For the middle-aged generation, who have followed Vijay’s evolution—from a beloved teenage star in romance, and action films like Ghilli—their voting decisions may depend on Vijay’s party manifesto and how effectively his party delivers on its commitments. In any case, here is an icon celebrating his 50th birthday, viewed as yet another transitional phase in his career.

Whether Vijay will continue acting in films while contesting elections will hinge on the outcome of the 2026 elections.

The box office king

Currently, Vijay’s songs break records with millions of views on YouTube, blending political messages (akin to MGR) with his impactful punch dialogues that resonate deeply with his fans.

If Vijay transitions into full-time politics, after achieving significant success in 2026, Tamil cinema stands to lose a major revenue generator. His films continue to draw substantial business, including ticket sales, concessions, and parking at both single screens and multiplexes across various markets, even during re-runs. There is no more opportune moment to change from one sphere of public life to another, than when one is still at the peak of his or her career.

Happy (transitioning) birthday, Vijay!

(Edited by S Subhakeerthana)

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