Sathyaraj was born as Rangaraj on 3 October 1954 to Subbaiyan and Nathambal, with two younger sisters, namely Kalpana Mandradiar and Roopa Senapathy (wife of Dr. Periannan Senapathy). He is an ardent fan of M. G. Ramachandran. Sathyaraj completed his primary school education in St Mary's Convent school, Coimbatore and later studied for tenth standard from Suburban High School, Ramnagar, Coimbatore. He went to Government Arts College, Coimbatore for a Bachelor of Science degree in Botany.
Sathyaraj's dream was to become a film actor, but his mother was against it and forbid him to join cinema. In 1976, in spite of his mother’s opposition, he left Coimbatore to enter the Tamil film industry based in Kodambakkam, Chennai.
Sathyaraj entered the film industry after witnessing the shooting of the film Annakili, where he met actor Sivakumar and producer Thiruppur Manian. He joined the drama troupe of Komal Swamynathan. Sathyaraj 's first film in a credited role as an actor was Sattam En Kaiyil, in 1978 where he played a henchman to the main villain played by Thengai Srinivasan in the film. Later he worked as production manager for the film Kannan Oru Kaikkuzhanthai. In addition to his managerial role, he also had a small acting part in the film. His first film as the leading hero in Tamil was Saavi in 1985, which was a box-office success but his character was negative one. He acted in around 75 films from 1978 to the 1985 till films like Kaakki Sattai, Vikram (1986) starring Kamal Hassan, most of which featured Sathyaraj in antagonist roles.
In his early career between 1978 and 1982 the negative roles he played were often henchman to the main villain M. N. Nambiar and other villains and his role would be minuscule while the main lead was Sivaji Ganesan, Jai shankar, Kamal Hassan or Rajinikanth. His college friend Manivannan directed Sathyaraj for the first time in the Tamil film January 1 in 1984 where Sathyaraj had a supporting role. Manivannan directed Sathyaraj in around 25 films from 1984 to 2013 and of them 18 had Sathyaraj as the main lead. His screen space as a villain increased after Irupatthi Naalu Mani Neram (1984) directed by Manivannan, in which Sathyaraj's role was on par with that of lead actor Mohan. His acting skills in the film were noticed by many and he became famous among Tamil film audience. Sathyaraj also felt that his villainous roles in Nooravathu Naal and Anbin Mugavari, both again directed by Manivannan, had better footage than that of Vijayakanth's and Mohan's. Sathyaraj started receiving offers to act as the hero in Tamil films from 1985. Directors were reluctant to cast him as the protagonist as his second film as a lead actor, Iravu Pookkal (1985) was not a success. Most of the films he was part of were of action genre in this period.
In the 1986 film Kadalora Kavithaigal, he played the lead romantic role and Behindwoods said "Sathyaraj broke his image of an action hero and came up with a rollicking performance. He is the real star of the film." He received appreciation for playing his role in Mr. Bharath (1986), which revolved around the conflict between father, played by Sathyaraj and son (Rajinikanth). Sathyaraj acted as Rajinikanth's father in the film though he was in fact 4 years younger to Rajinikanth. Manivanan being friends with Sathyaraj kept casting him in pivotal roles in his directorial ventures regularly showcasing different emotions from Sathyaraj in films like Vidinja Kalyanam, Palaivana Rojakkal and Muthal Vasantham. After Kadalora Kavithaigal, Sathyaraj had box-office hits as the lead hero between 1986 and 1988 like Kadamai Kanniyam Kattupaadu, Makkal En Pakkam, Mandhira Punnagai in which he had dual roles, Poovizhi Vasalile, En Bommukutty Ammavuku, Chinappadas and Annanagar Mudhal Theru. Manivanan from 1987 onwards started casting Sathyaraj in positive roles and their combination had box office hits like Jallikkattu, Chinna Thambi Periya Thambi, Ganam Kortaar Avargale, Chinnappadas in this period. Sathyaraj received the Best Tamil Actor award in Filmfare Awards South for his performance in Vedham Pudhithu (1987).
In Needhiyin Nizhal (1985), which featured Prabhu in the lead role, Sathyaraj had a minuscule supporting role and played second fiddle to the main villain M.N.Nambiar, but by 1988 Sathyaraj had established himself as a leading actor and in Chinna Thambi Periya Thambi, in which Prabhu and Sathyaraj were cast in the starring role, Prabhu’s character played second fiddle to Sathyaraj’s character. He played a bi-spectacled leading man in commercially successful Ganam Courtaar Avargaley and his performance was critically acclaimed and established him as a versatile actor.
His 99th film was Dravidan and 100th film was Vaathiyaar Veettu Pillai but the latter fared better at the box-office. After 1988 he had very few unsuccessful film like Jeeva, Madurai Veeran Enga Saami, Pangali, Magudam, Kattalai in this period as he became selective of choosing his roles as main lead hero. In 90’s he attempted more films of comedy and action genre and occasionally did romantic films. Many of them were commercially successful like Velai Kidaichuduchu, Airport, Veera Padakam, Nadigan, Pudhu Manithan, Rickshaw Mama, Walter Vetrivel, Thai Maaman and Azhagarsamy. Sathyaraj played a dual role as father and son in the box-office hit Amaidhi Padai which is considered among his best performances. With regard to the film, he has stated, "I have no words for that film, as it took me to the next level as an actor". He also told that he almost did not sign up for the film as it was a negative character and he had moved away from negative roles and "gained some respectability with films such as Poovizhi Vaasalile, Vedham Pudhidhu and Walter Vetrivel". After Thai Maaman became successful in 1994, the same team of Sathyaraj and director Guru Dhanapal decided to do their next venture Maaman Magal in 1995 which was also a moderate hit. He directed his first film in 1995, Villadhi Villain, which had him in three distinct roles and it was a successful project.
His pairing opposite actress Kushboo and Meena became popular in this decade. The box-office hits of the pair Kushboo-Sathyaraj include Nadigan, Rickshaw Mama, Bramma, Kalyana Galatta, Malabar Police, Suyamvaram, Unnai Kann Theduthey whereas Thozhar Pandian, Veeranadai of the pair were not successful at box-office. The on-screen pair of Sathyaraj-Meena together had average grossers like Thai Maman, Maman Magal, Valal and later in 2003 with Aalukkoru Aasai. His chemistry with actors Goundamani, Senthil has been well received and appreciated by the public and hence they have appeared in many movies together since the Vaazhkai Sakkaram in 1990 to Thangam in 2008.
The year 2000 proved to be unsuccessful for Sathyaraj. 4 films between 2000–01 Puratchikaaran, Veeranadai, Aandan Adimai and comedy film Looty were failures while his commercially successful films were P. Vasu's comedy film Asathal, Sundar C's Unnai Kann Theduthey and G.Sai Suresh's Kunguma Pottu Gounder. As many new young actors like Ajith Kumar, Vijay, Madhavan who debuted in the 1990s had established themselves successfully by 2000 and others like Jeeva, Srikanth made their mark in the mid-2000s and also since Sathyaraj had been using wigs since 1985 in films as he had begun losing hair since then, critics felt Sathyaraj’s career as solo lead actor may end by 2000. Sathyaraj re-invented himself as a hero with the 2002 film Maaran and as a romantic hero in Vivaramana Aalu and with his performance in the comedy film Aalukkoru Aasai in 2003. Sathyaraj and director Shakthi Chidambaram’s combination gave 3 consecutive films, Ennama Kannu, Maha Nadigan and Englishkaran. Ennama Kannu was a super hit. Few films like Sena, Ramachandra, Alagesan, and Gowravargal received negative reviews in this decade. He co-starred with his son Sibiraj for the first time in Jore which was average. Bizhat described "It's interesting to watch the father – son combination together in Jore. Sathyaraj then acted with his son in 3 more films Mannin Maindhan, Vetrivel Sakthivel and Kovai Brothers, in which they two were seen ad brothers. In 2007, he produced a Tamil film Lee starring his son which was critically acclaimed.
Films in the 2000s with Sathyaraj in the lead role that fared well at the box office were 6'2, Vanakkam Thalaiva, his 170th film Kurukshetram (2006), Periyar and Thangam. He received the Vijay Award for Best Actor for Onbadhu Roobai Nottu in 2007 and was also nominated for his performance in Periyar in the same year, in which he portrayed the life of social reformer and rationalist Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. About the role he said, "I myself being a rationalist, I found it easy to portray his character on screen. His principles and ideologies, like fighting for women’s liberation and untouchability, have influenced me to a great extent".
He accepted pivotal supporting roles in Tamil films like Aayiram Vilakku, Uchithanai Muharnthaal, Nanban, Thalaivaa and Raja Rani. In Nanban he played a college professor and won the Best Supporting Actor awards at the Filmfare, Vijay and SIIMA ceremonies, while in Thalaivaa,Raja Rani, Mirchi and Chennai Express he played father characters. Sathyaraj and Manivannan worked together a last time in Nagaraja Cholan MA, MLA, which was Manivannan's 50th and last directorial venture before his death. A sequel to Amaidhipadai, it was also the 200th film of Sathyaraj and became a box office bomb.
He ventured into Telugu cinema after long time as a supporting actor in Sankham in 2009 and later did Mirchi in 2012, both of which were successful. He also entered Malayalam cinema with Aagathan in 2009. He played the critically acclaimed role of Kattappa in Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) and has reprised the role in the sequel, Baahubali: The Conclusion (2017).
In 2015, at the age of 60, the media and public at large rechristened him as Kattappa, as he received nationwide popularity for his role in India's biggest motion picture Baahubali: The Beginning. Since the time he made his debut as junior artiste as a 24 years old, he had been wanting to do a historical or a folklore film and it was his long cherished dream. He quoted in an interview in 2015, "I am a great fan of MGR who is popular in folklore films, like NTR in Telugu movies. My dream of doing a folklore at 24 has been realised at 60 through Rajamouli. I played Rajinikant’s father when I was 31 and Rajini was 35, so I never cared for age..it never mattered to me."
Sathyaraj is married to Maheswari in 1979, niece of producer Madhampatti Sivakumar and the couple have a daughter Divya and son Sibiraj. His son, Sibiraj, is also an actor. He is an atheist.
Sathyaraj and Manivannan shared a close friendship since college and became frequent collaborators in notable films in Tamil cinema. The Hindu wrote "His (Manivannan's) friendship with actor Sathiyaraj translated to several memorable moments on screen. Manivannan...along with Sathyaraj epitomised on screen what is colloquially known in Tamil as ‘nakkal’ (snideness)". According to Behindwoods.com, Manivannan (as the director) and Sathyaraj had 12 consecutive hit films together beginning from 1987 to 1994: Jallikattu, Chinna Thambi Periya Thambi, Ganam Kortaar Avargale, Manidhan Marivittan, Ullathil Nalla Ullam, Vazhkkaichakkaram, Pudhu Manithan, Therku Theru Machan, Government Mappillai and Amaidhi Padai. About working with Manivannan he has said, that it "is a pleasure. There’s no script, no dialogue sheet. It’s all in his head. But, he extracts great performances". Sathyaraj and Manivannan also acted together in several films directed by other directors.
Sathyaraj was also personally close to Manivannan. He said, "I still reminisce about the beautiful moments that I had with...Manivannan, a genius of a person. In fact, he is the one who taught me many things in life, and changed me, I became a good human from being just an actor. Every day, we used to have conversations over the phone on a wide range of topics. It was a 30-year relationship. No one could understand me the way he did". Manivannan died in 2013 and Sathyaraj has said that just 24 hours before his death they had discussed their next project and that he had him narrated him a story.Won
1987 – Filmfare Best Actor Award (Tamil) for Vedham Pudhithu
1990 – Tamil Nadu State Film Award Special Prize for Nadigan
1991 – Kalaimamani Award from the Government of Tamil Nadu
1995 – Tamil Nadu State Film Honorary Award (M.G.R Award)
2007 – Tamil Nadu State Film Award Special Prize for Periyar
2007 – Periyar Award for his role in the film Periyar
2007 – Honorary Doctorate from Sathyabama University
2007 – Vijay Award for Best Actor for Onbadhu Roobai Nottu
2012 – Vijay Award for Best Supporting Actor for Nanban
2013 – Filmfare Best Supporting Actor Award (Tamil) for Raja Rani
2015 – Vikatan Award Best Supporting Actor for Baahubali
2015 – IIFA Utsavam Award Best Supporting Actor for Baahubali