Amruta Subhash won the National Film Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2013 for her role in the Marathi film Astu (2013). Almost ten years later, she’s helmed her first web series – The Viral Fever’s (TVF) Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd. (2022). “She had different shades. She was a human being,” said Subhash about Suman, an illiterate housewife who has her own coming-of-age when she opens an achaar business after being left by her husband. The show turned the age-old trope of saas-bahu relationships on its head and Subhash is impeccable as Suman, embodying the distinct loneliness of a middle-class, middle-aged woman. “Suman represents all those women in India who have no ambition – they just wanted to get decked up at their weddings and leave with their husbands, who just wanted their children to grow (well). Their journey is from their father’s kitchen to her husband’s kitchen,” said Subhash. “That such a woman can achieve something so huge was so powerful to me.”
With her first central role finding critical and commercial success, Subhash hopes to see more experimental female actors leading projects. “I hope more creators will trust actresses like me with challenging content,” said Subhash.
It’s taken a while for Subhash to get a lead role, but over the course of her two-decade-long career, Subhash has shown that she can make a supporting role feel central. Take Astu for example. Subhash enters the film after the interval and has all of 10 minutes to make an impact. For Subhash, the film, which looked at Alzheimer’s disease, resonated with her personally (her father had struggled with it) and despite its limited screen time, the way her character Channamma was written blew Subhash away. She knew she couldn’t let go of Astu. “If there is any credit I would like to take for myself, it is that I've not let go of good content, ever,” Subhash told Film Companion.
Channamma is a young Kannadiga woman from whom the elder protagonist Appa (Mohan Agashe) derives a strange comfort. “She is a village woman and she doesn't understand what Alzheimer's is but she becomes his mother,” said Subhash. There is an arresting charm to the way Channamma views the man with advanced Alzheimer’s, his needs no different from those of her newborn child. A stunning moment in the film has the old man calling her, “Amma (Mother)”.
Subhash’s shrewd character choices give the sense that she rarely accepts roles without reading scripts – an instinct grounded in the literature she was exposed to as a child. Her uncle, well-known Marathi playwright G.P. Deshpande, and her grandmother, who began the first library in their Maharashtrian village, urged Subhash to read voraciously. “As a child, when I would go to my nanihal (grandmother’s house), I would go directly to the library. All the other kids would be playing and (I would) be reading,” she said. Deshpande introduced her to the verses of saints from Maharashtra, like Tukaram and Dnyaneshwar, building her early foundation of “good content”. “An actor's career is not only about acting. It's about recognising good content, waiting for good content and when you come across good content, to not let it go,” she said.
Subhash’s long and versatile career is proof of this. A theatre actor from the National School of Drama (NSD), she had been starring in plays long before she made her screen debut with Shwaas (2004), which went on to become India’s official Oscar entry for the year. Since then, the actor has appeared in television serials, feature films, short films and web shows. She has worked with an enviable roster of directors: Sagar Sarhadi (Chausar, released much later in 2018), Gulzar (Niramala, 2004), Nandita Das (Firaaq, 2008) and more recently Zoya Akhtar (Gully Boy, 2019), Anurag Kashyap (Sacred Games 2, 2019; Choked, 2020) and Ram Madhvani (Dhamaka, 2021). Most of the roles Subhash has played have the through line of being middle-class women and her performances are a reminder that this is a diverse group of personalities, each of whom allow her to access a different facet of her craft. She’s a torn Gujarati woman helping her Muslim neighbour during the 2002 riots in Firaaq; a shapeshifting Maharashtrian neighbour in Choked; and a closeted lesbian security guard in Rohin Raveendran’s short, The Booth (2019).
When asked about her career milestones, Subhash lists people instead. To the names of her grandmother and uncle, she adds theatre legend Satyadev Dubey, who trained legions of actors including Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah and Subhash’s own mother, Jyoti Subhash (she’s also the foremost name on Subhash’s list of influences – “the umbilical cord”). Subhash remembers Dubey as having the air of an enfant terrible and made for a terrifying teacher when she joined Dubey’s workshop as a shy 10th-grade teenager. “Dubey ji was a very angry teacher. … He will shake you and take you out of your comfort zone. I was very scared of him. In his workshop I would just hide,” said Subhash.
One day, the class was assigned to imitate Dubey himself. Everyone else chose histrionics, mimicking his booming style of talking. Then came Subhash’s turn: “(During) that journey from my place towards Dubey ji, something happened inside me because I was so scared but I had to survive. I came towards him – and I had not decided I'd do this – and I picked up the cigarette packet in front of him. He had a peculiar way of smoking a cigarette. He would take it out and start tapping the cigarette on the packet. Before the cigarette could travel from (the packet to his mouth), it could be an hour. If he remembered something, he'll start tapping the cigarette again and he'll complete his point. Again he'll put it in his mouth, and again he'll remove it,” said the actor. On stage, Subhash replayed these movements. “I forgot who I was,” she said. There was no looking back.
By the time Subhash graduated from school, she had already met her future husband (actor-director Sandesh Kulkarni) and decided she didn’t need NSD, but ultimately was convinced by Dubey to go to Delhi. She met Naseeruddin Shah there, who popped in frequently to teach her batchmates, amongst whom was his daughter Heeba Shah. Shah was insightful enough as a visiting faculty – bringing a labelled chart of the human body on the first day so that students could learn everything about “the instrument they’re going to use” – but he also chose to come to Subhash’s plays. “I used to cry a lot in (this one) play and that crying used to get me a lot of clapping,” she said. “People would (go), 'Wow, she's amazing' and I was like, 'Yeah, now I know how to (get) claps'. I was very happy with myself.” When Shah sat for two shows of the same play, Subhash assumed he was impressed. But when he walked up to her after the performance, he said, “‘I'm concerned because I saw two shows and (in) both the shows you did exactly the same thing – as if you were a machine. You need to look for different techniques. You need to look (at) what that character needs. You cannot just thrust what you can do well on the character.” From Shah came Subhash’s alert vigilance to not step into characters that she has already lived in – a habit that reflects in her trajectory. “I've said no to a lot of roles. I've waited for different roles to come to me and that is the reason people say that I haven’t been slotted into a (typecast),” said Subhash.
Subhash, who is also a trained singer and Bharatnatyam dancer, sees each role as the opportunity for a spiritual performance of sorts, a phenomenon she calls ‘Brahmakshan’. This “out-of-body experience” can be seen in her most powerful performances, like her portrayal of Aruna Kale, a newly-widowed mother in Killa (2014). The film is a touching coming-of-age drama about an 11-year-old (Archit Deodhar) who struggles to adapt to the small Konkan village to which he and his mother have been transplanted by her transferable job. In one scene, the mother and son are on the top of a lighthouse, and the son says, “You’re missing Dad, aren’t you?” Subhash as the mother doesn’t reply immediately, but her expressions speak louder than any dialogue could. “It’s not like I didn’t know he (Deodhar) was going to ask me that question,” said Subhash remembering that scene from Killa. “But something happened. Because of that lighthouse, the sea beyond, my director’s calm energy, that wonderful dialogue, that fantastic (co-)actor – suddenly, I was transported to the world of Aruna Kale … who is all alone, who has lost her husband and is taking care of a child and has no one to rely on. I felt what she would feel and I just kept looking at him. Avinash (Arun, the director) didn’t say cut and Archit was very touched – we all knew something had happened.”
Killa got Subhash many of her Hindi film roles, including Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016) and Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, and the actor has worked with the best of Indian filmmakers, but she’s also known years of feeling underutilized. “(There are times) when the child in you is saying, ‘Oh, maybe I’m not good, that’s why they’re not giving me good roles.’ … Or maybe you’re feeling jealous. I would’ve done that role better, why didn’t it come to me?” said Subhash. Her solution for such phases has been psychotherapy. “With my age, and with so many years (in the industry) I’ve understood that life goes up and down. Psychotherapy has given me so many resources to deal with these dark times that they aren’t ‘dark times’ anymore, they’re just life,” she said.