Amruta Subhash is the daughter of Jyoti Subhash, the veteran Marathi actor, who was a batchmate of Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri at the National School of Drama (NSD). She left acting to raise Amruta and her brother. When they were a little older, she returned to acting and Amruta was astonished to see her on stage as the evil stepmother in Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq, unable to match her with the woman she knew, who would make bhakris for them — it was one of her first experiences of the transformative power of acting.
Amruta would go on to follow her mother’s footsteps, enrolling herself at NSD, where she was taught by Naseer, who she considers her guru. After doing a number of plays when she started working in films, Subhash was wary of one thing: she didn’t want to get slotted, associated with playing only certain type of characters. She has survived it so far. In last week’s Bombay Begums she’s one of the women fronting the show — a bar dancer and prostitute who wants a good life for her son and could go to any extent for it. And in last year’s Choked, a Netflix film directed by Anurag Kashyap, she is the female lead’s soulmate from the society building, your friendly neighbourhood tai in such Mumbai films as The Lunchbox and Sir — only, midway the character starts showing almost sinister shades; she becomes manipulative and scheming.
The highlight of her performance is a fabulously deranged laugh when she wanders into the apartment of the lead couple (played by Saiyami Kher and Roshan Mathew), bearing the news of demonetisation, which has just been announced on TV. It’s an example of how performative and comical she can be — completely different from her role in Gully Boy, where she played Ranveer Singh’s mother, or her character in Killa, as the resilient, earnest widowed mother of the child protagonist who’s coping with a lot at once — her husband’s passing away, a job transfer. Perhaps following Killa, she got offered characters that typecast her as a “good-hearted woman”, which she rejected. “I like characters that have layers and colours in them,” she says in a phone interview.
In the trailer of Ram Madhvani’s newsroom drama, Dhamaka, she can be seen as as Kartik Aryan’s boss, pushing her star-anchor to bring out his best — an “upper class” woman as opposed to the middle-class characters she’s played so far. She has auditioned for all these roles — a step in the process that many actors don’t like to go through. But Subhash is grateful for them because they give an actor a chance to show that he or she can pull off a role even if the director didn’t think so. Alankrita Srivastava, for example, didn’t think she could be Lily in Bombay Begums (even though she thought highly of Subhash as an actor); but the casting director Shruti Mahajan thought otherwise. She insisted that there’s no harm auditioning her and they can always say no if it didn’t work out. The result was thrilling. After seeing the tapes, Srivastava called her up to say that “she was so excited to see her in that space” and couldn’t wait to start shooting. As much as Subhash is thankful to “creators” like Srivastava and Kashyap for giving her these opportunities, she wants to applaud the work of casting directors, who are emerging as the new star-makers in this age of streaming. “Gautam Kishandchandani for Sacred Games, Tess Joseph for Selection Day, Mukesh Chhabra for Raman Raghav 2.0…I could go on,” she says. What sounds like a message to them, she says, “I feel like doing an action film”. If it’s difficult to imagine her kicking ass in an action film, well, they can always audition her.
As much as Subhash is thankful to “creators” like Srivastava and Kashyap for giving her these opportunities, she wants to applaud the work of casting directors, who are emerging as the new star-makers in this age of streaming… What sounds like a message to them, she says, “I feel like doing an action film”.
The first of her typecast-busting characters was perhaps her turn as Kusum Devi Yadav in season 2 of Sacred Games — a sassy RAW agent who’s always a couple of steps ahead of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Ganesh Gaitonde. Subhash found ‘inspiration’ for the character — appropriately — in a chameleon. She and her husband — Marathi actor/director Sandesh Kulkarni — were shooting for an English language series in Sri Lanka (the shooting for the s2 of Sacred Games was yet to commence). They went on a boat ride when her eyes fell on the creature by the lake. She asked the boatman to take them closer to it so she could observe it — the reptile looked unperturbed despite their growing closeness, characterised by calm, drooping eyelids. Subhash thought that would be just the right route to take for her character, who must have the kind of control over her reflexes as that chameleon. She talks about a scene where she is seemingly expressionless (after her lover has been killed), but her pupils travel from one end of her eyes to another — a straight-up imitation of the chameleon. “God bless that creature in Sri Lanka,” she says.
For Subhash, inspiration could come from anywhere — it could be a painting she saw at a gallery in Switzerland. (“I still think of the eyes in it, maybe it’ll get into one of my characters”). Sometimes it’s the director. Someone like Kashyap uses her talent for improvisation to the max. In Raman Raghav 2.0, when the titular psycho killer, played by Siddiqui, pays a surprise visit to his sister, played by Subhash (who lives with her husband and her son), she is terrified but doesn’t show it. Soon, disturbing details of sexual abuse from the past emerge in a tensely staged episode. Despite Subhash’s knowledge of the character’s backstory, Kashyap surprised her with new instructions and cues — it resulted in a scene where she freaks out when Siddiqui touches her earrings. In Choked, he didn’t give her a script at all. “I love her as an actor, always did, since I saw her in Sachin Kundalkar’s Gandha.” says Kashyap, “She understands the truth and complexities and the contradictions of a character. And she trusts me so it becomes easier to work with her.” The feelings are mutual. “With him you just let yourself go and you know you won’t fall, he will catch you,” says Subhash.
Despite Subhash’s knowledge of the character’s backstory, Kashyap surprised her with new instructions and cues — it resulted in a scene where she freaks out when Siddiqui touches her earrings. In Choked, he didn’t give her a script at all.
In the short film, The Booth, she is quietly devastating as a sad-eyed female security guard of a shopping mall who has clandestine meetings with her lesbian lover in a frisking booth. Subhash spent a day with a real security guard and created a backstory for the character along with the director, Rohin Raveendran, and her co-actor Parna Pethe — usual method acting exercises. But the most unexpected touch came from the deep wells of emotions within. The interaction between the lovers is at first passionately sexual, but one of the last images of the film is her character in a sort of gentle, compassionate embrace with the girl, offering her a shoulder to grieve. Subhash says that there was an almost maternal instinct to that gesture, and that every intimate, romantic relationship is made up of varied shades. “For example, the mechanics between me and my husband keeps changing. I feel like his mother sometimes. Sometimes I feel like his daughter.”
“You’ve to start from inside. I go inside out”— that’s her general approach toward the craft, even when she is performing in a play. “If there is truth in the performance, it can cut through the distance that exists between the stage and the audience. If the audience sitting in the balcony can only see your body, the truth will reflect in your body language,” she says. Even as she hopes for more author-backed roles in films and web series, she wants to keep doing theatre — good disciple of Naseer that she is — because “it keeps you alive”.
What keeps her alive also is her other interests: she sings, she has composed a song for a serial, she has written a book and she used to write a column in a Marathi daily on mental health. It runs in the family. Subhash traces it all back to the visits to her nanihal when she was a child, in a small village called Rahimatpur in the Satara district in Maharashtra, where her maternal grandmother started a library filled with books handpicked by her. She introduced Subhash to the works of Marathi saint writers and would send her long, beautifully written letters, encouraging her to explore her creative instincts. “She taught me to do freely what I love”. Subhash made a short film called Ajji as a tribute to her grandmother. Her mother played that character.