Recalling her heady days as a sought-after bar dancer, Lakshmi Gondhali aka Lily changes into a shiny red outfit and breaks into an impromptu dance. It’s been 14 years since dance bars shut down in Mumbai but Lily proclaims proudly, she wasn’t “any less than a star” once. The scene is a personal triumph for Amruta Subhash, who essays the role of Lily in Alankrita Shrivastava’s series Bombay Begums, on Netflix. “When I danced freely as Lily, it felt like a rebirth. At the age of 26, I was diagnosed with sciatica that restricted my movement,” says Subhash, a trained Bharatanatyam dancer. Dance took a backseat for years as she dealt with the physical pain.
At the height of her popularity as Asavari in the Marathi TV show Avaghachi Sansar, which made her a household name, Subhash was struggling to move and emote. That was also the time when she was drawing a packed audience for her lead role in Tee Phularani, a Marathi stage adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. “For the outside world, I was successful. But every day was a struggle for me. It was painful to walk, smile, bend forward and turn sides while sleeping,” says Subhash. It has taken years of working out with her fitness guru Shailesh Parulekar to perform what was once unimaginable.
“Traditionally, young actors get dancing roles. I feel a sense of freedom and power that I could do a bar dancer’s role. I may have grown older but I feel much younger today,” says the 44-year-old. The actor, who graduated from National School of Drama (NSD) in 1999, believes interesting roles will come her way irrespective of her age and appearance. “Earlier, I wondered what my future would be in the industry after a certain age. I was scared of getting typecast. I have come to realise that seeking challenging roles is going to be my future. Playing Razia, Ranveer Singh’s mother, in Gully Boy (2019) did raise concerns, but I wanted a meaningful role,” she says.
Her roles in acclaimed films such as Shwaas (2004), Valu (2008), Vihir (2009) and Gandha (2009) made Subhash a prominent name in Marathi cinema. In 2014, her character of a mahout’s wife showering affection on a retired professor who’s lost his memory in the Marathi film Astu (2013) brought her the National Award for Best Supporting Actress. But it was as an upright government officer and a single mother in the Marathi film Killa (2015) that she found wider acceptance. Accolades followed for her role as a housewife who imagines her life to be parallel to her favourite soap opera in Island City (2015), and for her character of the titular criminal’s sexually-exploited sister in Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016).
Her recent outings on OTT platforms — as a cold and calculating RAW agent in Sacred Games: Season 2 (2019), and as an opportunist with comic overtones in Kashyap’s Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai (2020) — have won her many fans. “As an actor, I can show my talent only when there is a variety of content. It’s a huge help that creators like Anurag and Alankrita are not slotting actors in categories,” says Subhash, who’s open to different formats. In the short film The Booth (2019), she plays a security guard who steals private moments with her same-sex lover in the mall’s frisking booth.
Subhash grew up in Pune, immersed in the world of cinema and theatre as the daughter of Jyoti Subhash (who plays her mother-in-law in Gully Boy, and an actor who studied with Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri at NSD). Watching her mother prepare for stage productions, she would later adopt some of her methods. “Me-time with my character is something I learnt from my mother. After returning from school, I would see her read a script by herself. She told me one has to take time out for characters outside of rehearsals. She said, ‘When you are alone with the character, she opens up to you’,” recalls Subhash.
Shrivastava, the writer and co-director of Bombay Begums, credits Subhash for “thorough preparation”. She says: “Amruta gets completely engrossed in the character and her world. We’d have chats and exchange messages about Lily at all odd hours. She’s open and alive to changing things on the spot as well. I love that about her. One can suddenly add something to the scene in take four and she will run with it. Or, have a new idea for doing a scene and she will run with it.” When Subhash prepares for her roles, her husband Sandesh Kulkarni, who’s directed her in plays and acted opposite her, patiently understands her process and gives inputs.
The late maverick theatre director Satyadev Dubey has been a prominent influence. “When I turned 16, he took me on a ‘date’ and told me, ‘irrespective of how successful you are in your career, you have to keep on learning’,” says Subhash. Shah’s advice, too, has left a mark on her. After Shah watched her in the NSD production Mrigatrishna, she was expecting a pat on her back from him. One particular scene had her breaking down moments before blackout and that always drew an audience applause. Instead, she received a caveat. “Naseer Sir said, an actor tends to project what they are good at rather than letting the character speak to them. ‘I’d rather that you do something new and fail than keep doing what’s safe for you,’ he said,” she recalls.
A gift from her mother made a major difference to her career — a flat in Mumbai’s Kalanagar, in 2000, a year after she graduated from NSD. “For her stage shows in Mumbai, I’ve seen my mother travel to Mumbai’s Shivaji Mandir auditorium from Pune and back. She didn’t want me to face that. In Mumbai, if you have a house, it reduces a lot of your stress. That’s the reason I could say no to the roles that didn’t appeal to me,” she says.
And yet, some of her works were mired in obscurity. Her earlier movies Spaghetti 24×7 and Sagar Sarhadi’s Chausar hardly found an audience. “Such disappointments are part of an actor’s life. I try not to think of what-ifs,” she says. The darkest phase of her life was when her father Subhashchandra Dhembre, an engineer in the irrigation department, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “My father didn’t even recognise me,” says Subhash. Shaken, she turned to Marathi theatre doyen and family friend Vijay Tendulkar, who told her: “Don’t look back. You have to learn to close certain doors.” Tendulkar also suggested psychotherapy, which “has become a part of my life,” she says.
Though Subhash admits to being “restless” when young, with age she’s learnt to take advantage of the “waiting period” till an exciting role comes her way. “In my free time, I read, cycle or write. I love playing with my neighbour’s daughter. These days, I also devote time to working out. Right now, I’m working towards getting in shape for my birthday on May 13. I’ve understood that career is important but it’s only a part of my life,” says Subhash, who will be seen next in Ram Madhvani’s Dhamaka, playing a tough television professional.