By Pradeep Menon Jul. 18, 2022
Amruta Subhash has most recently been tackling middle-class disenchantment, but her range of work and portrayal of the many bittersweet agonies of life, makes her a truly unique artist.
When Amruta Subhash smiles on screen, I usually find myself smiling with her. All too often, I cry when she does as well. Sometimes, my eyes well up even she is merely depicting an emotionally charged state of mind, the bones of her character perhaps not giving her permission to cry in that specific situation. In the 2018 short film The Booth – a story of repressed, forbidden love that plays out in the confines of an enclosed frisking station in a mall, without much dialogue – the full force of her expressiveness engulfs you, trapping you along with her Rekha in the only safe space she has. Subhash is one of the reasons the short manages to be gentle and turbulent at the same time. Rekha’s bleak, doomed love story outlasts the 15 minutes we see of it, and how.
Subhash’s latest work has her broadly slotted into a zone often in the recent past – a woman in a pickle. In the new Zee5 series Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd, she plays Suman, a divorced woman who attempts to make a life for herself, away from her kids. Her two children live with their father – Suman’s ex-husband – who is now married again, to a woman he fell in love with during his first marriage. If it is the seeming ubiquity of the ‘Amruta Subhash in distress’ trope that’s keeping you away from the show, then let it not; because the typecasting doesn’t stop Subhash from bringing Suman’s feel-good turmoil alive.
It is a trait we see with Subhash often – the ability to find the sweet spot for her character in the larger context of the world of the story, and the gaze of the people telling it to us.
TVF’s take on the ‘empowered lower-middle-class woman’ is rooted and layered, but also romanticized and escapist in equal measure, as we watch Suman attempt to turn her exceptional achaar-making skills into a business venture. Being great at creating something doesn’t necessarily mean you’d be great at selling it, so Suman has her task cut out. Then again, that is precisely what brings out her vulnerable, imperfect but rock-solid gumption. Any schmaltz on display is not on Subhash, who pitches her own performance just right, matching the tone and design of the show. It is a trait we see with Subhash often – the ability to find the sweet spot for her character in the larger context of the world of the story, and the gaze of the people telling it to us. Any similarities between her various characters thus exist only on the surface, because it feels like Subhash herself digs deep, every single time.
She did it last year in Alankrita Shrivastava’s Bombay Begums as Lily, the scheming bar dancer with a pure heart, up to shenanigans only with the aim of securing a future for her son. In her other 2021 Netflix outing, Ram Madhvani’s Dhamaka, her crony TV news producer role may have been more forgettable, but Subhash acquits herself by displaying effortless versatility in body language. There’s no oppression for her, the weakness in the character being only moral. She seems as committed to the one-dimensional, on-the-nose critique of the media, as she was in 2019’s Gully Boy, as Murad’s mother Razia, a woman ground down by life in the slums. The question of her age vis-à-vis Ranveer Singh apart, you couldn’t quite imagine anyone else managing to appear as a weary, beaten-down shadow of a human so convincingly.
But Subhash’s wild emotional range is the heartbeat of the story, the words on paper capturing one level of nuance, her portrayal adding a whole other dimension on top.
There’s an even better example of her doing something apparently similar, but in fact vastly different because of an added layer of grotesque nihilism, in Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0. With her turn as the ‘psychotic’ serial killer Ramanna’s beleaguered sister Lakshmi, Subhash’s portrayal eerily foreshadows her own killing – simply by making Lakshmi seem so utterly devoid of even the tiniest shred of hope in her life, she might as well be dead. Despite her limited screen time, in a film that goes to darker places than most Hindi movies do, Subhash’s Lakshmi was what probably shook me more than anything else. It was a far cry from the first performance wherein I actively noticed Amruta Subash’s ability to emote with such unabashed commitment and sincerity, to reliably carry the audience along on rocky journeys. This was in the 2012 Marathi film Masala, directed by Sandesh Kulkarni.
Written by and co-starring Girish Kulkarni, Masala featured Subhash as his wife Sarika. With smaller fresh-faced appearances in a number of prominent Marathi films before that, including Shwaas, Valu and Vihir, the actor was a familiar face by then. But her performance as Sarika made sure I’d never forget her name again. Masala has an oddly satisfying story – an enterprising couple attempts to make a living in one place, invariably racking up debt there and fleeing, before creditors catch up with them – only to repeat the cycle elsewhere. This is their lifestyle and/or business model, before they finally realise that it is unsustainable. They aren’t conmen, mind you. Masala is a charmingly eccentric take on how difficult life can be in the Indian hinterland. Like in Saas Bahu Achaar, Sarika’s skill in the kitchen here, with home-made masalas, is what comes to their rescue in the film. Her character was dependent upon her husband in so many ways, and Girish Kulkarni aces the part like he usually does. But Subhash’s wild emotional range is the heartbeat of the story, the words on paper capturing one level of nuance, her portrayal adding a whole other dimension on top.
Manipulator extraordinaire, campy patriot, competent spook – she makes it all look easier than it is.
Even in the best of cases, the writing in Hindi movies and shows tends to erode these nuances that the writing in other Indian languages tends to capture. It is why we’ve seen her as a cornered mother so often – she nailed it the first time, why bother looking elsewhere. Her Aruna Kale, widowed mother in Avinash Arun’s 2015 film Killa, is from her maternal outings in Hindi. The little boy, Chinmay, copes with forced relocation like a child would – as a journey of discovery. Aruna is already fully formed though. As an adult, she processes loss and adversity with practicality. Aruna isn’t always in control, not always sure of what to say or do with her son’s early adolescent angst. Bollywood is happy to have her play loud, but Aruna reminds you of real life ever so often, even while we’re primarily invested in Chinmay and his friends.
I hadn’t thought about this before, but I realised that as far as her parts in Hindi are concerned, my low-key favourite performance was in the second season of Sacred Games, as the RAW agent toying with Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Ganesh Gaitonde. In the book, the character was written as a man, but you’d never know. Manipulator extraordinaire, campy patriot, competent spook – she makes it all look easier than it is. Not many can do that, you know.