After dabbling in both Hindi and Marathi films, she has been part of several award-winning releases. Marathi actress Amruta Subhash speaks to Sagorika Dasgupta on winning the National Award for Best Supporting Actress this year, for her film Astu, and her journey so far
You featured in Shwaas, a film which was also India’s Oscar entry that year. Did the film make the right noise for you as a debutante?
Absolutely! I have been fortunate to be a part of award-winning films since my first film. Not only was Shwaas India’s entry to the Oscars in 2004, it was ranked sixth at the Academy Awards in the Foreign Film category. Shwaas changed my life as it received numerous awards at both the national and state level. The film won the Golden Lotus Award, which is India’s highest National Film Award. It brought the ‘swarnakamal’ to Marathi cinema for the first time since 1954, after almost 50 years. I am very proud of that film. Shwaas was a very tough film for me because, in those, days we didn’t have digital cameras and we would shoot on film. I had to make sure I was giving the shot correctly. It was a low-budget film and every retake cost the producer thousands of rupees.
How did films happen for you?
My mother, Jyoti Subhash is also an actress. She was a very prolific theatre artiste and Naseer saab’s (Naseeruddin Shah) batch mate at the National School of Drama. I was attracted to theatre since a very young age. My mother used to perform in this very famous play titled Tughlaq. I was fascinated by the fact that she would be a normal housewife and a doting mother to us at home, but would transform into this beautiful character on stage. She would deck up in the most amazing costumes and stunning jewellery. So I was, like, that’s it! That’s what I want to do when I grow up.
I got involved with experimental theatre at a young age and my guru was thespian Satyadev Dubey. I was a very shy kid when I started out but I shed all my inhibitions and was a free soul on stage and transformed into the characters I would play. I took the natural path of plays, to commercials, television and eventually films. I bagged all my parts through auditions and screen tests.
Was the transition from theatre to films challenging as each medium is very different from each other?
It was. Theatre is a more liberating platform since your actions get an immediate reaction from the audience as it is live. Films and TV, on the other hand, are a very passive art form. You don’t know how the audience is going to react to your work. Also, one of the most challenging things for me was that in theatre, a play occurs in sequence, so keeping track of your emotion is easy but there is no room for mistake. On the other hand, in films, we may shoot the last scene on the first day of the shoot; there is no sequential continuity. In films, you have to approach a character with a new thought every day and that is a challenge. But I got to learn a lot of tricks of the trade from my co-actors and cinematographers.
Like I used to think that acting is a very lonely process, where you have to go into your character and just emote. The rest will be taken care of by the technicians. But my co-star in Devrai, Atul Kulkarni, was instrumental in teaching me the nuances of acting. He taught me that as an actor, we are not only protagonists in the story we are narrating but also on the set. We have to keep in mind things like camera angles, lighting and knowing which profile of ours looks good on camera and which doesn’t. I have been fortunate to have worked with directors and cinematographers who have made me realise the importance of these things. I have worked with directors like Sumitra Bhave, Sunil Sukthankar, Sandeep Sawant, Girish and Umesh Kulkarni and Sachin Kundalkar.
You worked with Sachin Kundalkar in Gandha, the Marathi version of Aiyyaa…
(Cuts in) Yes, I played Rani’s (Mukerji) role and the film bagged two National Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Audiography.
The Hindi version didn’t perform well at the box office. What do you think went wrong?
No one really knows what works with the audience and what doesn’t. Sachin is such a talented director and I also know that Rani put a lot of effort into the film. It was backed by strong producers too. All I can say is that a lot of hard work goes into filmmaking and no one wants their effort to go down the drain. As film industry professionals, we want all our films to do well at the box office. I cannot comment on what went wrong with the film as I was not a part of that film.
Whether Shwaas, Valu, Masala, Balak Palak and the more recent Killa. The one thing common about most of your films is that they have won awards. Are you sometimes cast as a lucky charm?
I’m often considered a good luck charm by most people in the Marathi film industry. They joke around saying, ‘Arrey isko le lo picture mein toh award mil jayega film ko.’ Shwaas went to the Oscars, Valu, Masala and BP bagged several awards. In fact, Killa won the Crystal Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival this year, which is the highest honour at Berlinale. But I used to get a tad upset when my films would win the best of awards but I was never able to bag one. Every actor wants to win a National Award at some point in their career. I was very happy when Deool won the National Award and I was there in Delhi during the felicitation ceremony. I told myself that one day I would be sitting in that front row and would actually walk on stage to receive an award. And that finally came true this year.
Did you expect to win an award for Astu?
It was a very challenging role for me because the character speaks Kannada. I had to learn a new language and director Sumitra Bhave had so much faith in me that she cast me instead of a Kannada actress. I never thought I would win a National Award for this role because the character appears in the film only post-interval. But my cinematographer, while filming, used to tell me, ‘Is baar ka National Award tujhe milega.’ I would tell him, ‘Film ko toh pakka award milega, mujhe milega ki nahi pata nahi.’
It’s your first National Award but you shared it with another actress. How did that feel?
I was happy to share the award with Aida Elkashef, the Egyptian actress from Ship Of Theseus. I mean, to share a National Award with an international actor was very humbling. I liked her role in the film very much and I felt honoured to share the award with her. But the high point of winning my award was that Gulzar saab won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award this year and he was in the front row when I accepted my award. I have worked with Gulzar saab in one of his short films and I have nothing but praise for him. When I saw him clapping for me, I felt I had made him proud. This year, if you look at the other people who won the award too, whether Rajkummar (Rao), Gitanjali (Thapa), Hansal (Mehta) or even Anand Gandhi, it was so good to have won the award among such great talent.
You have always chosen different roles each time, whether in your Hindi films Firaaq and Contract, or your Marathi films. How do you choose your films?
I only take the content of the film into consideration. That’s my only criterion for selecting roles. I don’t care if the director is a first-timer, if the actor is new or if I have a small role to play. In Astu, my character came in only post-interval, yet it was an impactful character. In fact, one of the members of the jury at the National Awards told me that they would have recommended me? for the main awards but since I had less screen time, they had to nominate me in the Supporting Actress category.
I try and pick strong author-backed roles. And so much is changing in the Marathi film industry that there is scope for women to experiment. I am really happy that a wave of new directors has come into our films, both Hindi and Marathi. We have so many women-oriented films doing well at the box office too. Technically, also, so many new cinematographers and camera persons have joined the industry and they are taking the industry to new heights. New concepts in Marathi cinema are driving the audience to cinemas and we are experiencing a big change in the industry.
You have worked with Ram Gopal Varma and Nandita Das in the Hindi film industry. Are there any other directors you would like to work with?
Oh, I have a long wishlist! I would love to work with Vikas Bahl, Rajkumar Gupta, R Balki, Gauri Shinde and Anurag Kashyap. They have shone the spotlight on female characters and I am very impressed with their work. I would also like to work with Nishikant Kamath, Hansal Mehta, Sriram Raghavan and Tigmanshu Dhulia. I also want to work with Karan Johar. I love how he makes his actresses look so ethereal. In fact, I recently did a Marathi film, which had similar slow-motion dance sequences in the mountains where I am wearing a sari. As an actor, you have to be convincing with your performance. In fact, singing and dancing with so much conviction is much more challenging than serious roles!