Alankrita Shrivastava’s web series Bombay Begums has five principal female characters and a queen among queens. She has a mole on her left cheek, a serrated tongue, flexible hips and a bearing that demands and earns the one thing that she wants the most in life – respect.
“Call me Lily, short and sweet,” says the woman whose real name is Lakshmi Gondhali. A former bar dancer who has taken to sex work to finance the education of her only son, Lily has a lifetime of hard-earned experience in the ways of men. When a woman is confused about whether her boss is being friendly or predatory, Lily clears the air: I have a PhD in non-consensual sex, she says.
The mole on her cheek belongs to the actor, but everything else about Lily is Amruta Subhash’s interpretation of Shrivastava’s creation. Sassy and brittle, vulnerable and wise, pragmatic and romantic, Subhash’s Lily reigns supreme over Bombay Begums. Subhash’s ability to shift registers subtly and swiftly trumps the strong efforts of the other performers, which include Pooja Bhatt, Shahana Goswami and Plabita Borthakur.
Bombay Begums traces the intertwining lives of five women: a banker and two of her employees, the banker’s stepdaughter, and the bar dancer. All the characters multi-task furiously and struggle to lift the heavy load of womanhood. Lily bears her burden the best, a feat made possible by the sharp writing and the research that went into creating Lily, Subhash told Scroll.in.
Lily has “all these colours” and is many women contained in a single woman, Subhash said. “The role brought out many questions connected with my life,” she said. “It has freed me up in so many ways, and I hope it does so for all women and men too.”
Despite being a distant voice on the other end of a phone line, the 45-year-old actor’s elation over her latest role is evident. One can almost see her eyes lighting up as she recalls how she was cast in Bombay Begums, the scene for which she auditioned, and the real-life bar dancer she met to slip under Lily’s skin.
Subhash was recommended to Shrivastava by casting director Shruti Mahajan. Subhash’s audition revolved around a key scene, one among many that reveals Lily’s capacious heart and its ability to accommodate diverse emotions.
After some initial hostility, Lily has warmed to Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur), an employee of the banker Rani (Pooja Bhatt). Ayesha is a part of the bank’s charity project that will help Lily leave her profession and move towards her grand dream of respectability and a better life for her son.
Over drinks at a bar, the emotionally conflicted Ayesha asks Lily if she has ever held herself back in love. Lily indicates that she has, and then advises Ayesha to love “anybody you want with your full heart”. In this moment, Lily is both confidante and mother figure, a pile of mush as well as a tangle of steel.
“Lily is telling Ayesha something that she is not ready to face herself,” Subhash said. “Many times, to be ourselves is, in itself, an ambition. I may not fit into a slot, but I am what I am. That guilt about not fitting and trying to be accepted is there in each and every one of us.”
Subhash, a National School of Drama alumnus, has notched up numerous unforgettable performances since she first appeared in stage productions in the late 1990s. Subhash’s early reputation was based on Marathi plays, television serials and films, including Shwaas, Devrai, Nital, Savalee, Astu, Gandha and Killa.
In the mid-2010s, Subhash began appearing in Hindi productions. She closed the decade with Gully Boy, in which she played the mother of Ranveer Singh’s rapper despite being only nine years older than him in real life.
Streaming platforms are now scooping up talent usually ignored or sidelined by mainstream filmmakers, to the delight of truckloads of talented actors. Subhash is among the beneficiaries, with prominent roles in the Netflix series Sacred Games 2 and the direct-to-Netflix film Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai.
“When I was younger, I had this desire to do roles that would be challenging at any age,” Subhash said. “At that time, I didn’t know that there would be OTT platforms.”
In the upcoming movie Dhamaka, which will also be premiered on Netflix, Subhash plays the hard-driving boss of a television network. “I didn’t arrange for any of this, but the universe has been kind – the teaser for Dhamaka came out soon after the Bombay Begums trailer,” Subhash said. “It’s beautiful, these two looks coming together.”
Subhash bases her characters on instinct as well as observation. “I try to gather at least some information about every one of my characters,” she said. “I try to find out someone who can give me the soul of the character. I don’t want roles if there is no reference from the outside.”
In Avinash Arun’s Killa, Subhash movingly plays a single mother who relocates for work to a new place, leading to both upheaval and adventure for her son. Subhash’s preparation included closely observing the mother of Archit Deodhar, who plays her son in Killa.
For Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, Subhash met a Muslim woman who had been married at a very young age, like her own character. Gandha required a different kind of inspiration. Sachin Kundalkar’s triptych opens with the story of a dreamy typist who falls for an art student on the basis of his body odour.
Kundalkar expanded the hilarious and moving story for his Hindi feature Aiyyaa in 2012. Rani Mukerji played a glamorous and amped-up version of Subhash’s Veena, but the original performance was shorter, sweeter, and more convincing.
“Both Sachin and I had watched the French film Amelie, and I am also a huge fan of the actress Audrey Tautou,” Subhash said. “Amelie and its surrealism were among the references.”
For Lily from Bombay Begums, Alankrita Shrivastava directed Subhash to Reshma, a former bar dancer. Subhash and the series co-writer Iti Agarwal spent a day with Reshma and got a peek into her world.
“It was wonderful, the way she opened up about her life and showered love on me,” Subhash recalled. “Small gestures told me so much about her. She had twin daughters, and she told them to bring hot water to wash my feet. In the novel Eat Pray Love, a character says that a bath of hot water can wash away almost anything.”
Reshma also showed Subhash the tricks of dancing – how to move the hips and flick back the hair. “She was someone else when feeding the grandson, and then when she changed her clothes, she transformed herself for me,” Subhash said. “I have seen this happening with women in all kinds of professions. Like this well-known classical singer, who was someone else in her kitchen but a queen on the stage.”
The transformation capable by women, who simultaneously inhabit different realities and emotional states, is evident in Lily’s introduction scene.
In a tawdry brothel, Lily is helping a young and clumsy adolescent make the leap to manhood. Lily gyrates her hips and puts on her most seductive face. When the boy flubs the moment, she laughs and pats his cheek in a maternal gesture. Then she coolly tells him where he can chuck his condom.
There is never an occasion to pity Lily, who makes her own bed and lies in it. We have to do whatever we can to survive, she tells Ayesha – and then tops up her speech with a wink.
“Beyond the boldness lies the emotion, the humanness that we are portraying on the screen,” Subhash observed.
Subhash’s lodestar is her mother, the acting veteran Jyoti Subhash. The actors have often shared the screen, including in Tehreer Munshi Premchand Ki, Gulzar’s television adaptation of Premchand’s stories, Gandha and Gully Boy.
“My mother is 73, and she is the youngest woman in my life,” Amruta Subhash said. “I am in awe of her.”
Before the daughter, the mother trained at the National School of Drama. However, Jyoti Subhash stayed away for acting until Amruta Subhash was 12 – a sacrifice the daughter remembers with gratitude.
“I can’t imagine how an actress of her calibre managed it,” Amruta Subhash said. “She enjoyed bringing us up, but I don’t know what she must have gone through.”
Jyoti Subhash wrote a “beautiful letter” to her daughter to explain her renewed career, saying, there is a world that I now want to explore. I need to spend time on whatever I like, just as you do.
“My brother and I took some time to understand that,” Amruta Subhash recalled. Then they saw her on the stage, transformed by characterisation and lines and costumes and props. Here, possibly, was one of Amruta Subhash’s earliest and most enduring references for her quest to become another person and blur the line between what is imagined and what actually is.