Lakshmi was fifteen when she started acting in films. Her first film was Jeevanamsam, a Tamil film released in 1968. The same year she entered Telugu cinema through Bandhavyalu. She became well-known among the North-Indian audience through the film Julie (1975) in which she played the title role. Her performance in the film earned her a Filmfare Best Actress Award.
She established herself as a successful and popular actress in South India in the 1970s acting in all four South Indian languages: Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam. Her Malayalam film Chattakari (1974) was remade in Hindi as Julie (1975) and in Telugu as Miss Julie Prema Katha (1975). In addition to a Filmfare Best Actress Award, she also won the Bengal Film Journalists' Association Awards for the "most outstanding work of the year", for her work in Julie. She is a versatile actress with a glamorous touch. In the Telugu film Panthulamma, she is credited with giving one of her best performances.
After her success in Julie, however, she didn't star in many Hindi films and instead concentrated on doing more South Indian films. She won the National Film Award for Best Actress for Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal (1977), becoming one of the first South Indian actresses to win in that category for a Tamil film. When her career as a leading lady ended in the 1980s, she started playing supporting roles as a mother and later as grandmother. She played Aishwarya Rai's grandmother in Jeans (1998) and Kareena Kapoor's grandmother in Hulchul (2004). She has performed in more than 400 films and has also been involved in politics.
Lakshmi took a break from acting to host two talk shows, including the Tamil talk show Achamillai, Achamillai. After the talk shows ended, she returned to acting in films. She is fluent in all four South Indian languages. She hosted a talk show in Kannada for Suvarna channel called Idu Kathe alla Jeevana. She also hosts a talk show in Tamil for Vijay TV called Kadhai Alla Nijam. She also directed a Kannada film Makkala Sainya. Currently she is hosting a talk show in Kannada for Suvarna channel called Neena? Naana?