Broke and beautiful in Bollywood

Deepika Padukone, Kangana Ranaut, Kareena Kapoor and Vidya Balan are just some of the stars who are sticking their necks out to point out this disparity.

There is grumbling in Bollywood and it is getting louder — top female actors are getting paid a fraction of what their male counterparts get.

The latest reminder comes in this article. While Shahrukh Khan and his peers net a cool 40 crores for a film (excluding distribution rights), Deepika Padukone getting a 7-crore-contract makes people sit up in disbelief.

Also read: Policing Mathira, Deepika — and all South Asian women

Perhaps it’s a sign of changing times that Bollywood’s top heroines are sticking their necks out to point out this disparity. Kareena Kapoor, Vidya Balan, Kangana Ranaut, Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone are just some of the stars who have expressed their opinions on the matter. Needless to say, they stand to benefit the most if and when the disparity ends.

But that doesn’t devalue their opinions. If anything, it should tell us that these stars are embodying a newfound confidence in a male-dominated industry. That begs the question:

Is Bollywood biased against its heroines?

Reality is usually not starkly black or white. So, ladies and gentlemen – in that order! – let’s dig a little deeper and see what we can find.

Factors influencing unequal pay

Longevity: Bollywood heroes are allowed to woo heroines young enough to be their daughters. That’s been true for quite some time now.

In the past, superstars such as Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan had wrinkled faces when they finally gave up romancing fresh, young heroines on screen.

Modern-day superstars don’t have the same problem.

Thanks to a rigorous fitness regimen and/or the occasional visit to the cosmetic surgeon, they are capable of extending their careers indefinitely. This gives heroes, such as Akshay Kumar sufficient time to reinvent themselves, stumble along and eventually reach the top echelons. Additionally, longevity offers them a sizable oeuvre and loyal fans spanning across generations. No wonder they are so marketable.

Marketability: "A top male star like Aamir Khan can guarantee a certain threshold of revenues. He knows that he can profit just by asking for, say, overseas rights. With that kind of clout, any director will be willing to wait for his dates," says Gayathri Smitha, who works in India’s thriving television advertising industry as a top-end casting director.

"Even the talented and successful Ranbir Kapoor has not reached this point yet, but he will soon."

In other words, producers aren’t keen on doing anybody a favour. They are well aware that a huge flop might make them insolvent. So they certainly conduct a detailed risk analysis and cost estimate before signing on a star’s cheque.

Script: The celluloid world belongs to men, reports Variety and goes on to add that only 30 per cent of all speaking parts in Hollywood belong to female characters. In Bollywood, the situation is perhaps even more skewed.

For decades, Bollywood has prematurely celebrated the “coming of age” of women in Indian cinema. Of course, one can get understandably excited to see Nargis in Mother India, Suchitra Sen in Aandhi, Smita Patil in Mirch Masala, Rekha in Umrao Jaan, Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das in Fire and Tabu in Chandni Bar and Astitva amongst others.

The actresses mentioned herein took it upon themselves to push the envelope and create some revered space for women in the industry. But their efforts did not lead to the mainstreaming of heroine-centric films.

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The recent past has been a refreshing break from this pattern. Films such as Kahaani, Dirty Picture, Queen, Mary Kom and Highway saw actresses taking the centre stage in commercial projects.

Queen especially stands out for portraying a new type of strength. Playing Rani, Kangana Ranaut doesn’t show skin, nor does she weep at the drop of a hat. Her character thereby rejects the Bollywood heroine’s default tricks: titillation and tears. More tellingly, Rani rejects bitterness and revenge as viable coping mechanisms. She chooses to retain both her dignity and her soul.

The fact that such heroine-centric films are becoming a regular feature in Bollywood perhaps reflects the changing reality of Indian society. With so many Indian women now having disposable incomes and asserting their choices, it is but natural for film industries to cater to their wish to see strong women on screen.

What hasn’t happened yet is the equalisation of pay structure.

Having said that, you can trust money to be gender-neutral. So when it makes sense to pay women more, the market will do exactly that.

The other side of the coin

This report by IBN Live lists the pay packet of some of the big directors of Bollywood. Farah Khan comes on top in this list with a reported fee of 7-8 crores per film, which is around twice as much as Priyadarshan.

Also, the entertainment industry is not monolithic. There are certain niches within this industry which pay women a great deal better than men.

See: Dancing with the stars: An interview with Farah Khan

"Daytime television and modelling for instance," says Gayathri Smitha. "In both, women charge more. Because the market dynamics are different here. In these niches, you can expect the woman to net 25 to 40 per cent more as compared to her male peer."

And as a professional, who negotiates the pay package with artists, she knows what she is talking about.

Exceptions exist

Over the ages, exceptional actresses seem to have levelled the playing field.

The Financial Express reports that Hema Malini used to command the same price as her onscreen heroes. This feat has been accomplished more recently by Malashree, a leading actress of the Kannada film industry. Monish Nagaraj, a young emerging star of this south-Indian film industry, says:

"Malashree still commands a pay equivalent to any top male actor. There used to be a time when producers would struggle to get her dates and once they got it, they would immediately announce the project and only then look for a hero to match her dates. It was believed that Malashree’s name alone could ensure a hit film. She achieved this without ever feeling the need to expose skin. She played strong, popular roles. That’s it."

What’s even more astonishing is that Malashree has been a part of the industry for 25 years!

Bollywood’s exceptional exception is, of course, Vidya Balan. This gifted actress has gotten married, put on weight and yet delivered heroine-centric hits such as Kahaani and Dirty Picture. What’s more, both the audience and the critics fawn over her.

The final word

What Vidya Balan still hasn’t received, and deserves like so many of her peers, is an equal or at least comparable remuneration. Thankfully, there are indications that this transformation is on the cards. Consistent commercial success through stronger roles is all that's needed to reshape the pay structure.

Also read: South Asian women step out of Bollywood, into serious dramatic roles

Talking to the media recently on the pay disparity, the reigning queen of Bollywood Deepika Padukone had this to say:

"If you are comparing our pay scale with the men, then yes, it is very less. If you are comparing what girls used to get before and what they are getting in the last one or two years, then I can say that there has been a major shift and we are hoping and trying. But this is not a war."

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