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-Anoushka Manidhar

It’s a well-accepted fact that the Indian film industry has a stronger star system than Hollywood. Unfortunately, this star system although promotes women but refuses to pay them what they deserve.

If we look at the list of ‘Most Googled people of India’ in the past 5 years, following observations can be made:

1) Sunny Leone is the most popular person in India, ahead of even Narendra Modi.

2) Among the ten most Googled people, six of them are actresses – Sunny Leone, Katrina Kaif, Deepika Padukone, Alia Bhatt, Priyanka Chopra, and Poonam Pandey.

However, if we now look at the highest paid celebrities in India, these are the observations made:

1) The only woman on this list is Deepika Padukone, with an earning of Rs 68 crore, which is nearly one fourth of that earned by the list-topper Shahrukh Khan who earns about Rs 257.5 crore.

2) In the year 2014, Padukone starred in three films, including Farah Khan’s Happy New Year, which went on to become the fifth-highest grossing Bollywood film of all time. In contrast, Amitabh Bachchan, who only had one release that year, the half-heartedly or rather tepidly-received Bhootnath Returns, pulled in Rs 196.75 crore due to his long list of endorsements.

Despite these inexcusable contrasts, the past five years have seen Bollywood’s leading ladies catching up with the men to an extent. Deepika Padukone, Kangana Ranaut, Alia Bhatt, and Priyanka Chopra with movies like Piku, Queen, Highway and Mary Kom have time and again proved that the Indian audience does not only come to watch ‘heroes breaking of villain’s bones’.

Unfortunately, even then it’s pretty evident that it will be a long journey before we manage to see anything resembling equal wages for equal work in the Hindi-film industry. For all their box-office success and newfound prominence, Bollywood actresses are asking: Where is the money?

An India Today list showed that India’s highest paid actress, Deepika Padukone earns approximately Rs 8-9 crores per film, meanwhile the industry’s highest paid actor, Salman Khan, takes home nearly Rs 55 crore for the same. This proves that, while female-oriented movies have been doing extremely well at the box office, conventional films with top male stars in the lead are still the biggest earners.

It is still a male-dominated industry, agrees Juhi Chawla, “Movies are usually known by their hero. I’m not saying women don’t have pivotal roles but they are few and far between,” she says, adding that the pay gap is partly a consequence of this. “It has always been that way and it is something you just learn to accept,” she says

For long, the industry claimed this pay-gap as justified. “The hero was given a role in which he would carry the film on his shoulders whereas the heroine would end up having only a few scenes in the film,” says actor and film producer Raveena Tandon. However, things have changed considerably, says Tandon. “There is an enormous difference between what actresses could demand in the 1990s and what they can demand today,” she says, pointing out that scripts today are more female-centric.

Deepika Padukone has acknowledged this pay-gap, but also said that there was too much emphasis being given to it. “I consider the situation and instead of whining about it, I look at how things were earlier and how the situation has improved already,” she said.

Female stars in India also tend to have shorter careers. The older they get, the fewer leading parts are written for them, while men get lead roles even as they age. The fees don’t go down for older male stars. People continue to write starring roles for 73-year-old Amitabh Bachchan who has no comparable female equivalent.

Our divas are not amused at the pay disparity between male and female stars in Bollywood, and have spoken out in solidarity

“I don’t really understand why we are paid less than the male actors because we put in equal effort and the recent past has shown that actresses can deliver a hit film. We deserve better pay, equal to what actors get,” said Aditi Rao Hydari.

The difference in male and female actors’ pay cheques is insane – Priyanka Chopra

Women need to get paid better in the so-called typically commercial filmsVidya Balan

We’re not paid even one-third of what male actors are paid, only because we are women!- Kangana Ranaut

There’s a difference of several zeroes between the pay cheque I get and that the Khans get- Kareena Kapoor 

The remuneration for women hasn’t changed since I came here. There’s a huge disparity– Katrina Kaif

Producers aren’t denying the truth either. “It’s an old mindset, a feudal system. There is this stereotype that women can’t sell films – a belief that is gradually changing worldwide. I ensure both my male and female actors get equal pay,” says filmmaker Pooja Bhatt.

Some feel that things are gradually changing much like in Hollywood, and argue that more women-oriented films may even the scale. “I know I paid Kareena in lakhs earlier, now I pay her in crores. If more women oriented films are made and appreciated by the audiences, then even the producers will happily pay more to female actors,” says producer Vashu Bhagnani. Many contest this as a sexist approach, and others suggest different alternatives.

Although many male actors have backed up these statements and come out in support of the actresses, Salman Khan isn’t of them. The actor was quick to dismiss these claims, terming it as “bulls**t talk”. He said, “Why doesn’t anyone talk about the male actors who get paid less than female actors? So, this entire debate is bulls**t. Whoever is selling, how much they are selling, will earn accordingly.”

Previously, women were relegated to playing the male lead’s girlfriend, sister or mother in subservient roles reflecting the traditional dominance of men in Indian society.

Calls for better pay gained momentum last year, when women featured prominently in several successful movies. It forced directors and producers to rethink roles for actresses.

Given the success of this emerging genre, studios appear to be more confident about producing female-oriented movies where the main character is played by a woman, not a man.

Part of the change reflects the greater spending power of Indian women, who are joining the work force, earning more money and want to see movies starring women in stories they can relate to – not typical action or fantasy fare, where women are merely eye candy for male movie-goers. We can only hope for things to get better from here as audiences are changing. We are moving toward a society where we have more educated and working-class women.

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