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Who’s Afraid of Equal Opportunities?

If reports are to be believed (though they must be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism), the highest paid female stars (Kareena Kapoor, Katrina Kaif) in Hindi films get Rs 3 crore per film, while the highest paid male stars get many times more—Akshay Kumar is pegged at Rs 71 crore and Aamir Khan at Rs 80 crore. These are absurd figures, and even if male stars get a much less, what these figures underline is the wide disparity between the remuneration of ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’ (not actors, mind you, there is no premium on real talent).

Distributors in India say that the ‘heroes’ sell films, not heroines. They also say female-centric films don’t work; even Madhuri Dixit could not make Aaja Nachle a hit they say. You could argue that even Amitabh Bachchan could not make The Last Lear a hit, or that even Akshay Kumar and Saif Ali Khan could not make Tashan a hit, but nobody would pay any attention. It is a male dominated industry in Mumbai, and that’s that!

It is also pretty much a male dominated industry in Hollywood, but the highest paid actress is only marginally behind the highest paid actor, if at all. Out there, ‘chicks’ also sell flicks’ and get high box-office returns. For a while Mamma Mia!, a film starring a 60-plus actress, Meryl Streep overtook the big fanboy flick The Dark Knight at the box-office. Give Madhuri Dixit, or Rekha or Hema Malini a film like that and then decide whether women are audience magnets or not. Not even Shah Rukh Khan could have made Bachke Rehna Re Baba (Rekha-Mallika Sherawat) a hit, had he chosen to star in it.. which he didn’t.

In Hollywood, top actresses don’t just wear bikinis and preen, they handle business too; almost all the major stars—Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, to name a few—produce their own films and control money, including their pay packets. Over there it doesn’t matter if the actress is married, divorced, had kids, is over 30… or any of the minus points that affect Hindi film actresses. Because these women take their careers seriously, not as ‘time pass’ between modelling and marriage.

Hindi film actresses do have long way to go, because Hindi films have a long way to go. But still, if second rung male character actors get more money than Bollywood leading ladies, there’s something wrong somewhere.

7 Comments

  • I am surprised at a trite argument put forward as a bland feminist opinion and that too on upperstall.
    I do not think the readership, especially in contemporary India, is any more interested in getting their thoughts triggered. This is not against the author of this post… the first line was.
    What happens in India, among the many factors (that should have been here but aren’t), is that “women” films is a separate entity. And it is a fault on everyone’s part. Remember when Tanuja Chandra or Farha Khan started making films, every reporter tried to notch a byline by profiling them and using the always-raped question of “you are a woman director in a male-dominated industry. How does it feel?”
    Let me tell you one thing and think over it in all calmness.
    In India, it is women who are hell bent on marginalizing themselves. Most of them. Our dadis and nanis were true feminists not the modern scholars. Here is something you could read that does not help my argument vis-a-vis your article directly but will hint at my thought process – http://dialecticderangement.blogspot.com/2007/12/pathetic-sunday-team.html.
    Secondly, the audience mentality does change. Let us not underestimate the power and intelligence of the audience. Godard may have been right but then not everyone in the post-globalisation world is the same.
    I am with you Deepa when you ask the question – what is wrong? I am so not with you when you (a prolific film writer) come up with this article.
    I would love to see a follow up to this article.

  • Deepa,
    Why single out Bollywood only … Indian society – men mostly and also many women – is yet to understand and believe in the equality of sexes ….
    Kirit Kiran,
    I disagree that our ‘dadis and nanis were true feminists’ – I’ve known quite a lot of women of the generation who has made the lives of their daughter in-laws for dowry or the fear of losing their control over their ladla puttars ! Alot of them also have faith in inherently chauvinistic rituals which are a part of our religious ethos ….

  • Thanks for your comments Kirit and Boorback.

    Kirit: It may seem trite to you, but this is not a ‘feminist’ opinion on the kind of films women do or the women who make films (though it is worrisome that Farah Khan is the only successful mainstream director), but the very wide disparity in the fees earned by actors and actresses. And it is the widest now– the top actress earns roughly half of one-tenth the top actor earns. Leading ladies were never as dispensable or interchangeable as they are now. One is not trying to apportion blame, this is the way things are in Bollywood, but someone should ask what the-called ‘heroes’ have done to earn Rs 50-80 crore per film, as reports say?

    Boorback: I am writing about Bollywood, because this is a film site. Of course, there is plenty to rant about if society as a whole is taken into account.

  • Boorback: Kindly read again and raise your intellectual capacity. Perhaps you need to do some studies on sociology and anthropology. But my point was regarding Deepa’s article and you mention something which though definitely related in the broader aspect, unfortunately gets shadowed by your myopic comprehension and expression.

    Deepa: The problem is with media in general, esp now. It is a very sad state of affairs given our television serials and films that are hell bent of using women in a much more convetional manner than ever before. The representation is to be blamed. Those who accept never dare to change for they are earning their bread and butter and those who refuse such norms, are never accepted. In either case, a compromise is reached.
    I do not think a woman is still seen equal to a man, at least in a parochial society like ours. Sad!

  • Deepa,

    I think the problem is rooted much, much too deep to be easily solvable and is also to do with the shape our Hindi mainstream films took up from the 1970s onwards. These films, with a shift towards action, saw revenge and not romance being the top priority of the ‘angry young man.’ Heroine roles were drastically reduced in these films where she had two scenes, two songs and if needed in the climax, it was to be held hostage by the villain till the hero rescued her. Soon, it didn’t even matter who the heroine was. With her importance diminishing, the heroine was bound to be paid less and less and this is precisely what happened. The story is pretty much the same in all other languages.

    Sadly, our formulaic filmmakers’ outlooks haven’t really changed since then. And it’s not just the filmmaker, it’s the entire system. Even today when a filmmaker, be he a mainstream or a multiplex type, sets out to raise finance for his film, he is first asked Hero kaun hai? Should he have a female oriented subject and should he cite some successful example of the past, he would curtly be told that for one successful Khoon Bhari Maang, Rekha had to see Aurat Aurat Aurat, Bahurani, Bhrastachar, Azad Desh ke Ghulam, Kasam Suhaag Ki, Madam X etc bite the dust. Only if our filmmakers somehow manage to make a good amount of female centric films and miraculously, should a healthy percentage of them actually prove to be successful, things might start to change. But one point here, it’s not just making women centred films, the films should go beyond the noble suffering ‘Bharitaya Nari’ if the movement is to have any merit. As Kirit has pointed out, TV is not helping even if they all telecast women centric serials for the depiction of women is questionable to say the least. I know writers and producers in the television industry who are bluntly asked by TV channels if they have any regressive ideas; the channel briefs for upcoming shows are simple – a young girl should be the protagonist, she should be made to do things she doesn’t want to do for the sake of keeping the family together.

    Idealistically, a change is not impossible. And we have a precedent. In the 1940s and 1950s, actresses were billed ahead of heroes in the credit titles and in Andaz (1949) of the three main leads – Nargis, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, Nargis was paid the highest fee and she was the central character in the film. Also, in the 1950s and 1960s, the role disparity was not so wide and several actresses like Nargis, Nutan, Waheeda Rehman, Vyjayanthimala, Suchitra Sen, Padmini, Savithri, P Bhanumathi and Meena Kumari played central roles in many films and their fees were close to the heroes. Mala Sinha was known to have refused Ram aur Shyam (1967) opposite Dilip Kumar since the role had precious little to offer. She concentrated instead on films where she was the central character even opposite lesser heroes as she carried films like Anpadh (1962) and Hariyali aur Raasta (1962) on her shoulders.

    Leave alone acting, Lata Mangeshkar has easily been the most powerful personality in the field of playback singing. She took on Mohammed Rafi in the 1960s and stopped singing with him over the issue of royalty to playback artistes. She even refused to sing for SD Burman in the period from 1957 – 62 and though he along with OP Nayyar groomed Asha Bhosle in this period, such was Lata’s clout that she had her way and ultimately both SD and Rafi came back to her.

    Lastly, a word about P Bhanumathi here – The Grande Dame of Tamil and Telugu cinemas, at her peak she was an Actress, Writer, Director, Producer, Studio Owner, Music Director and Playback Singer. Way to go madam!

  • Third Man: Your article is extremely erudite and P Bhanumurthi is an outstanding example of a woman who has been able to create a dominant position for herself in an industry (and society in general) which is male chauvinistic to a large extent. And yes Lata Mangeshkar too is a notable example. In a way Aparna Sen too has been able to carve out a niche in a multi-faceted role.

    Deepa: Meant no disrespect , just wanted to say that the problem of heroines and woman in film industry is related to the position and status of women in Indian society as a whole. Your article is illuminating about the gender discrimination in Bollywood – of course there’s a problem when top heroines get paid less than second rung male character actors.

    Kirti : Sorry Boss! I think still think that your statement about our nanis and dadis is pretty facile (even in the context of Deepa’s article) however well read you may be in anthropology and sociology!! Of course, I agree that in India a lot of women are responsible for their own marginalization but one must also remember that this is so because of the ‘conditioning’ created by centuries of male domination. I don’t think a real (feminist armchair or not) would condone or practice dowry as many of our dadis and nanis did. Such male chauvinistic values you’ve rightly pointed out are also propagated by TV serials.

  • Third Man.. well put.

    Boorback: There are gender inequities in society, but you expect women in some position of power– and role models too (whether we like it or not) would show some spunk. But with time, things are getting worse rather than better.

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