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Women's Day special: The continuing struggle for pay parity in Indian cinema

With more female directors and woman-centric subjects bringing in the moolah at the box office, is Indian cinema ready at long last to pay men and women equally for equal work? An analysis.

Mekhala Sengupta

It was 105 years ago, in 1913, that India's first feature film, Raja Harishchandra, was released at Bombay's Coronation theatre in Girgaum. That film, made by the pioneer Dhundiraj 'Dadasaheb' Phalke, had men essaying even the female parts. The filmmaker could not get a single woman to act in his project.

After Raja Harishchandra was released, Phalke was able to break the barrier against the entry of women in the new medium and cast Durgabai Kamat in his next, Mohini Bhasmasur (1913). Durgabai Kamat thus became India's first film actress.

By a coincidence, 1913 was also the year the International Women's Day was first observed.

Just over a dozen years later, in 1926, Fatma Begum¹, India’s first woman filmmaker, set up her own production company, Fatma Films, to produce a big-budget fantasy with special effects. She was followed by Khorshed Minocher Homji aka Saraswati Devi, who became the first female music composer in Indian cinema at Bombay Talkies, taking a Hindu name to conceal her Parsi identity.

Khorshed Minocher Homji aka Saraswati Devi

When International Women's Day was instituted, the idea was not to 'celebrate' womanhood and the achievements of such pioneers but to push for gender equality at the workplace and highlight the need to end the practice of paying men and women differently for the same work.

More than a century later, the day has become an occasion to fete the women in one's life or workplace, conduct events, push products, and offer platitudes. Meanwhile, the original battle for equality continues. And nowhere is the inequality more glaring than in cinema, more so in India.

India anyway ranks low down on equal pay for equal work. The gender pay gap in India is among the world's worst, with women on an average earning 27% less than men for the same work (35%, if you were to consider just the supposedly more modern information technology sector). The corresponding figure for the United States is 21%, and 15% for the United Kingdom.

While film stars do get paid several hundred times more than even the average white-collar employee, the gender pay gap in cinema is also far more stark, with leading actresses getting paid a fraction of what their male co-stars make for the same movie.

Early Indian cinema focused almost exclusively on tales from mythology and fantasy. Then social issues and the freedom struggle started to make an appearance, mostly tangentially because of the censors. Audiences identified with the on-screen characters.

As more women entered the business, they began to change the face of cinema. Actresses like Sulochana aka Ruby Myers, Shanta Apte, Devika Rani, Kanan Bala (later, Kanan Devi), Mehtab, Shobhana Samarth and even Nadira created strong on-screen personas as they played mythological characters, real-life women and even risqué roles.

Musical artistes like Zohrabai Ambalewali, Sadhona Bose, Leela Desai, Jahanara Kajjan, Amirbai Karnataki, Khursheed, Devika Rani, Rajkumari, and Noorjehan came to dominate the Hindi film industry. Even great vocalists like MS Subbulakshmi, Begum Akhtar and Shamshad Begum played a role.

Nutan in Bandini (1963)

As educated women and those from affluent families entered cinema, they began playing powerful, inspirational characters, and many of these films achieved box-office success. Women began getting dominant roles and top rupee as box-office stars. This era saw the likes of Nalini Jaywant, Nutan, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nargis, Waheeda Rehman, Sadhana, Asha Parekh, Vyjayanthimala, Sharmila Tagore, Rakhee and Mala Sinha. They were followed by Jaya Bhaduri, Mumtaz, Rekha, Zeenat Aman, Shabana Azmi, Hema Malini and many more.

Providing glamour was the function of another set of women, the so-called vamps like Helen, Meena T and Bindu.

In the South, meanwhile, you had legends like TP Rajalakshmi, TR Rajakumari, MS Subbulakshmi, KB Sundarambal, Vijaya Nirmala, Kommareddy Savitri, Dr Bhanumathi Ramakrishna, Prema Karanth, B Saroja Devi, Jamuna, Sowcar Janaki, Urvashi Sharada, and KR Vijaya. In fact, Telugu actress-filmmaker Vijaya Nirmala is listed in the Guinness World Records as the most prolific woman director.

However, during the 'action' decades of the 1970s and 1980s, even as Lata Mangeshkar entered the Guinness World Records as the most recorded artist, the actresses she sang for began losing their position, getting reduced mostly to eye candy and becoming dependent on the hero. They began to get stereotyped as they danced around trees, sang songs on elaborate sets, and got kidnapped, raped or killed.

Though the 1990s saw outwardly liberated heroines, they remained traditional at heart. Indeed, as Indian cinema became more global, Hindi films seemed to regress in their depiction of women. Whatever the genre, the woman was relegated to a mere glamorous appendage.

Films got more hero-centric. And the pay gap began to widen. This is how the hero began getting paid five and more times as much as his heroine. And those who dared protest ran the risk of being replaced, as Kareena Kapoor discovered to her cost during the making of Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003).²

Today, even when an actress shoulders the entire burden of a film, she is not paid as much as an actor in a comparable film with a comparable budget.

Deepika Padukone in Piku (2015)

Increasingly, however, top actresses like Deepika Padukone, Kangana Ranaut and Anushka Sharma in the Hindi industry and Divya Spandana, Parvathy and Rima in the South are speaking out on the subject.

The most vocal — not surprisingly, given her track record — has been Kangana Ranaut. “My male counterparts are paid more than three times [what I am paid. But] no one can guarantee the success of a film, so why such discrimination?” Ranaut has wondered aloud.

Many of these heroines have fan followings that rival those of most of their male co-stars, something that is easy to verify in the age of social media. And yet the school of thought that says payment is based on box-office draw continues to hold sway.

When a controversy broke out last December about Priyanka Chopra charging Rs5 crore for a five-minute performance, film distributor and trade analyst Akshaye Rathi told critic Rajeev Masand, “Let's not turn every issue into a war of the sexes!" Rathi argued that the fees of artistes are based on their ability to draw audiences at the box office and have nothing to do with their sex. "Aren't Deepika and Priyanka paid more than Irrfan [Khan], Pulkit Samrat, etc?” he said.

In reality, a complex combination of factors has resulted in the present state of affairs. While women have made much progress in Indian cinema, there is much that still needs to be accomplished.

The business itself is patriarchal, not just in India but also in many other places, and women artistes are usually seen as replaceable. Actresses still get fewer strong characters, more so in India. And since it is difficult to push for higher pay, it becomes the norm to put up with one's lot and not kick up too much of a fuss.

However, any debate on affirmative action must focus on the inclusion of women as key influencers in decision making. As the World Economic Forum has suggested, the way forward is to put more women in charge!

Significantly, in a parallel development from the 1980s onwards, more woman filmmakers have been coming to the fore. While this is not a comprehensive list, the names of Arundhati Debi, Sai Paranjpye, Aparna Sen, Parvati Balagopalan, Mira Nair, Gurinder Chadha, Deepa Mehta, Kalpana Lajmi, Vijaya Mehta, Revathy, Suhasini Maniratnam and Tanuja Chandra stand out as acclaimed directors who paved the way for more women to enter the controlling end of the industry.

The current era also has directors like Meghna Gulzar, Leena Yadav, Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti, Kiran Rao, Farah Khan, Rajshree and Anusha Rizvi in the frame at a time when, as CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour said in a recent article, “India is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman.”

Zoya Akhtar

It is no coincidence then that more woman-centric films are being made and even becoming hits, like The Dirty Picture (2011), Queen (2014), Mary Kom (2014), Piku (2015) and Bajirao Mastani (2015). While cinema is primarily a medium of entertainment, it cannot ignore its link with and responsibility to society.

“This trend of female-led films doing well at the box office is picking up, but we are still far from pay and budget parity,” actress Swara Bhaskar said. "I don’t really understand why we are paid less than the male actors because we put in equal efforts," Aditi Rao Hydari said.

Sonam Kapoor thinks the industry should be ready for pay parity. "I think it's about time, as women, as actors, as artistes, that we get our due," she said. Sonakshi Sinha said that "if a filmmaker shows that kind of trust in a woman, and if she brings the returns, you can and should give her the pay that you give to the men.”

Priyanka Chopra

Priyanka Chopra aptly summed up the debate when she said, “I think the gender pay gap is a global problem. It exists in every profession, be it Hollywood, 'Bollywood' [mainstream Hindi cinema] or the business sector where males are paid more than females. I feel it's a big problem and not just confined to the film industry.”

Chopra believes that as woman-centric films become hits, the disparity will end. And ending “weak” female stereotypes on screen, like the subservient girlfriend, weepy sister and hapless mother, is a step in that direction.

This Women's Day, let's hope we see a greater movement in that direction, towards the original goal.

Mekhala Sengupta, a former banker and corporate financier, is the author of Kanan Devi: The First Superstar of Indian Cinema, a biography of the singing star of the 1930s and 1940s. 

[1] Starting as a stage actress Fatma Begum became a silent film star with Ardeshir Irani’s Veer Abhimanyu (1922). She wore dark Gothic makeup to suit the sepia/B&W images on screen. She was also the mother of three actresses: Zubeida, Sultana and Shehzadi.

[2] In his autobiography An Unsuitable Boy, filmmaker Karan Johar has written how he replaced Kapoor with Preity Zinta in Kal Ho Naa Ho because Kapoor asked to be paid on a par with the male lead Shah Rukh Khan. Johar and Kapoor also did not speak to each other for almost a year.

[3] The #GirlsDon'tFight campaign featuring Kangana Ranaut is Reebok’s effort to tackle women's safety and the gender pay gap issue which plagues Indian women.

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Women's Day