Bollywood's women rise in stature but ask: Where's the money?
In this Aug. 23, 2014 file photo, Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra speaks during a promotional event for her film 'Mary Kom' in Ahmadabad, India. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki, File)
Nirmala George, The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, November 25, 2014 7:34AM EST
NEW DELHI -- This is Bollywood's year of the woman. Some of the biggest hits in India's prolific movie industry this year have female leads in female-oriented stories.
In this summer's surprise hit, "Queen," Kangana Ranaut is the spunky heroine who embarks on her honeymoon alone after she is jilted the day before her big fat Indian wedding. In "Mary Kom," Priyanka Chopra plays a female Olympic bronze medal-winning boxer. 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.
But for all their box-office success and newfound prominence, Bollywood actresses are asking: Where is the money?
Top male stars, such as the three Khans -- Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir -- and action star Akshay Kumar, earn around 400 million rupees ($6.7 million) per film on average, apart from a share of the profits, according to industry experts.
A-list actresses such as Deepika Padukone and Katrina Kaif get paid a tenth of that per film. When Padukone recently signed a movie deal for 70 million rupees ($1.1 million), it generated a buzz since it was one of the highest amounts paid to a female lead.
Actresses are beginning to speak out about that enormous disparity.
"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," up-and-coming star Aditi Rao Hydari told Press Trust of India.
The momentum started last year, when women featured prominently in several successful movies. That 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.
Over the past couple of years, several such films starring actresses Kaif, Padukone and Ranaut as well as Priyanka Chopra and Vidya Balan have crossed the 1 billion rupee ($17 million) earnings mark that is generally considered a hit in Bollywood, which gets its name from Bombay, the old name for Mumbai, where most studios are based.
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.
And 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.
But the changing audience has also helped grow India's film industry, one of the world's biggest, cranking out around 1,000 movies annually. Revenues have risen more than 10 per cent over the past decade to more than $3.5 billion in 2012. Hollywood's revenue that same year was about $10.8 billion.
"It's only going to get better from here as audiences are changing. We are moving toward a society where we have more educated and working class women," said Ranaut. "They'd like to see stronger women on screen."
In the low-budget "Queen," Ranaut plays Rani, a young woman who goes on her honeymoon solo after her fiance ditches her. With her supportive family cheering her on over Skype, the film focuses on her adventures in Europe.
In the final scenes of the film, a confident Rani rejects attempts by her feckless fiance to woo her back and walks away, which prompted Indian audiences in some theatres to clap and applaud an act that would have been unthinkable in Indian cinema -- or Indian society -- less than a decade ago.
Pay disparities between male and female stars is a global phenomenon, experts say.
In Hollywood, age does play a significant factor, and actresses in their 20s generally earn more than their same-age male counterparts. But overall, the highest-paid male actors in American movies earn more than twice as much as female stars.
Women also get fewer parts in movies. A recent United Nations study on the portrayal of women in popular cinema in 11 of the world's largest film markets including India said less than a quarter of all speaking roles were played by women.
Because Indian male actors are better paid and more established, they also can take on greater risks. Increasingly, they are demanding a share of a film's profits and distribution rights, while female stars prefer the safer option of one-time payment, said Taran Adarsh, film analyst.
"The actress may think, 'What if the movie bombs at the box-office?' Then she may end up not getting even her regular market rate," he said.
Adarsh believes actresses' demands for better pay is justified, but that other factors such as popularity and track record also figure into the contract.
"If the actress is doing very well, and she carries the film on her shoulders, if her popularity is high, and if she has many hits to her credit, she is able to demand better terms," he said.
The pay gap in India will narrow as movies about women become more popular, said Chopra, a top-billed actress who plays the lead in the boxing movie "Mary Kom."
"When women-centred films become hits," she said, "then the disparity will end."