It was the slap-in-the-face heard throughout Tinseltown--the ultimate in backstabbery (and, undoubtedly, juicy fodder for KJo’s next round of meddlesome Q&A on KWK). Even weeks later, chatter remains rampant over Kareena Kapoor’s strutting away with the lead in Madhur Bhandarkar’s upcoming Heroine after the unwelcome discovery that his original choice, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, had conveniently kept the news of her pregnancy from her director even after shooting for the film had begun.
But even more shocking than the unceremonious replacement is the obscene chunk of change that Kareena will receive for her work. While most of India can’t even fathom what 1 crore looks like, Kareena is nonchalantly charging over 6 times as much for her portrayal of a has-been star struggling with her receding celebrity. What’s more, whispers of a profit-sharing deal with UTV producers, combined with her already-astronomical fee, reportedly take her total compensation to a jaw-dropping 8 crores.
While this latest feat makes Kareena the highest-paid contemporary actress, she’s just one of several Bollywood belles whose paychecks have recently come to rival those of their male costars. Today, Aishwarya, Bipasha Basu, Priyanka Chopra, and Katrina Kaif join Kareena in the coveted “Crore Club” once exclusively dominated by the manly likes of Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, and Akshay Kumar. But as actresses’ fees and clout continue to rise, does the quality of their work exhibit a similar escalation, thus justifying their stratospheric salaries?
On the one hand, perhaps it’s an overdue step towards gender equality that the gap between the pay for actors and actresses is considerably narrower than in the past. Sure, it’s irksome that nobody bats an eye when Salman Khan allegedly demands 17.5 crores for a substance-deprived film like Bodyguard, whereas it’s splashed across tabloids when an actress makes even a fraction of such a sum. After all, it’s not as though a man beating up the bad guys or pretending to be gay is that much harder than a woman playing a prostitute or assuming 12 different characters within one film. This is far from an endorsement for the amount that actors are paid (seriously, what do you do with that much bank?!), but at the very least, these higher sums for actresses indicate some degree of empowerment; one step further away from double standards in a culture long embedded in its dogged belief in the inferiority of women in the workplace.
But why now? Why these actresses? What about their roles today validates this drastic upsurge in earnings compared to their forerunners of decades past?
Is it the fact that they can guarantee box-office hits? Turns out, not really. In fact, current highly-paid Bollywood actresses can hardly single-handedly bring a film commercial success, as seen from the lackluster theatrical returns from Aishwarya’s Umrao Jaan, Rani’s Dil Bole Hadippa, and even Kareena’s own Chameli. And when these films don’t work, they resign themselves to the industry’s skimpy selection of available characters, succumbing to the clichéd damsel in distress, the submissive wife/ girlfriend, or the seductive item girl—waiflike, leggy commodities to complement a film’s real star: the male hero.
Clearly, then, the rising rates aren’t a symptom of the increase in meaningful, women-driven characters, either. The success of films that have gained popular approval certainly isn’t due to the groundbreaking roles of their leading ladies, whose involvement in them was more a stroke of luck than a platform for their talent. 3 Idiots, in which she was passable but couldn’t hold a candle to the antics of the central trio, can hardly be called Kareena’s film. Nor can the Golmaal series, where she’s been consistently outshined by Ajay Devgan, Arshad Warsi, and the rest of the eclectic cast. Likewise, Katrina was far less responsible than Hrithik, Farhan, or Abhay for the overwhelming reception to Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara; neither was she the highlight of Rajneeti's star-studded ensemble. The public flocked to theaters for Guzaarish more for Hrithik’s portrayal of a handicapped magician than Ash’s as his straight-laced nurse. Then there are Bipasha and Deepika, who haven’t even had any powerful enough roles to warrant their hefty charges (let’s face it, aside from her mediocre performance Corporate, is there any film we’ve seen where Bipasha does something other than gyrate awkwardly in a skimpy lehenga while shooting the audience smoldering looks?).
The sole exception to the bulk of mainstream actresses wedged into their cinematic comfort zones is Priyanka Chopra, the beauty-queen-turned-actor who, ironically, we were so eager to write off at the onset of her career. Unquestionably pushing her limits with an assortment of female-centered roles including the naïve yet gutsy model in Fashion, the murderous black widow in Saat Khoon Maaf, and the aforementioned 12 characters in What’s Your Rashee, Priyanka’s genuine versatility has truly merited her lofty fees.
Meanwhile, the handful of actresses who do dare to venture outside the norm and tackle bolder parts--Kalki Koechlin with Dev D., Konkana Sen Sharma with Page 3, or Vidya Balan with Paa and Ishqiya, to name a few--are inexplicably paid less, their “artsy” or off-beat labels somehow rendering them less deserving of the hefty salaries that their peers enjoy.
The cinematic landscape for women today lies in stark contrast to that of decades as far back as the 1970’s, 60s, and heck, even the 50’s. Free from the distracting expectations of skin-bearing and full-on smooching, actresses actually did what they were meant to do: act. Think Geeta Bali’s convention-shunning Suhag Raat, Nutan’s poignance in Seema, Hema Malini’s delicate but soulful Meera. And of course, no discussion of female-centric films would be complete without mentioning Nargis’s legendary Mother India. These were women who could effortlessly carry a film on their shoulders, despite occasionally performing opposite less popular actors. Even in the testosterone-saturated 80’s and 90s, when meaty roles for actresses seemed to hit an all-time low, beacons of hope like Madhuri Dixit, Sridevi, and Kareena’s big sis Karisma could be counted on to uphold the filmi feminist flag with powerhouse performances in Mrityudand, Chandni, and Zubeidaa.
Looking back, then, it’s almost as though Bollywood’s past actually provided more fertile ground for its actresses than its present. Looking forward, it remains difficult to anticipate whether the current drought of substantial female protagonists will persist, or whether the latest roster of actresses making their debuts in the last year or two will till the cinematic soil to reap more enriching opportunities for themselves. If the choices made by newcomers like Jiah Khan, Sonakshi Sinha, and Anushka Sharma are any indication, however, the future looks bleak: with immaterial roles in films such as Dabangg, and Ghajini, they, like their contemporaries, seem content with playing the stereotypical second fiddle to their male heroes.
Yet, the fate of roles for women in Bollywood may depend less on the actors than on the writers and directors who dominate the field today. What the Indian film industry needs is more filmmakers like Madhur Bandhakar, who seems to have made a career out of churning out female-oriented movies; Kiran Rao, whose Dhobi Ghaat saw veteran superstar Aamir Khan taking a backseat to newcomer Monica Dogra; and Anurag Kashyap, who proved with his latest festival favorite That Girl in Yellow Boots that, given the chance, a female lead is just as capable of inducing shock and emotion as a man.
Empowered characters for women may be few and far between—but they’re out there. Here’s hoping that our desi heroines can step up and demand them, allowing the caliber of their roles to eventually match the size of their paychecks. Until then, we’ll be resigned to wondering which brawny hero will come to save them next.