In October last year, Jennifer Lawrence, the highest-paid Hollywood actress, wrote an open letter detailing the frustration she felt when she learnt that she was paid far less than her male co-stars. Lawrence banked $46 million (around Rs.308 crore) in 2015, according to the Forbes list of World’s Highest-Paid Actresses for that year. She earned a total of $52 million, which is considerably less than the $80 million Robert Downey Junior, her male counterpart, did.
Last year, emails from Sony Pictures, hacked by a group called Guardians of Peace, revealed that Lawrence was paid considerably less than Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper for the movie American Hustle.
“When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with d****, I didn’t get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself,” she wrote in Lenny, an online feminist newsletter. “I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early.”
Actresses like Patricia Arquette and Meryl Streep too have voiced their frustration at the lack of wage equality between male and female stars. “To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women,” Arquette said during her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards in 2015.
But the trend isn’t limited to Hollywood.
In an article published in Variety magazine in November 2015, veteran film journalist Naman Ramachandran said top male actors in India earned at least five times more than the top female stars. “Most of the top male stars also take producer credits via their production companies, doubling their pay days to between $10.5 million and $11.5 million per film, with a bonus: a share of the profits,” he said, adding that in contrast actresses who carry a film on their shoulders make around $1-1.2 million per film.
Take, for instance, Deepika Padukone, who is arguably one of the industry’s most bankable stars. Padukone, the only Indian actress to make it to the top 10 of the world’s highest-paid actress Forbes list, with an annual income of Rs68 crore, is nowhere close to Shah Rukh Khan, who topped the Forbes 2015 celebrity list at Rs.257.5 crore.
For upcoming actors, the gap is even bigger. “It is a myth that there is so much money as an actor in the industry. If you are a big star, then yes. But in the beginning you don’t get too much money,” says Radhika Apte, who recently played the role of super-star Rajinikanth’s wife in the Tamil blockbuster Kabali.
Apte invests some amount in fixed deposits. “I should be able to eat well and manage my expenses for the next one year,” she says, adding that the rest of her money goes on travelling and studying.
For many years, the industry claimed that the gap was justified. “The hero used to carry the film on his shoulders while the heroine would end up having only a few scenes,” says actor and film producer Raveena Tandon. Then there is the fact that good roles for actresses start drying up by the time they hit their 30s.
“My father started investing for me when I started working and he did a great job,” says Tandon, adding that the investments in commercial property when she was younger proved to be a sensible decision. “We are doing well because we invested at the right time. This is very important, especially for female stars,” she adds.
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
However, things have changed considerably, says Tandon. “There is a huge difference between what actresses could demand in the 1990s and what they can demand today,” she says, pointing out that many of the scripts today are more female-centric. And whether it was Kangana Ranaut’s Queen, Deepika Padukone’s Piku or Priyanka Chopra’s Mary Kom, the movies have done fairly well at the box office.
At the Women of Worth 2015 event, organized by the Outlook Business magazine, Padukone acknowledged the gap—but also said that there was too much emphasis being given to it. “I look into the situation and instead of whining about it, I look at how different things were earlier and how the situation has improved already,” she said.