DATELINE: The middle of the year.
July is usually a month when critics do half-yearly assessments of film industries – of hits, misses, trends and projects that managed to get theatrical releases against all odds. Those who are looking at the Hindi industry in particular in 2016 may be tempted to celebrate on behalf of women. On the face of it, they would not be off the mark.
Among the Top 5 hits of the year so far is the Sonam Kapoor-starrer Neerja, a heroine-centric story that grossed over Rs 134 crore worldwide according to industry sources (nearly seven times what was spent on it) despite featuring none of the elements conventionally deemed mass appealing by Bollywood. Since the winter of 2015, Priyanka Chopra has metamorphosed into a mainstream global star without shedding her Indian skin or distancing herself from her roots in Hindi cinema.
This summer, Kangana Ranaut (she spells it as Kangna) picked up her second successive National Award — her third overall — for a film that was a massive money spinner last year. And in June, a small film called Nil Battey Sannata revolving around Swara Bhaskar – who played Ranaut’s friend in the two Tanu Weds Manu films and another well-received supporting character in Kapoor’s 2013 hit Raanjhanaa – quietly completed nine weeks in theatres at certain prime centres.
The success of Neerja alone might prompt those who are frustrated with male-dominated Bollywood’s traditional obduracy to stand up on a table in a crowded restaurant and do an exultant jig. Keep the champagne on hold for a moment though. Yes, all the milestones listed in the previous paragraph have been crossed, but even an eternal optimist like Kapoor points out that although “life has gotten a little better” the industry remains a tough place for women
“Everybody thinks a woman-centric film has to be really hard core, arty and all that. When Rhea (her sister, producer Rhea Kapoor) and I made Aisha (2010), people wondered why a girl would make a commercial film about a pretty girl who’s doing nice things,” she says, adding, “After the success of Aisha, it was easier for us to make Khoobsurat (2014), which did phenomenally well and received positive reviews too. People then eventually saw it for what it was, that we’re not commenting on society or any of those things. So my sister is, like, I don’t want to be apologetic about making a fun, female-centric film. Not taking away anything from Neerja, but why can’t we make glossy, pretty-girl films? Girls want to come and see that stuff, you know.”
True enough. But though mindsets are marginally changing, by and large there remains an insistent demand for realism in women-centric films from sections of the media and the traditional audience who are far more indulgent towards male-centric projects.
A comparison between the response this year to Neerja and Airlift clearly illustrates this point. Neerja, as you know, is a biopic of Pan Am flight purser Neerja Bhanot who died while saving passengers during the hijack of a US-bound flight in 1986 in Karachi. It received extremely positive reviews, though one point raised by many reviewers – justifiably so – was the break in the film’s realistic tone with the needless insertion of a song at a tense juncture in the narrative. Most of those very critics, however, seemed not to mind at all that Airlift, enjoyable and slick though it was, was inherently dishonest towards its subject by drawing on the real-life story of the mass evacuation of Indian citizens from Kuwait after the 1990 Iraqi invasion, but then spinning a fabricated yarn about an imaginary man’s solo bravado, a fiction that was thoroughly unfair to the real-life heroes involved.
What brought on this misrepresentation? Answer: clearly, the desire to create a formulaic, all-powerful male protagonist who single-handedly saves the day. In short, a role deemed worthy of its leading man, Akshay Kumar. Truth be damned.
The other challenge faced by women stars and creators of projects pivoted on them is the refusal of the industry’s major commercial male stars to come on board. Women stars of an equivalent stature routinely accept supporting – sometimes even marginal – roles as romantic interests in male-centric projects, but the reverse hardly happens. When a woman from the upper crust refuses such roles, she is deemed to be getting too big for her boots. Men, on the other hand, are considered generous on the very rare occasions when they do accept such roles.
Whether it is the Vidya Balan-starrers The Dirty Picture (2011) and Kahaani (2012), Queen (2014) and the Tanu Weds Manu films with Ranaut (2011 and 2015), Mary Kom (2014) with Chopra, Piku (2015) with Deepika Padukone, NH10 (2015) starring Anushka Sharma or Neerja this year with Kapoor, not one of these films has an A-list, massy male star playing the heroine’s lover or husband. The casting for such films is reliant on character artistes, newcomers, gentlemen who are still establishing themselves and those who usually play second leads.
The wage gap between male and female stars too remains shocking. Industry sources say Padukone and Ranaut are Bollywood’s highest paid female stars, taking home Rs 10 crore per film. Ranaut is even believed to have charged Rs 11 crore for Vishal Bhardwaj’s forthcoming Rangoon, which is almost double of what her co-stars Shahid Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan have been paid. Next come Chopra, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Sharma who are said to earn Rs 6 crore for each film.
Their male counterparts tend to prefer their remuneration in forms other than up-front fees, such as profit shares or satellite rights. Industry insiders reveal that Aamir Khan, for example, has an 80 per cent profit share in his next film Dangal. If a monetary measure were to be put to it, trade sources estimate that Aamir, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan receive approximately Rs 50 crore-Rs 70 crore per film.
Producers argue that this gender-related disparity is not discriminatory since male-led films make far more money than heroine-dominated projects. Fact: the Rs 243 crore-plus grossed worldwide by Tanu Weds Manu Returns according to industry sources, for instance, is uncommon whereas the three Khans’ and Akshay Kumar’s films routinely rake in Rs 100 crore-plus and are now breezing past the Rs 200 crore figure, sometimes beyond that too. Also a fact though (and a point many in the industry hesitate to acknowledge): women-centric projects have almost all been far less expensive (sometimes precisely due to these unequal salaries, and often because women tend to be given films requiring a lower investment), therefore their profits-to-collections ratios are remarkable in comparison with pricey male-centred films.
Besides, women are caught in a vicious cycle encouraged by what Siddharth Roy Kapur, now Disney India’s managing director, had described in my book The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic in 2012 as “a self-perpetuating myth”: because the industry assumes that women-centric projects make less money, they make less women-centric films and the ones that do get made are not marketed as heavily as male-centric ventures; low-key promotions automatically mean less rupees pouring in on the hype-driven opening weekend; this further translates into fewer costly women-centric projects being made and aggressively marketed, which means women do not get to build up the kind of wild mass fan followings that come only when you repeatedly star in films that build you up as a larger-than-life human in the way it happens for men, which means less crazed fans determined to catch the first weekend shows of women-led films, which means lower first weekend incomes, which translates into producers insisting that they were right all along in not backing cash-intensive women-centric projects and not promoting them as lavishly as they push their big-budget male-centric films. And so the cycle continues.
Besides, as Vajir Singh of the trade magazine Box Office India says: “Because the industry gives shorter careers to female stars, women have less experience than their male colleagues and less confidence to negotiate as well as the men do. Experience makes the men more business savvy, which is why all the top male stars are producers and have been for long, which automatically makes them more powerful anyway, and they are tougher negotiators. It is only recently that some top female stars have turned producer and also begun to ask for back-end payments such as a profit share in their films instead of up-front pay packets. Now many more heroines also know they can carry a film on their shoulders.”
Rucha Pathak, chief creative officer of Fox Star Studios, sees her glass as half full rather than half empty. “The position of women has changed in Bollywood in recent years to the extent that women are now being considered game changers. If you talk especially about actors, they are the ones taking risks with roles, way more than guys,” she says. “This in itself is great because examples of female trendsetters on screen ultimately trickle down to various walks of life, I’m hoping in all industries and amongst the audience. Today women are being taken more seriously thanks to the choices they are making. It’s also incredibly heartening to see powerful roles being written not just for the younger brigade, but for seasoned actors like Shabana Azmi in Neerja, Tanvi Azmi in Bajirao Mastani (2015) and Ratna Pathak Shah in Kapoor & Sons (2016).”
Not that life is all hunky-dory now for women in Hindi cinema. The number of women producers, directors and writers remains a drop in the ocean even now in comparison with men who remain in the majority in key decision-making positions and control the purse strings.
Fox’s Pathak, who is among Hindi filmdom’s handful of women decision makers, puts matters in perspective when she says: “In the film industry, as in any other industry, there is still an environment of having to work doubly hard to prove yourself if you are a woman. The interesting thing now is that the calibre of actresses has improved in terms of their ability to spot strong roles and risk taking them on. The Dirty Picture would have been a big risk for Vidya. So-called commercial cinema would have said, ‘Oh my god she’s playing a pregnant woman in Kahaani’. Those are not considered so-called commercial films. That women are picking out such roles is what is really cool.”
Educated, well-researched, calculated risks by female stars of this generation in conjunction with A-grade writers, open-minded directors and producers has resulted in a small but significant number of women-led films of sterling quality that are reaping box-office dividends. Salman Khan headlining the marketing of Sultan and Shah Rukh Khan alone staring back at us from posters of Raees may be the overriding images emerging from the Hindi film industry even today, but it is just as true that Bajirao Mastani’s marketing last year rode equally on Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh and Priyanka Chopra.
Sarbjit may have been flayed by critics for its flaws, but it turned in a profit all the same on the strength of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s name combined with its newsy theme. The industry may remain conservative, sexist, male obsessed and misogynistic, but it is no longer a shocker that producers Rhea Kapoor and Ekta Kapoor would join hands for the forthcoming girl-bonding flick Veere Di Wedding starring Sonam Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Swara Bhaskar and Shikha Talsania; that a feisty newcomer like Alia Bhatt has been striking a balance between offbeat and conventionally mainstream projects from the word go; or that A.R. Murugadoss, who made the blockbuster Ghajini with Aamir Khan in 2008, is helming this year’s Akira in which Sonakshi Sinha plays the fulcrum of the story.
All right, now you can pop open that champagne bottle. A spot of partying – even if over baby steps – never hurt anyone.