Objectification of women and gender disparity are the entertainment world’s harsh realities. Despite cinema and television’s best efforts to disown discriminatory practices, inequality forms the crux of their existence, highlighting the entertainment industry’s hypocritical nature. Actresses, especially in Bollywood, are often relegated to playing subservient roles alongside male leads in big budgeted projects or simply projected as sex symbols, wearing skimpy clothes and shaking more than a leg or two in item numbers, to pull in the crowds.
A cultural shift, however, has been witnessed with the recent influx of women-oriented films, where actresses are seen in central roles (Read: Kangana Ranaut in Queen, Priyanka Chopra in Mary Kom and Deepika Padukone in Piku). Their success reflects a change in the audience’s mindset and suggests that even though the biggest earners may still be the male stars, some of their female counterparts have just as strong a presence. Almost.
It is then unfortunate that actresses are only paid a quarter of what their male co-stars are given for a film. Patricia Arquette’s moving Oscar speech and Meryl Steep’s subsequent reaction to it are a testament to this blatant sexism. It shed light on how even the most educated and progressive of entertainment industries that revels in being a bastion of liberalism – Hollywood – is plagued by wage disparities. The controversial Sony emails that leaked last year also revealed that actresses like Jennifer Lawrence, who leads the Hunger Games franchise, and Amy Adams were paid considerably less than their male co-stars. Actress Amanda Seyfried also spoke about being a victim of this sexism in a recent interview. She disclosed how she was only paid 10 percent of her male co-star’s salary a few years ago for big budget film. As far as American television is concerned, according to Forbes, the cut-off to be on this year’s list of top-paid TV actors was $9.5 million – $4.5 million more than that for TV actresses – as actors continue out-earning actresses and landing the lead role more often.
The situation is worse in B-town. Annual lists of popular stars and highest-paid celebrities are clear examples of the appalling dichotomy whereby, despite making it to the top 10 list of the country’s most popular stars, an actress only earns a tenth of her male counterpart. Last year’s Forbes list for highest celebrity earners in India had only Deepika Padukone representing a huge lot of actresses, with an earning of INR 67.20 crore. Compared to that, Amitabh Bachchan, who was only seen in one film compared to Deepika’s three, made as much as INR 196.75 crores. The figures are disturbing.
Pakistani cinema is still in nascent stages and has a long way to go before it can come at par with standards in terms of content and audience reach, hence it is too early to make it a case in point for pay gaps. On the other hand, Pakistani television has had a far-reaching impact and is appreciated the world over by discerning audiences for showcasing realistic plots. It has also proven to be a game-changer of sorts for Pakistani media in general, painting a progressive image of the country and its women and shattering misconceptions. It makes one wonder, then, if the television industry has also fallen prey to wage discrimination, especially now that it is exporting almost all of its talent to Pakistani cinema.
Actress Sarwat Gilani, who recently transitioned to the big screen with Jawani Phir Nahi Ani, feels that sexism may prevail within the industry but it is the opposite sex that takes the brunt of it. “It’s the opposite here. Women are difficult to find for work whereas men are willing and available but needed less,” she said while speaking to Instep. “Most of our visual content revolves around women-oriented issues. The target audiences are also women, and so the demand for women is more than that for men. With limited opportunities on hand, men mostly want to work in whatever role they can get their hands on for whatever pay is feasible.” She added, “Things may be different when it comes to cinema as lead actors are stronger crowd-pullers than actresses, though it’s too early to comment on it. Also, there have been a fair share of women-centric Pakistani films making it big.”
Sarwat seems to have a valid argument. From women empowerment to societal injustices, Pakistani dramas cover the length and breadth of female-oriented issues and tend to have women as central characters – a trend that has transcended to Pakistani cinema as well. Movies like Bol, Josh and Dukhtar saw actresses carrying the success of the film on their shoulders while films like Bin Roye and Jawani Phir Nahi Aani had enough meaty characters for the actresses to savour. However, veteran thespian Sania Saeed has a contrasting point of view, as she believes it is stardom that is a major factor in deciding wages.
“Honestly I am not sure but generally actresses seem to be paid less, which is worse in our case because most of our plays are women-oriented,” said Sania. “However, I feel pay decisions rely heavily on stardom. They depend on star power and how much viewership an individual can draw, regardless of them being a man or woman. But in our industry, it’s often the hero that does it and is more of a star. The issue is more about standardized pay. There is no such criterion but there needs to be standardization.”
In any case, whether actor or actress, star or non-star, if wage inequality does exist in Pakistan’s entertainment industry then why hasn’t anyone spoken up or fought against it? Both Sarwat and Sania have blamed it on the lack of willingness and unity amongst celebrities. “The reason is the same as with every other issue in this country; there is no will to bring about a change,” Sania pointed out. “The industry makes you self-centred because everybody is competing with everybody. There just isn’t a collective effort. Also there is no understanding of the seriousness of this issue. Being paid less is not even a concern for most of the actresses. They think of it as a norm. They might get angry but they won’t feel the need to talk about it.”
“Everyone in Pakistan wants to talk about themselves and not speak as a whole. As long as they are getting the pay they want, they won’t speak about it,” Sarwat added. Perhaps the industry is too small at the moment, both functionally and financially, for pay gaps to be a pressing concern.
It may come as a surprise to some, but facts suggest that the Pakistani entertainment industry values women just as much as the men, if not more. Sultana Siddiqui, a Pakistani business guru, is the first woman in South Asia to own a broadcasting network. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy is not only the first Pakistani woman to win an Academy Award but is also spearheading the Oscar selection committee and is credited for making Pakistan’s first animated feature film. Women visual effects artists like Laraib Atta and Novaira Masood are representing Pakistan internationally with their exceptional talent. And let’s not forget the myriad of women directors and producers, including Afia Nathaniel and Fizza Meerza, who have contributed to the revival of Pakistani cinema with successful feature films.
This still doesn’t offer much transparency regarding pay gaps though. What the actresses reveal are only bits and glimpses but there may be a bigger picture waiting to be unleashed.
All one can conclude is that if there is unfair wage distribution, it should be tackled in a way that in itself isn’t gender biased. Women should not be paid more because they are women and generally discriminated against. Similarly, men should not be paid more because they are perceived to be the superior breed. The best way forward is to standardize salaries based on an actor’s popularity amongst audiences, regardless of gender. Wouldn’t Patricia Arquette be surprised to hear that her dream of equal wages may have a shorter journey to fulfillment in a country one would least expect?