20 crores for the hero, 1 for the heroine: The massive pay gap in south Indian film business

There are many reasons why a male actor is paid way more than his female counterpart but the underlying factor is the patriarchal film business.
20 crores for the hero, 1 for the heroine: The massive pay gap in south Indian film business
20 crores for the hero, 1 for the heroine: The massive pay gap in south Indian film business
Written by:

After Elle magazine published an article citing that Gal Gadot, the star of Wonder Woman, made a paltry 2,36,000 USD which is 46 times lesser than what Henry Cavill made for Man of Steel, there was much outraging about the significant pay disparity in the movie industry when it comes to male and female stars.

Later articles have pointed out that the claim is not entirely true but have asserted that while the outrage may have been uncalled for in this instance, the wage gap between genders definitely exists.

Closer home, actors like Kangana Ranaut, Anushka Sharma, Divya Spandana, Parvathy and Rima have spoken up about the fact that heroines get only a fraction of the money that heroes get paid for the same film. Even if the woman actor shoulders a film entirely by herself, she is still not paid the same rate as a male actor for a hero-centric film.

In the south Indian film industries, where conversations on gender and misogyny within the industry are only beginning to happen, the wage gap certainly exists and is only to be expected considering there have been barely a handful of films which are either woman-centric or at least have a substantial role for the heroine. 

TNM spoke to some reliable sources* from all four industries to get a sense of the wage gap. 

What decides a star's salary?

The salary of a certain star, irrespective of gender, varies according to his/her popularity with the audience, the relationship they have with the producer and the performance of their last few releases at the box-office.

Except a few stars who can be said to have a permanent fan base, the salaries of others may fluctuate if their last few releases have flopped. 

It also matters which industry they work in. So, although Mohanlal has won the National Award for Best Actor twice and is the highest paid male star in Kerala, his salary of over 2 crores for a Malayalam film is much lower than what a less experienced actor like Rana Daggubatti of the Telugu industry commands - around 5 crores. And Rana is not even in the top league in Telugu. 

Image courtesy: Facebook/Mohanlal

Understandably, the difference exists because of the business side of cinema. The Tamil and Telugu industries are much bigger than the Malayalam and Kannada industries in budgets and scale. 

Top male stars like Vijay and Ajith in the Tamil industry make almost Rs 30 crore per movie; Pawan Kalyan, Mahesh Babu and Junior NTR of Telugu are in the 17-22 crore bracket. Yash tops the Kannada industry with 8 to 10 crores with Puneeth Rajkumar commanding 6 to 8 crores and Darshan and Sudeep earning about 4 to 6 crores per film. Malayalam has Mohanlal at the top with over 2 crores followed by Mammootty at 1.5 crore and Nivin Pauly at over 1 crore. Others like Dulquer and Fahadh are in the 50-70 lakhs bracket and they sign more projects a year as compared to Nivin.

Not all of these salaries appear on paper, especially after demonetisation, the sources are quick to add. Property deals or other such lucrative deals are also done. Profit sharing, although new, is catching up, too.

How does gender come in?

Mainstream films which are hero-centric are sold on the name of the male actor. So Theri is a Vijay film and not a Samantha film and Pulimurugan is a Mohanlal film and not a Kamalini Mukherjee film. It is the male actor who brings people to the theatres and ensures big openings for the film although a popular heroine adds to the excitement around it. 

Movie industries have very few female producers, directors, script writers, and technicians. Therefore, though almost every film has a heroine in it, the stories that are told are about men. This is why in the Telugu industry, for instance, the pay disparity is so wide. The top female stars, Nayanthara and Anushka Shetty, make over 1.5 crores. In the second rung are Samantha, Kajal Aggarwal, and Rakul who make over 1 crore. In Tamil too the differences are stark. Top heroines command a salary between Rs 1 and 1.5 cores.

Image courtesy: Screenshot/YouTube

“It is only Nayanthara who now asks for anything between Rs 3 to Rs 4 crores (in Tamil). Many female stars from Malayalam and Telugu are ready to act in Tamil movies for anything between Rs 30- 50 lakhs. The money is much better compared to what they make in their industry. Producers believe the shelf life of female stars is low and if one star says no, there is always another one to cast,” an industry insider said.

Malayalam and Kannada women actors get much lower pay, with only Manju Warrier demanding Rs 50 lakh. A source says that Ramya (Divya Spandana), who is now a Congress MP, used to earn 50 lakhs per film but that none of the other female actors have managed to hit the mark. The closest was Radhika Pundit at 36 lakhs but she quit films after marrying Yash. The highest paid Kannada woman actor now is Rachita Ram who gets 26-28 lakhs.

In Malayalam, Parvathy who has given two consecutive hits, including Take Off in which she was the central protagonist, could ask for more but the rest are around the 20 lakh mark or lower. 

“Male stars make all kinds of deals, but female stars can’t. Suriya and Karthi, for example, work mainly with people in their family or close circles, so their salaries contain perks and privileges. In Malayalam, Mohanlal regularly works out a deal when it comes to the movie’s distribution...his friend and partner Antony Perumbavoor does it mainly,” the industry insider said.

Though women actors make much lesser than their male counterparts, they typically do more films a year as their time commitment to a project tends to be lesser. This is because in a hero-centric film, the women actors don't have as much to do as the men. 

What about heroine-oriented films? 

Movies with women as the central protagonist tend to be of much lower budgets because producers expect them to earn much lesser money than what hero-centric films make. These films are still considered to be 'experimental'. The CGS in Anushka Shetty's Rudhramadevi, for instance, could never hope to be on par with what we saw in a Baahubali. It's something of a vicious cycle which exists in Hollywood, too, and which Wonder Woman has recently broken through. 

In Bollywood, we're seeing films like Pink and Dangal which are about the women protagonists but are sold to the audience in the name of the male star - an Amitabh Bachchan or Aamir Khan (who also produces films). It's not just a question of who is doing the most work but whose name can be marketed to people. 

So is gender disparity a myth?

Though the disparity in income has several factors, the underlying reason is the fact that the movie business is patriarchal. Like most workspaces. 

Not only are women actors unable to get films which are centered on them or provide them meaty roles, they are also considered replaceable. This makes it difficult for them to negotiate and push for higher salaries. Not asking for more and accepting less becomes the norm.  

A female star TNM spoke to quipped, “They pay more for location and property!” The salary rates for almost all heroines, however popular, are lower than what heroes in the second league get.

Women actors also tend to have shorter careers. It's only in recent times that actors like Anushka Shetty, Manju Warrier, Nayanthara, and Trisha have been doing films despite crossing the 30-year mark. Compare this with male stars who are considered to be in their prime when they are in their forties!  Most times, women are simply not around for long enough to build the kind of fanbase that the men command to encourage producers to invest in them. 

For women actors to have a shot at pay parity, there needs to be a lot more women behind the scenes - producers, filmmakers, and others who are interested in making heroine-oriented films. They need to become confident to negotiate their salaries without the fear that they will be dropped. And ultimately, these films need to make big money for them to be considered mainstream like Wonder Woman. As they say, nothing succeeds like success. 

*The figures obtained are approximate numbers.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute