Bollywood actor Deepika Padukone has done a lot since her on-screen debut in 2007. She’s earned critical acclaim and numerous awards for her acting, and is one of the few Bollywood celebrities on TIME’s 100 Most Influential People list. She’s also known for speaking candidly about her experiences with depression and anxiety, and urging others to do the same through her mental health awareness organisation. She’s even surpassed geographical boundaries to star in a Hollywood thriller alongside Vin Diesel.
But even after all that, the Hindi film industry allegedly still won’t pay her the same amount as her husband and lead co-star in an upcoming film.
Though Padukone is reportedly the highest-paid actress in an industry notorious for its pay disparity between men and women, a report by Indian tabloid Bollywood Hungama claims that Padukone just lost a coveted role. And apparently, it’s because they refused to pay her as much as her lead co-star, Ranveer Singh, who also happens to be her husband.
“Apparently, Deepika wants the same remuneration as her husband. Not a penny more, not a penny less," an anonymous source told Bollywood Hungama.
The actor was in talks to star alongside her husband in a film titled Baiju Bawra, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, one of Bollywood’s biggest directors.
Padukone and Singh – a formidable superstar himself – have worked together in three earlier Bhansali films, which became some of the highest box office earners when they were released. One of these films was “Padmaavat,” where Padukone was reportedly the highest-paid actor in the film.
But the recent claims of Padukone losing out on a role over pay disparity come just weeks after rumours that another female Bollywood actor, Kareena Kapoor Khan, asked for Rs 120 million ($1.6 million) to play the lead in a remake of the Hindu epic Ramayana. Kapoor was criticised on social media for her fee, even though popular male actors are routinely paid within the same range.
Padukone is currently the highest-paid woman in the history of Indian cinema, a title she earned after bagging a role that paid her Rs 200 million ($2.6 million), even as her male co-star was offered Rs 500 million ($6.7 million). Meanwhile, Shah Rukh Khan became the highest-paid male actor in India this year after locking down a role that paid him Rs 1 billion ($13.4 million).
The gender pay gap is an issue deeply embedded across various industries, and remains a major hurdle for Hollywood actors as well. In India, patriarchal conditioning and decades of films that objectified women have now led to women in Indian cinema earning far less than their male counterparts, for roles that often have similar screen time and require similar levels of prep.
In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, India fell 28 positions this year to rank 140 out of 156 nations, becoming one of the worst ranked south Asian countries on the list. Bollywood actors including Anushka Sharma, Sonam Kapoor and Taapsee Pannu have spoken out against the lingering discrimination.
In 2019, when she was ranked the highest-paid female celebrity in India, Padukone opened up about walking away from a role that refused to pay her as much as her male co-star.
“I don’t think I would be able to live with the thought that despite the same kind of creative contribution as my male co-star, and bringing in the same kind of value to the film as him, I am being underpaid,” she told The Indian Express. “I was not okay with that.”
In July this year, actor Taapsee Pannu admitted that she earns three to five times less than her male contemporaries. She added that women are seen as “difficult” when they quote high amounts, while the same is seen as a sign of success for men.
“I was told that female actors are replaceable in films because they just stand behind a guy anyway,” actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas said in an interview with Glamour magazine “I’m still used to being paid – like most actresses around the world – a lot less than the boys. We’re told we’re too provocative or that being sexy is our strength, which it can be, and it is, but that’s not the only thing we have.”
A popular argument in favour of this disparity is that male-led films tend to perform better at the box office than female-led ones, and hence the male leads should be compensated more too. This is mostly because Bollywood began by showcasing the male lead, while women played supporting roles or were objectified through dance songs, grossly mistitled as “item numbers.”
Today, it appears the tide is turning.
“Historically, we had male-lead films and therefore their stardom has been bigger and therefore they make bigger films,” actor Vidya Balan said during promotions for her film Shakuntala Devi in which her character was the lead.
“But I feel we are slowly breaking ground. I think we have only been getting better. And someday, we will be doing an equal number of ‘female hero’ films, which will be bigger in terms of budget, scale, and commercial [success] as well.”
In a world where you don’t get anything unless you ask for it, Padukone’s ask – even though it came with repercussions – is more important than ever in moving towards a fair space.