It’s disappointing when Shah Rukh Khan shirks away from topic of a slightly better shelf-life, or even equal pay for Bollywood actresses. Not because of his many roles as a stalker, emotional blackmailer, misogynist have paved the way for his enlightened view on ageism. But because he is considered one of the more intelligent actors around. According to him, women work ‘5 times harder and gets paid ten times less,’ and the market forces determine the value of an actor.
And he’s not wrong.
This is the reason why Dangal wouldn’t have done well if Aamir Khan hadn’t played the tough patriarch. It’s the reason why Mary Kom, which is also about a successful female boxer didn’t do well. It’s also the reason why Sultan did do well. Then again, bhai ka picture always does well.
We do have the occasional Mardani, Queen, or Jai Gangajal. But they will never come close to the sycophantic 100-crore club, which remains dominated by the likes of Khan. Of the top 10 most commercially successful Hindi films, only one is without a Khan (Bajirao Mastani). And of the highest grossing 15 Indian films, only Bahubali and Rajnikant’s Kabali are Khan-less.
In a sense, SRK is right. Commercial cinema is entrenched in financial super-success. Seemingly, the people in the best position to change that are the Khans.
Aamir, with Dangal being his last release, is the one creating the most positive change. A film about two young girls who are sportwomen, and not romantic accessories, is something none of the Khans have done before. He may have played an authoritarian with little regard for his daughters’ wishes, but any father-daughter story from Haryana that doesn’t involve infanticide, forced marriage or honour killing is commendable.
SRK may publicly accept the sexism and ageism, but that’s all he’s willing to do. He may even go the extra mile to patronise feminists by saying women are better than men. But his films rarely demonstrate a basic respect for women. He might have done a Chak De! India, but that does not dissolve him of his criminal offences like Chennai Express and Happy New Year.
Speaking of criminals, Salman may have films with fiesty-looking women, until they fall in love with him and forget all previous personality traits. They dissolve into the quintessential Bollywood wife: attractive impregnable slaves. Salman, on the other hand, has risen even more ever since he stopped trying to put an effort into his roles.
As the actresses cast against them get younger and younger, they are in such a cemented position that they will never get rejected by the heroine. That responsibility falls solely upon Ranbir Kapoor. Age is not the only deterrant to women starring against the Khan. They will have no qualms starring against ‘pure’ newcomers. On the other hand, the industry will subtly (and overtly) slut-shame Sunny Leone. She can be an item number, but never the love interest of any of Bollywood’s most expensive men.
The only women who have openly addressed the wage-gap are Kareena Kapoor Khan and Kangna Ranaut. Yet, one is known for her whimsical behaviour, or her apparently horrifying choice of name for her own son. The other one is known for her terrible taste in men.
There have been moments of some female empowerment. Cleavage gapers have been shamed, a cricketer boyfriend of an actress spoke up against calling her a ‘distraction’, and there are some women without the ideal Bollywood-heroine body type defending their right to exist whilst not looking like a Barbie doll.
However, none of the actresses are ready to be openly feminist. They dance in heels while men wear flats. They wear skimpy clothes and dance in freezing temperatures with a fully clothed man. They are constantly nitpicked on for their natural facial features and bodies. And if they dare change something, they will be shamed for that. They work as much as the men do. Their financial success is short-lived: many of them will be out of work by the time they’ve reached their industry shelf-life – for everyone loves a movie about a man and a youngthinbeautifulperfect woman. In spite of this, if they still don’t firmly believe that they deserve equal pay, then they’re really not feminists.
So we should really stop asking every famous vagina-owner about feminism. Especially when they come from an industry created to satisfy the patriarchy through elaborate song-and-dance rituals. If we want an unbridled feminist moment from Bollywood, all we can do is wait for the occasional Queen. Or even a Sunny Leone interview.