Deepika Padukone has been dropped from – or has dropped out of – Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s forthcoming film Baiju Bawra after making a perfectly reasonable request – that she be paid remuneration equal to her co-lead’s pay. Incidentally, she is also married to her former co-lead, Ranveer Singh.

Bhansali and Padukone had previously worked together on Bajirao MastaniGoliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leelaand Padmaavat (all of which also starred Singh). She was a known collaborator, whom the director could trust; when word got out about the rejection, she even put up a heartfelt post online thanking him for what she called an “iconic partnership” over the years. Her chemistry with Singh was guaranteed, both professionally and personally. Why would Bhansali and the producers look any further for a leading lady, and why wouldn’t they pay the perfect one what she deserved? 

Padukone’s 12 crore remuneration in Padmavaat had made her Bollywood’s highest earning woman actor (Kareena Kapoor reportedly requested the same recently to essay Sita’s character in Alaukik Desai’s forthcoming Ramayana adaptation, and was denied the role). This figure may seem astronomical to most of us, but in its correct context, it is practically just an honorarium, not real remuneration. In contrast, Bollywood’s highest paid actor, a man named Shah Rukh Khan, can make 100 crores per film. Gender-based pay disparity among Bollywood actors is an issue that Taapsee Panu, Sonam Kapoor, Priyamani, Padukone herself and many others have spoken out about or hinted at, usually in relation to having been ousted from talks because they asked to be paid fairly. But little has changed despite these occasional rumbles, as this Baiju Bawra fiasco shows. If this is how prejudicial things are at the very top, imagine how the disparity trickles down through the ranks of the industry.

What I would really like to see now is Ranveer Singh taking a stand. Will he drop out of the film as well, and make a statement about how he did it because his co-star was not being paid equally? This could encourage a ripple effect of beneficial copycatting in the industry, and bolster Padukone’s own stand, thus making it easier for others to both discuss and demand pay parity. Alternately: will he tell the producers to reduce his own wages so that they would be able to afford hiring both Padukone and himself for the project? The second possibility will be a nice, smart way to snub those who denied Padukone her rightful income. As very successful actors who, being married and all, probably pool some or all of their incomes, neither of them would be making a major artistic or financial compromise this way. More importantly, it would publicly be an exposure of how such calculations are made by producers to begin with, and how they automatically privilege male stars.

Padukone’s dissatisfaction should be enough to set things straight, but if it were, she and the rest of Bollywood’s women wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with. Since it isn’t enough, maybe it’s time that Singh and other men shouldered the load of making a righteous fuss more often. After all, they can quite literally afford to.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 12th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.