Actors speak out: How wide is the gender-based wage gap in the Pakistani film industry?
In the aftermath of Jennifer Lawrence’s essay, plenty of Hollywood starlets (and a couple of prominent actors) have opened up about the injustice of male co-stars consistently out-earning female actors.
Bollywood celebrities have also spoken up about the salary imbalance at home with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan tackling the issue alongside Salma Hayek at a Cannes Film Festival panel.
Though a fledgling industry, it’s been a great year to be an actor or actress in Lollywood. As actor-producer Humayun Saeed puts it, “Pakistani artists are very well paid with the average actor making 10 lakh rupees a month (Rs 1 million) and some lead actors making 25-30 lakh rupees (Rs 2-3.5 million).”
Most artists interviewed for this piece agreed that yes, there is a pay gap between male and female co-stars in Pakistan. But opinions on the extent and countervailing factors behind this wage gap disparity vary.
What’s the biggest factor: star power or gender?
Humayun Saeed admits to having been the highest paid cast member of Bin Roye (also featuring the very bankable superstar Mahira Khan). But, according to Saeed, other factors influence an artist’s salary other than just gender.
Pay is dependent on how much value one has at the box office,” says Saeed, who attributes his seniority in the industry as the main reason for why his superstar-female colleague was paid less.
Veteran actress Atiqa Odho’s experience echoes that of Humayun Saeed.
“Pay is dependent on how much value one has at the box office,” says Humayun Saeed. However, he has also said he walked away with the biggest paycheck from Bin Roye, which also starred the very bankable Mahira Khan
“If you’re a senior artist with box office pull, you can dictate in your contract everything from hygienic food, AC, working toilets to your paycheck. If you do your craft well, the money follows,” says Odho, adding that she has “never been in a project where a man has been paid more than [her].”
Upfront, Atiqa Odho’s claim that she earns more than her male colleagues might seem like a stretch. Instantly, her very famous, on-screen son Fawad Khan comes to mind. But, based on anecdotal evidence provided by all artists interviewed for this piece, it is quite possible that someone like Atiqa Odho would walk away on payday with the heaviest pockets.
“Don’t take female actors lightly these days,” says Ali Kazmi. “Since the late ’90s, early 2000s and for sure in this past decade, our TV industry has [greatly] empowered our female actors.”
“Pakistan’s film and TV industry is surprisingly progressive because women have been a powerful presence in the media for some time,” says Kazmi listing a long roster of successful women who dominate Pakistan’s entertainment industry; from Hum TV network owner Sultana Siddiqui to the abundantly creative, internationally renowned director-producer Mehreen Jabbar to the bold and brilliant Oscar-winning documentary maker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.
When it comes to both the silver and small screen, Pakistani actresses do dominate in terms of presence, no doubt. But whether this means they get to pack up and go home with the big bucks is not as clear.
Is it all about the money, or is there something else?
You can’t have a conversation about Pakistani films and gender-based wage gaps without bringing in Mahira Khan, arguably one of Pakistan’s most popular and most bankable stars.
This past year, Mahira Khan starred in Bin Roye (opposite Humayun Saeed), played a small part in Sarmad Khoosat’s Manto, is set to appear in upcoming film Ho Mann Jahaan, and filmed Bollywood flick Raees opposite the king himself, Shahrukh Khan.
Actresses have always been in a position of power,” says Khan. “In fact, both male and female actors are in that position now.”
Still, the actress confesses that money isn’t the deciding factor for her when it comes to choosing roles. “Money is not a driving force for me when it comes to my passion, that is, dramas and films,” she says. “How much money I demand — or don’t demand — is my prerogative as an actor. However, when it comes to commercials my outlook is different. And in that area, I do try to set certain standards, financially or otherwise.”
“How much money I demand — or don’t demand — is my prerogative as an actor,” says Mahira Khan. “However, when it comes to commercials my outlook is different. And in that area, I do try to set certain standards, financially or otherwise.”
Khan reveals that the financial standards she sets for herself as a brand ambassador were inspired by a conversation she had with Atiqa Odho, when the two appeared in Humsafar together. “Atiqa Odho is one of first people to set standards for in the industry for how actors are paid and treated,” says Khan. “She told me: ‘even if you don’t do it for yourself — do it for the others.”
Indeed, Khan is of the opinion that what’s even more important than cold hard cash right now is the creation of an infrastructure that supports actors and their creative endeavors. “We don’t have managers, we don’t have agencies, we don’t have any investment in that area. That’s where the problem lies. It’s very hard for an artist to negotiate their fees. My job is to act, my manager’s job should be to handle the business side of it.”
Are female actors really paid less?
Without a formal salary reporting system – unlike Bollywood, where Indian media frequently reports on the incomes of the Deepikas and Kareenas versus the Akshays and Ranbirs, and Hollywood, which generates an annual Forbes’ list of highest paid actors and actresses – Pakistan only has anecdotal evidence provided by its own artists.
According to veteran actress Hina Bayat, “Women are consistently paid less and made to feel that they don’t really need the money since they are not the primary bread earners of the family.” Bayat personally negotiates her financials and readily turns down roles if she feels the fee is not justifiable.
However, Humayun Saeed holds that “actresses like Mahira Khan, Aisha Khan, Mehwish Hayat, Sajjal, Sohai Ali Abroo, and veterans like Saba Hameed, Bushra Ansari and Atiqa Odho are equally as expensive as male actors.”
“The [wage] disparity is definitely there when it comes to genders, but also between ‘lead roles’ vs. ‘supporting roles’,” says veteran actress Hina Bayat
Ali Kazmi reaches the same conclusion while relaying his recent Jackson Heights experience.
“Aminah Sheikh and Marina Khan are the show,” he says. “Noman Ejaz, myself and Adeel are there, yes. And because the industry respects its elders by paying them more, veteran artists Noman and Marina’s paycheck would reflect that. But otherwise, Aminah was paid higher than Adeel and I. And that’s not something any of us contested or sat and thought of.”
“Man or woman, a professional deserves to be paid in accordance with his or her contribution to the work,” says Bayat. “The [wage] disparity is definitely there when it comes to genders, but also between ‘lead roles’ vs. ‘supporting roles’. Many times it is not so much ‘the leads’ but the supporting ensemble cast which gives credibility to a production and truly sells the project yet they won’t be given [their] due.”