Thesp Vidya Balan leads the charge for women

In Bollywood, the female lead is nearly always eye candy. From hits like “Awaara” to “3 Idiots,” the story is centered around the male.

But lately, women are grabbing meatier roles — and the accompanying pay raise that comes with them — and thesp Vidya Balan is being credited with leading the charge.

Balan’s arthouse pics have performed well at the box office, including UTV Motion Pictures’ “No One Killed Jessica,” based on the real-life story of the murder of model Jessica Lal, in which the actress plays the victim’s sister who, along with a foul-mouthed distaff journo (Rani Mukerji), uncovers Jessica’s killer. Despite having no male leads, “Jessica” grossed $633,679 worldwide in 2011, and showed it was possible for femme-centric films to become B.O. successes.

“When you tell me my films are doing well at the box office, and I’ve pulled (in) the audience, I feel I’ve made some kind of tangible difference,” Balan says.

Balan says while a variety of roles are being written for women, it has been difficult to find backers for such films. Now, however, Indian cinema is slowly changing; some credit the growth of the urban multiplex with helping niche pics succeed.

“Women are coming into their own the world over, (and) particularly in India,” Balan says. “The roles are a reflection of Indian woman as well.”

Following the niche success of “Jessica,” Balan starred in 2011′s “The Dirty Picture,” a biopic of “Silk” Smitha, a soft-porn actress in South Indian films; and suspenser “Kahaani,” earlier this year. Both were hits, grossing $6.8 million and $18.9 million worldwide, respectively. “Dirty Picture” also won the country’s National Film Award, the top honor for an Indian pic.

UTV topper Ronnie Screwvala, who produced “Jessica” and whose company is working with the actress again on comedy “Ghanchakkar,” which went into production last month, says fees for female actors have risen in the past year or so.

Femme leads, who were getting one-20th the coin of their male co-stars, have narrowed the gap to one-seventh the pay (although the scale has not budged lower down the ladder among supporting cast). Screwvala says the ongoing disparity is partly because the gap between male and female leads was just too wide. “As strong (female-centric movies are released, it triggers) enhanced fees, and fairly so,” Screwvala says.

Balan, who was drawing about 20 million rupees ($376,433) per film in 2010, has seen her pay scale jump to $1 million this year. Top male leads draw anywhere from $1.8 million to $4 million.

Balan says Indian actresses were previously window-dressing. “Now, with the kind of films being made, women are being seen as individuals,” she says.

And it doesn’t matter whether these films paint women as heroines, Balan adds. “Good, bad or ugly, it’s more exciting (to play such roles). It’s not just piety or beauty that attracts (audiences). People want to see some vulnerabilities.” And they want to be able to identify with people.

Kareena Kapoor, who starred in blockbuster “3 Idiots” and has been vocal about getting better pay for actresses, is also pushing for backend participation. At Superstar One on One, a March confab in India, she credited Balan with helping to get the ball rolling.

“Vidya Balan’s success story has given actresses the hope for a brighter tomorrow in Bollywood,” Kapoor said. “But they have a long way to go.”

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