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In 2015, in an interview with Anushka Sharma, I asked her about the state of women in the film industry. She spoke at length about the various issues women face – from the pay parity to not getting work past a certain age. “Girls are just expected to be good-looking and interesting enough for a guy to be interested in you,” she said. Sharma also revealed that the problem ran so deep that male actors were even offered better rooms than their female counterparts on outdoor schedules. Now, three years later, she tells me how much things have progressed since that conversation, and why her Sui Dhaaga co-star Varun Dhawan could be the guy who changes things.

Anushka, in 2015, we did that conversation where you talked very frankly about the sexism in the industry and the pay parity, about how heroes and heroines don’t even get the same level hotel rooms when you travelled abroad. Since that interview, so much has happened. Do you think, given #TimesUp, #MeToo and the Women in Cinema collective in Kerala, that anything has really changed on the ground in the Hindi film industry?

Anushka Sharma (AS): I feel like our industry usually sees things from facts, what trade is also based on. They say, “This film will have this much business because it has these people and other films in this genre made this much.” So some calculation is made and you are told that this film will have a budget of roundabout this much. What changes actually is the audience. They really change things, and something new happens, and then the industry follows suit. That’s how it has always been. Which has happened this year; if you see the films led by female actors, they’ve gone on to do crazy amount of business.

Varun Dhawan (VD): Female actors, female producers, female directors.

AS: Having said that, you need to realize that the industry is following what is happening. Now you will see how many more films are going to get churned out with female actors. I know how many have been offered to me right after that. The biggest of the producers want to make that. They realise it. But it needs to happen…

Has it changed? It has changed because we have seen what has happened this year. But for the fraternity to really take notice of this, there will really have to be more years like this for it to really sink in. Because what people don’t understand is there are variables that they don’t attribute to a male actor’s films. They say, “Is hero ka na itna film itna open kiya tha” (This hero’s film had this opening). You don’t calculate that there’s a female actor who is a lead, top billing actress, you don’t talk about her in the film. You don’t talk about the fact that the film has so many songs that you have marketed. Most of the films that female actors have done have always been not without songs and not with a top male actor.

That is something that has been very unfair according to me – where you don’t credit that to the woman at all. It is only credited to the guy and you talk about the guy’s film having done so much business. I think that’s where the women started speaking about it. It has to be a fair playing field. But for that you really need more changes like this, very obvious changes. It can’t just be “Do the right thing, man!” It is going to be about “I’ll show you this, now you please do that.”

VD: During October when we went for promotions..So Banita is obviously not a known face and there were so many places we went where they said, “No, she can’t come.”

Because she adds nothing?

VD: Yes, the audience doesn’t know her. So I said, “How does that matter? She is the heroine of the film, she is one of the protagonists. She has to be there – she represents the film.” Even Dada’s (Shoojit Sircar, director) company and everyone said, “No, please.” But they didn’t listen. I had to actually say, “I will not come on the show if she doesn’t come.” It actually takes that for them to realise. The more insight I have about this is from Veere Di Wedding – Rhea Kapoor who’s the producer of the film and a very good friend of mine, she made that film with a very good, highly established all-girls cast. She told me the issues she had – while promoting the film, while getting the screen space she wanted and she told me a lot of things.

AS: And then you prove them wrong. And then the dispute is also like “Achha!” The distributor’s also thinking, other producers are also thinking.

VD: Alia’s success also. Raazi has gone to become a big blockbuster. She’s done so well and it’s amazing. But why has it taken the trade till Raazi to understand this that she’s a big star? Badri and Humpty and 2 States and all these films are equally her hits! I’ve always told her, “Increase your price!”

AS: People should give also na.

VD: I think they will give, they have to give! She is a friend so if she says, “Varun let’s do this”, I will stand by her. But that little fearlessness is beginning to come, I feel, in all the girls I am working with. That has to come.

AS: That’s the correct word. You have to be fearless. Be fearless but do it with dignity. You say, “It’s not fair what you’re doing, so no.” But the problem is that if one will say no, then the other will say, “I am okay to do that.” There has to be some unity also, otherwise it is not going to change in the way we think it should change. Why #MeToo has worked is because they were united. They all stood together and said, “This is not fair and this is not done and we are not going to take this anymore.”

For Jennifer Lawrence to ask for that money in Passengers and say, “I want more money or equal money than my male counterpart because I am also bringing that much to the table…,” she had to explain that by writing a letter! It wasn’t understood. You have to say, you have to make a point. I can understand – I am not saying, “Pay me the same money you are paying the Khans because they have been here for ages, but you can’t think that my contemporary male actors and I should have such a disparity just because I am a woman. And today, roles for women are also being written differently. It’s not like you’re there just for a bit.

VD: The roles have increased.

The thing is they (male actors) think, “I am the star and I am on the poster.” For what appeal do you want the actress on the poster, is what they think about. But the actress adds so much value to it – she acts, she has her own fan following. I’m saying, think of it on the basic level. That’s such a big bonus! It is going to benefit everyone, it’s going to help the film: Varun Dhawan

Yes, I was amazed at your role in Sultan. It is one of the few Salman Khan films which has a really textured and believable heroine.

VD: I had a very interesting chat with Madhuri Dixit on the sets of Kalank where I asked her, “How much difference do you see in the roles now?” and she said “I see a big difference.” I do feel that over the years people like her and many other actresses, because they have been in this for longer, they know how to get the money they deserve with dignity.

AS: Also I’ll tell you I really feel it’ll take a lot of pressure off the guys also if something like this were to happen.

VD: I was just going to say that men should not feel threatened by this.

AS: They should think that it’s really going to evolve them and their lives if this was to happen because there is so much pressure on them. To say, “We’re equal and now we’re doing this” and you divide the monies also in that way. But for that the top producers have to think that way.

But the heroes also have to think that way too, right?

VD: The thing is they (male actors) think, “I am the star and I am on the poster.” For what appeal do you want the actress on the poster, is what they think about. But the actress adds so much value to it – she acts, she has her own fan following. I’m saying, think of it on the basic level. That’s such a big bonus! It is going to benefit everyone, it’s going to help the film. The more stars you have in the film industry, the better subjects you get, it will help the film. I am selfish as an actor because I will do a film if I have a good role. You can make me work with anyone, I will do it…

AS: You know, I have not worked with a more secure actor than Varun. Firstly, he’s genuine. Whatever he says is true. What he’s spoken in that moment has been honest and truthful. And he’s someone who is always trying to get better in every way in life, not just as an actor. And I feel that the security that I see in him, I haven’t seen in anybody else I’ve ever worked with. He can be that guy who changes things. And he does that. He was one of the first guys of his contemporaries to take those choices and do a film like Badlapur right at the beginning of his career. It takes guts and a secure person to do something like that.

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