Hello and welcome to Episode 73 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. Thank you for tuning in.
We’ve launched a brand new channel: #DesiBooksDiscourse. This is available as video on Spotify, Anchor, and Youtube, and as audio on the rest of the platforms. Please see the links above.
In our first #DesiBooksDiscourse episode, we have the economist and writer, Shrayana Bhattacharya, discussing her book, Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, and what SRK fandom tells us about women in post-liberalized India. In conversation with Shrayana, we have the writer and book critic, Niyati Bhat, and myself.
#DESIBOOKSDISCOURSE WITH SHRAYANA BHATTACHARYA AND NIYATI BHAT — INTRODUCTION
Shrayana Bhattacharya trained in development economics at Delhi University and Harvard University. Since 2014, in her role as an economist at a multilateral development bank, she has focused on issues related to social policy and jobs. Prior to this, she worked on research projects with the Centre for Policy Research, SEWA Union and Institute of Social Studies Trust. Her writing has appeared in The Indian Express, EPW, Indian Quarterly, and The Caravan. She lives in New Delhi. Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh won the 2022 AutHER award for nonfiction.
Niyati Bhat is a Kashmiri writer, editor, and PhD candidate in Cinema Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her area of research is the cinematic imagination of South Asian conflict regions like Kashmir and past conflict zones like Sri Lanka. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Vogue India, Asap Art, Critical Collective, India Today, The Hindu, Scroll.in, Asymptote Journal, and Desi Books, among others. Currently, she is writing a book about contemporary Kashmiri music culture and its digital archiving practices.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book critic. She is the founder of Desi Books and teaches creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas. Her debut story collection, Each of Us Killers, won a 2020 Foreword INDIES award in the Short Stories category and was a finalist in the Multicultural Adult Fiction category. Her literary translation, Ratno Dholi: Dhumketu’s Best Short Stories, was shortlisted for the 2021 PFC-VoW Book Awards for English translation. Her writing has appeared in various venues including The Atlantic, NPR, BBC Culture, The Washington Post.
In Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, Shrayana Bhattacharya maps the economic and personal trajectories—the jobs, desires, prayers, love affairs, and rivalries—of a diverse group of women over more than a decade. Embracing the Hindi film idol, Shah Rukh Khan, allows them a small respite from an oppressive culture, a fillip to their fantasies of a friendlier masculinity in Indian men. Most struggle to find the freedom or income to follow their favorite actor. From Manju’s boredom in ‘rurban’ Rampur and Gold’s anger at having to compete with Western women for male attention in Delhi’s nightclubs, to Zahira’s break from domestic abuse in Ahmedabad, Bhattacharya explores what Indian women think about men, money, movies, beauty, helplessness, agency, and love. An unusual and compelling book on the female gaze, this is the story of how women have experienced post-liberalization India.
“This is likely the first trade book [about Bollywood stars] that focuses, instead, on the viewers and fans who’ve invested heavily in the industry by elevating these stars and, in so doing, shaped popular cinema and the formula film.” ~Niyati Bhat, ‘Creating Myths to Recreate Our Selves‘, review of Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, by Shrayana Bhattacharya, Desi Books Review Issue 1, December 2021.
“This is likely the first trade book [about Bollywood stars] that focuses, instead, on the viewers and fans . . .” ~Niyati Bhat on Shrayana Bhattacharya’s Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh #DesiBooksDiscourse #DesiBooksReviewTweet
#DESIBOOKSDISCOURSE WITH SHRAYANA BHATTACHARYA AND NIYATI BHAT — A TRANSCRIBED EXCERPT
SHRAYANA BHATTACHARYA: It was an accident. And it was an accident, born out of the sheer boredom of many people I was talking to. So Niyati, as you know, the book started in 2006. And I’ve essentially followed a set of women from 2006. And their lives. I was privileged to follow them from 2006 all the way up to 2020. And the book tells the story.
And it so happened that, in 2006, I was in my early 20s. I was very foolish, not that I’m less foolish now, but I think I’m a bit better at hiding it perhaps. I had just been trained in quantitative economics and the way economists are taught to do surveys, right. So you go ask a bunch of questions. You know, what I described in the book as the epistemic bravery of trying to collapse people’s experiences into numbers. And I was very excited to do that.
So I was working for a feminist think tank and there was a project with one of India’s largest—in fact, it’s the world’s largest labor union for women, SEWA. And I was sent to the slums of Ahmedabad, an area actually which was a slum then and is no longer a slum now. This place called Bapu Nagar. And I was supposed to do a survey of women who were making incense sticks at home earning about a quarter of minimum wage. And when I started talking to them, and that traditional framework of, you know, the question and then you’re looking at the person for a response—these women just look bored, I think my enthusiasm met their ennui and eye rolls, you know. They just looked at me, they told me that, apparently, they’ve been surveyed six times before by people exactly like me, right, wearing our khadi kurta with our like, kajal in our eyes. And you know, exactly the same prototype. They made fun of people like me, I was called “surveywaali didi”, you know? They’ve seen people like us so many times. And, you know, these were women who were unionizing. They were actively fighting for their own labor rights. They were answering their own questions of their own economic rights. They really didn’t need an outsider to come in and collect all this information. And so they were bored.
And so when they were bored, I turned to the few things that I knew that would lighten the mood. And India we know, you know, popular Hindi film just has such a strong pull. And I started asking women about their favorite actors. And everywhere I went, Niyati, right from the slums of Ahmedabad, you know, a similar phenomena transpired in rural Uttar Pradesh to the forests of Jharkhand. And everywhere I went, I met Shahrukh fans. And I noticed the moment we would talk about Shahrukh because I’m such a big fan. And these women were big fans. Suddenly, the tone, the texture, the energy of the conversation just opened up, you know. Suddenly, everyone was excited. People wanted to giggle and talk about him.
“And everywhere I went, I met Shahrukh fans . . . Suddenly, the tone, the texture, the energy of the conversation just opened up . . .” ~Shrayana Bhattacharya on writing Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh #DesiBooksDiscourseTweet
And as I started to diligently make notes—and I sought the appropriate permissions to follow women, write about them, you know, all of that—after I did that, once I started looking at the initial round of notes I made, I realized no one was actually talking about Shah Rukh. They were talking about how difficult it was to actually make money to watch him. They were actually telling me about how the real men in their lives never measured up to him. They were telling me about media, markets, you know, all the things that you just talked about. And I realized that, by complete happenstance, I happened to have come across this one prism, which is the actor, Shahrukh Khan. I call him my research method. Because when you talk about him, suddenly, I was eliciting all these responses on masculinity, on markets, on the economy, on women’s personal and romantic lives, because he’s such a symbol of all of those.
“[Talking about SRK] . . . eliciting all these responses on masculinity, on markets, on the economy, on women’s personal and romantic lives, because he’s such a symbol…” ~Shrayana Bhattacharya on writing Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh #DesiBooksDiscourseTweet
And then to me, the task was very simple. I just wanted to follow up and tell the story diligently. That’s it. And so that’s where the book began. And that’s where the book ended—with lots of conversations about Shah Rukh which actually were never about Shah Rukh. They were about the women themselves.
You’ve been listening to or watching episode 73 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. Thank you for tuning in. Today’s #DesiBooksDiscourse episode was with the economist and writer, Shrayana Bhattacharya, discussing her book, Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, and what SRK fandom tells us about women in post-liberalized India. In conversation with Shrayana, we have the writer and book critic, Niyati Bhat, and myself. Thank you to both.
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