Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence by Shrayana Bhattacharya | HarperCollins Publishers India | November 11, 2021
Reviewer: NIYATI BHAT
Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh begins on a sharply original note: “My life has always been a heteronormative hell.” Then Shrayana Bhattacharya offers up her own story of finding comfort in the actor, Shah Rukh Khan (SRK.) One day, as she visits his statue at Madame Tussaud’s in London after a bad breakup, she cries inconsolably. For the religiously uninitiated, uncontrolled crying at your deity’s shrine is a common, regularly witnessed phenomenon in India. It is a most genuine form of devotion to burst into tears in a public temple or dargah or gurdwara. For the author and her subjects, SRK inspires a similar deity-like devotion. Indian women are familiar with this brand of devotion as it is constantly demanded and churned out of them by the patriarchy. But, in this SRK fandom, devotion is lovingly offered with the same ease and comfort that SRK offers his fans.
The book, interestingly, is and isn’t about SRK. It gazes on his stardom and fandom through multiple interviews with his fans, beginning from the 1990s and following their journeys until 2020. The spotlight, however, shines in the first three sections on these fans—Indian women ranging from the upper class to the middle class and to lower income sections of Indian society—their fandom journeys, their dreams, desires, aspirations, struggles. The last section of the book is about the fans who regularly gather outside SRK’s house in Mumbai.
Bhattacharya, the economist, interviewed working women in different rural and urban settings and reviewed various national surveys and research studies to examine this fandom’s evolution within the country’s changing economic dynamics shaped by factors like gender, caste, class, conservatism, globalism, and more. The economics of fandom—what allows it to exist, thrive, or what curbs it—all of this is supported by hard data spanning the last few decades since SRK became a public persona.
The real strength of the book is not the analysis, the fandom or, even, SRK. What stands out most is Bhattacharya’s ability to weave statistics smoothly into her storytelling, making it both accessible and compelling reading. As an Indian woman and a part of those statistics, I felt guilty when skimming the data-intensive pages but her refreshing use of language kept me going. As she encounters various social sections and figures such as “Ground reality uncles, Rajpoot Boys, The Lutyens laboratory”, the author taps into the Delhi boys’ psyche and provides richly amusing definitions of feudal men such as: “the clumsy Casanovas, the fat-shamers, the gaslighters, the bullies, those who deify tradition and family honor . . .”
The metropolitan woman, Bhattacharya reminds us, has often been lectured by this feudal gentry that India’s liberalization was an antithesis, an enemy, a roadblock because it threatened to topple the latter over. The western notion of becoming a successful first-generation industrialist, businesswoman, lawyer, etc. did threaten the existence of their likes including, specifically, the author’s love interest referred to as The One. His life was neatly compartmentalized into his rich, feudal family, his social circle, and the rest of the Delhi working class that was at their disposal. In this setup, he and his likes wouldn’t be able to sustain or digest the notions of an auto-rickshaw driver’s son becoming a civil servant, a first-generation businessperson getting to IPO level, a working woman from a rich family, or a successful woman from a low income class family.
Those caste and class structures that suited The One are exactly what SRK’s fandom, inspired by him, challenges and defies to find their place in the world. Little wonder, then, that SRK continues to find himself at the center of sociopolitical debates in the country that narrow everything down to his religion and Muslim identity despite movies like My Name is Khan (“. . . and I am not a terrorist.”) Having been scathed once for speaking out, SRK has turned into a quiet star focused on his mega and meta projects—a compassionate psychologist in Dear Zindagi, an NRI tortured by his past and unable to contain his spiraling everyday life in which he feels something amiss (a typical Imtiaz Ali hero) in Jab Harry Met Sejal, a love-seeking dwarf in Zero, the dual-role “star” and his “fan” in Fan.
Considering these later-career SRK characters, Bhattacharya doesn’t hesitate to point out that, despite his status as a feminist icon, his earlier characters weren’t necessarily feminist. He had to turn his trajectory from playing an anti-hero, a villain, a murderer, and a stalker to a vulnerable love interest whose main attractive feature—beyond the singular voice, the exotic locales, the signature open-arms gesture, and the not-afraid-to-show-emotions-or-cry—is listening to his love interest with the intent to understand her better.
For many, as this type of romantic hero in post-liberalization India, SRK is liberalization. The behind-the-scenes, middle-class-to-riches story of a Delhi boy and his own love story made him more desirable, interesting, and alluring to cinema-goers. His aspirational and driven individuality turned him into one of the biggest stars captivating audiences for decades. In discussing how pay disparity and other socioeconomic issues hindering both rural and urban Indian women are rooted in patriarchy, Bhattacharya reveals how this overall myth of SRK helps them find the courage to rebel against the systems designed to keep them confined.
After the 2019 CAA-NRC protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, there has been a shift in how stardom and stars are viewed. Even before that, their vocal defiance or agreement with the country’s state of affairs has always been key to understanding how politics and the state influence the Indian film industry—specifically, Bollywood—and how fans, polarized by the country’s politics, have also polarized stars. Fans pay close attention to what their favorite stars support or condemn publicly and on social media to decide if they’ll continue to cherish or admonish them. Speculating over SRK’s silence about the nationwide citizenship debate, fans felt he had accepted that “he had too many frailties to preach to others.” Then, in late-2021, SRK’s son, Aryan Khan, was charged with drug possession and subject to a police procedure and a trial-by-media. While this helps explain SRK’s earlier silence, it has also brought him closer to his fans. The support for SRK and his exemplary behavior—polite responses with hands folded even when visiting his son in jail—affirmed his fandom’s myth of Shah Rukh Khan: the average Delhi boy with talent and aspirations who made it big in nepotistic Bollywood while staying as humble as ever.
In some heartland villages and towns, beyond political debates and sociocultural boundaries, the most radical thing one can do is have Shah Rukh Khan cut-outs and watch his movies in a Bareilly theater. Manju, a young Muslim woman in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, for whom men beating their wives and children after heavy drinking is a common phenomenon, says, “The way he (SRK) cared for women in the films is the way all men should care for women.” In creating such myths of SRK, women like Manju are also recreating their own selves.
Stars like SRK aren’t an isolated species and cinema doesn’t work in isolation. The mass reach and appeal of Bollywood has allowed for close, symbiotic relationships between its stars and their viewers and fans. This is why we continue to get a steady stream of books about Bollywood stars—especially those that SRK himself looked up to, like Dilip Kumar. Typically, these books have been written by journalists like Kaveree Bamzai, who wrote Three Khans, and relates their nobody-to-famous career, craft, and life trajectories.
This is likely the first trade book 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. Centering these communities and considering their backgrounds, demographics, and positioning within the country’s economic hierarchies, the book flips the script by asking women from different socioeconomic strata: who is your favorite star and why is it SRK?
One drawback—which Bhattacharya, the devoted fan and rational economist, acknowledges readily (though it may well be sequel potential)—is that, even as the narrative digs through the “heteronormative hell”, it doesn’t capture all SRK fans who may belong to other genders, non-binary, and LGBTQIA communities. Despite that, by walking us through the economic, cultural, and social lives of SRK and his fans, Bhattacharya has presented a definitive, refreshing account that is at once a sociology text, a historical artifact, a fandom treatise, an economic development study, and a laborious love letter to this self-made Badshah of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan. More importantly, it is a declaration of affirmation for the lonely Indian woman: there may not be a “real-life SRK-like” charmingly vulnerable partner, but there is always the man looking “too good” in a sherwani, dancing to Maahi Ve or Banno ki Saheli.
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, Summerhill Journal among others. Currently, she is writing a book about contemporary Kashmiri music culture and its digital archiving practices.
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