Shrayana Bhattacharya’s debut as a writer was one for the records, her book ‘Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh’ broke all records but more than that resonated with women across the country who are trying to hold on to someone who is not just an actor or a public figure but someone who has many times acted a beacon of light in the lives of these women.
There is an undeniable charm that Shah Rukh has in him, a charm that still lights up any room that he walks into, any screen that he is shown on. The book which just completed a year of its publication is not an autobiography of the phenomenon that is SRK but is a saga of several Indian women who are his fans.
Excerpts from the interview-
When and how did you think that you could use Shah Rukh as a parameter to analyse the lives of Indian women?
Shreeja, if somebody had said to me 15 years ago because this book is based on 15 years of research, that I would write a story about women in the Indian economy through the lens of SHA Rohan, I’d roll my eyes and say get out of here. That’s impossible. But turns out that’s precisely what I did. What happened was in 2006, I was in my early 20s, I was sent to a low-income neighbourhood in Ahmedabad called Bapu Nagar where we were doing surveys on women who were, you know, the part of the precariat making incense sticks or but these and garment workers at home, earning about a quarter of minimum wage, and my job was to take a very typical economist questionnaire and ask people about their wages working conditions.
This was researched as part of a large consortium of advocacy for women in the informal economy led by ‘Seva’. And when I showed up, all these women looked incredibly bored when I started asking them these questions because they told me they’d met girls like me with kohl in their eyes and wearing khadi kurtas, and I realised I needed to do something different.
So in research, they teach you to use icebreakers, right, so I started asking all these women who their favourite actor was, and lo and behold, everywhere I went, for these research projects on women in our precariat, from, you know, the slums of Ahmedabad to the forests of Jharkhand, to the villages of with their predations you see in the book, everywhere I met these women, much like me, who were absolutely lovely Shah Rukh Khan and I realised once I started to ask these women about why they liked Mr. Khan, or how they watched Him or how they interacted with his iconography, suddenly, these were really powerful stories about the economy, because all these women started telling me about how they didn’t have enough time.
So as we know, women are time-poor in India, I describe the time poverty of women, they don’t have enough time for leisure or fun. They didn’t have independent income, or purchasing power to just watch their favourite actor. And I realised this as I decided to just continue following a subset of these women for more than a decade. And that actually was a very beautiful way for women to talk about men’s money markets, and marriage, without it being this very traditional stuffy social science approach. And so the book is what it is. It’s very much a book of economics, as I think you mentioned, but Mr. Khan is my research method.
It’s been so many years since SRK stepped into the limelight. What do you think really worked for him?
Oh, I can tell you that almost everyone I have interviewed and I’ve interviewed so many of his fans. I mean, the ones featured in the book, but also just fans who show up outside Mannat. I used to go every year for the big birthday celebration. I described this at the end of the book because I was curious about you know, who’s standing outside, and why are they standing outside. And there are actually very beautiful, compelling stories because many of the people standing there aren’t particularly well off. You know, it costs money to be there. And yet they love this actor so much. And I can tell you, all of them are obsessed with the idea of what is coming in 2023 and I’m super excited. I’ve been watching trailers.
I mean, as for what works for him, I think there’s so much that’s been said about his icon, I feel in fact, and I say this in the book, he’s the best person who tells the story about his icon. I mean, he’s just one of our most, you know, articulate celebrities. I think it just changed the way celebrity culture worked in India. But one of the things that really I pick up in the book is that, particularly for women, given such a deeply patriarchal society, so many women who constantly feel second-guessed about their ambitions about how loved they are, women are constantly told that you need to behave in a certain way to a patriarchal line, right?
Be a good woman, then you will be loved, right you need to you need to jump through all these social hoops to earn love, as I described in the book, you know, men earn money, and women love that sort of the division of labour in our society. And so when they see this actor who is whose icon is nothing but love, you know, the wide open arms, it’s actually a strangely deep psychological relief for a lot of women, we’re dealing with a lot of constraints, you know, in their access to public space, feeling unsafe, this kind of surveillance on women’s bodies.
So I think the love in the iconography that he represents, that really seems to connect to women who feel very unloved and insecure in their everyday lives. And I described this in the book that as real life disappoints, you know, his icon just grows larger and larger.
So I think that’s something that’s really important. And the other thing is, he very much represents a story about the economy and social mobility. And when you see this in the book, so many of the women and men will say to me, that, you know, he made it without network wealth, right, in an industry that is considered to be a very insider club industry. And he very much represents the story of India’s economic boom, right? He’s a first post-liberalisation superstar.
In the 15 years of your research work, you’ve come across people who don’t really appreciate him that much so what are their opinions like and what are their complaints?
So firstly, I have very little patience for people who don’t like him very much. So I am tremendously biased, as I’m very transparent about it. But I’ll tell you what, and you see this in, you know, the chapters are many of these sort of low-income women and middle-class women and even, in fact, the elite upper caste women in the book, which is that wherever there’s a Shah Rukh fan, typically there is a father, brother mother, who’s feeling a bit uncomfortable about why this young girl is so obsessed with this actor. And I think part of it is many men I interacted with would say, you know, he really does deviate from a very stoic masculine trope, right? He has a very different masculinity than what existed in the past and I think he really broke the mould.
Anupama Chopra, the wonderful film critic, you know, who was interviewed in my book said to me, it’s the first time we’ve ever seen an actor, raise a helicopter and yet, you know, cut vegetables in the kitchen. And I think it’s a very different masculinity, which some women I mean, a lot of women seem to find deeply appealing.
And yet there are some men, in particular, I notice who is perhaps socialised in believing in this way. And then you have the usual, you know, the more westernised elites who will say, well, it’s a silly Bollywood film. And you know, one of the hopes I have Shreeja is that, I think, even for people who dismiss Hindi cinema and popular culture, I think you realise what a strong role it plays as language as release right as fun and joy in the lives of people whose lives are so harsh, every day, and I hope that people who even dismiss Mr. Khan’s icon for being sloppy and excessively romantic and whatever, you know, whatever realm they want to sort of come from, they read the book and they realise that actually, it’s playing a very important emotional function for a lot of women out there.
Over time and again, you’ve spoken about how Shah Rukh has really ruined the romantic feelings that a woman has, should have, and how he redefined masculinity. So can we talk a little about that?
Yeah. I mean, you know, there was a wonderful story. It was in the news, I think, a few years ago about a young woman who said that Shahrukh had romantically ruined her because she felt like she always wanted a certain kind of very Yash Raj films, you know, a Karan Johar film proposal. And what’s fascinating about that, though, is eventually she proposed to her boyfriend.
I mean, this is, you know, the story is, I think out there for anyone to see. And she adopted the role of Shahrukh and she serenaded her partner and propose marriage to him or whatever else. And so it’s interesting that I think while a lot of these young women have seen him and he’s really changed the way the trope of the male hero, right, what he looks like and how he behaves. What’s fascinating is I always say this in the book, so many of these women, they don’t want to marry Shahrukh. They want to be him. They want his confidence, his economic gumption. They want to be able to love as unabashedly as his characters do. Right. And I think that’s a that’s very interesting as I saw that through the book, but the other reason, I think, you know, he seems to have really impacted everyone’s romantic expectations, at least the elite the women and middle-class women I speak to, I do think women from the precariat engaged because iconography very differently, but for the elite and middle-class women, I think it’s very much the fact that this was a man in his films, who was constantly listening to women.
So I would constantly hear from women that, you know, have you seen how he talks to the mother and the girlfriend as a way, you know, and there’s a way those characters engage with women’s feelings. They acknowledge women’s feelings, they engage with their needs. The fact that you know, I measured, for example, it’s there in the book, how much women speak in his films relative to women speaking in other big hits of Hindi cinema with other actors.
And unsurprisingly, statistically speaking, as well, women just speak much more. So his films have more space for women’s words, and their feelings and I think as a consequence, so many young women saw that imagery and thought I should I deserve that, right? Like, I deserve a man who will take my needs and my need to rest my need to express myself much more seriously. And I think that’s, you know, it’s sort of elevated a certain kind of expectation.
And I think that’s really had an impact on what women expect in this sort of, you know, mythical ideal man. But I do want to say that I think in the book if there’s one thing I want the reader to realise is all these women, it’s not like we have some silly crush on a celebrity. I think they’re all seeking men who will engage and reciprocate domestic labour, and emotional labour and support women’s ambitions. And I think they see that in him.
Since we’re at it, I really have to ask you, when did your tryst with Shahrukh really begin? How far do you go?
I’m a very typical urban Indian fan, which is I think, you know, I describe myself as you know, I’m born in the early 1980s. We were the first generation of women who claimed Mr. Khan because he was our superstar he came onto the scene when I was a teenager and, and I watched him in ‘Baazigar’, which probably is the worst form of his to start with, because you know, he’s actively harming women and stalking them. And there’s all kinds of, you know, terrible gender behaviour going on, which one has to sort of acknowledge? And and I think this connects back to your previous question about what some people say when they don’t like him, I think many people obviously talk about some of the gender scripts in his in his films. And I do encourage people to just read the book to see how different women sort of see those scripts somewhat differently. It’s interesting. So I always say he’s a female icon, but not a feminist icon precisely because of this, right? So watching those films, or very young age may not have been the best idea. But I think it was around then. But I must confess reader, and I think this is a very again, this is where I’m very typical.
So many English speaking fans would tell me, they love him because of his interviews, and I’m no different. You know, he was one of the first superstars who came onto the scene and was so accessible to us through so many interviews. And again, it goes back to economic reform, because he came on at a time when suddenly satellite televisions because of changes in regulation just started to proliferate, right? Channels like yours. And, and what, what that meant was that I could come back home and switch on the TV, and they wouldn’t be necessarily showing a song of yours, but an interview of his, and he felt very intimate to us, because he would talk about his economic struggles, his personal struggles, his own anxieties he just opened up and he has such a wonderful facility with interacting with the media, right. And so to me, actually, I actually do think that the tryst with him really, I think my fandom very much started not only with the films, but will all those interactions that one saw, right, like old interviews. So there’s that. But I think from the 15 years of research, my fandom for him has been burnished in a way because of the way I’ve seen other women who have very different from me, don’t come from my privilege come from very different backgrounds, seeing the way they interact with him. And do you see him right and what he means to them? I think I think my love for him and I appreciation for him has just grown so much, much more, just through the process of the research as well.
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