Whoever would have thought Shah Rukh Khan would make an excellent -- and effective -- research vehicle to track the freedoms of women in middle-class India? Sharanya Bhattacharya has pulled that experiment off wonderfully in the book Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh. Putting the lives of six women with their stifling emotional and financial constraints under observation, the author shows us how they all used the film star as a crutch in tough times. Inadvertently, he has been teaching these women new ways of relating to men, money, and marriage.
The book is a data cruncher’s delight, even though the light it sheds on the unchanged dismal reality of the Indian woman’s quest for a job, salary, and the freedom to do what she wants, and the love of her life, is neither fresh nor a heartening one. The book is also an SRK fan’s delight. Bhattacharya is an ardent fan, one who feels no qualms in owning her fandom. She starts off by telling us about her infatuation, one that has lasted over the years, and the impact that fangirling has had on her personal life. Then she selects six women, all SRK fans, and traces their life and careers for us.
One of the women says he seems considerate and thoughtful when he talks about women, a rare thing in our country where many men can seem predatory, or are fundamentally unable to talk to women. The second woman uses SRK as a map through which she navigates and makes sense of the world. The third woman drowns her sorrow at being rejected by prospective grooms in watching the newest SRK release. The fourth introduces her French boyfriend to the actor “of great talent and unmatched popularity”, as the French government described him when awarding SRK the Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2007. The fifth spontaneously breaks out into the SRK song ‘Tujhe dekha to yeh jana sanam’ in a moment of giddy exuberance and liberation while talking with the author. The sixth has adopted a “Shah Rukh Shiksha Abhiyan” of her own for four years, improving her reading, writing, and basic mathematics skills.
Each of these women buck the conformity trend and pay the price, of course. But they carry on undaunted by their circumstances, and we eventually see that what looked like capitulations are actually bargains and trade-offs.
Oh, but the inequality. Most of these women find it difficult to watch an SRK film in a theatre given their social constraints, or even on their smartphone, given family disapproval. Their physical movements are constantly policed; they have to fight with tradition and accept losing the fight; they have learned not to “care so much about work outside the home because a man can take it all away from you any time he pleases.” But -- and this is telling -- love remains fundamental to the Indian woman’s life.
These financially and romantically impoverished women are ordinary, in ordinary surroundings, but inspired by SRK to aim for a better quality of life and love. They know the star has feet of clay, they don’t relish watching films where he has played the original incel or a stalker, his darker roles. But they allow him to rise above the roles he essays. He isn’t any kind of feminist icon but he certainly is an icon for women. And interestingly, he is not a religious icon for these women. What he is, is a proxy for economic and romantic freedom.
What do (these) women want? To be loved, paid well, and left to do as they please. I say “these” women because the author is constantly reminding us about it and checking her privilege, and willy-nilly, readers who belong to Bhattacharya’s milieu end up doing just that.
And in the end, while it is rather sweet the way these women and many others invest so much in SRK, it’s also rather sad that they need to invent a version of him to cope at all. However, diehard women fans of SRK use selective works of his in cinema and the imagery it creates as an entry point into traversing trickier terrain and challenging the predetermined trajectories of their lives. As Bhattacharya says, in telling her (and us) why, when, and how they turn to SRK, they are telling us why, when, and how the world breaks their hearts.
Sheila Kumar is an independent writer, manuscript editor and author of four books.