Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence
By Shrayana Bhattacharya
Development economist Shrayana Bhattacharya’s book Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence is permeated by two languages. One is of hard-core economics, data expertise and brutal facts; the other seeks to provide fantasy and escapism from these oppressive and disappointing statistics.
In the intriguingly titled work, the author — currently an economist in the World Bank’s Social Protection and Labour unit for South Asia — goes on a journey of interviewing Indian women fans of Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan over a period of 15 years.
She then records her encounters with these fans — who range across economic classes — against a tapestry of economic data that is both qualitative and quantitative and includes such aspects as decreasing participation of women in the labour force and how Indian women grapple with societal prejudices against working women.
By mapping the loves, lives and interests of her interviewees, Bhattacharya gives an insight into how they survive the onslaughts of life by looking up to their idol, Shah Rukh. Occasionally, she creates a composite character representative of multiple women; this is an interesting choice, for it shows how one story can be shared by many and how it is also likely to occur again.
One such character is found in the opening chapter, ‘A Loveless Landscape’. An upper-class, economically successful woman is deserted by her lover and is unable to reconcile with the ensuing heartache. Ultimately, it is to Shah Rukh that she turns. Even though she does momentarily doubt the icon as she considers if it was him who made her desire romantic love in the first place, soon she is “desperately seeking Shah Rukh” once again as an escape from romantic rejection.
An economist synthesises the political economy of gender relations in India with female fans of the Bollywood star
Another composite character shows up at an elite party, arguing about gender gaps with a gentleman dubbed “The Historian”. The lady quotes various data to him that she has at her fingertips, including how a 2019 survey by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) found that women in India accounted for only 10.7 percent of the workforce.
The Historian indulges her, but most of the other guests are wary of a woman speaking statistical data at a party. This female character also discusses the “Sanskritisation” effect, whereby conservative families earning higher incomes disallow women to leave the sanctity of the home and go out and work, because it is simply not needed.
In this episode, the ideology built around Shah Rukh underpins the author’s overall argument that women who are not allowed to work dream of, and depend on, the star as an escape from the anxieties of not being able to realise their ambitions.
A key theme Bhattacharya returns to numerous times is that emotionally disappointed women turn to the Bollywood hero in order to realise their fantasies. She quotes cultural anthropologists calling the experience of fantasising about Shah Rukh as giving these women a “sublime” experience. This is an ineffable, almost spiritual experience. Fandom provides these women a freedom to express desire and, as Bhattacharya puts it, “only the deepest dissatisfaction with reality drives us to dwell in fantasy.”
However, fandom brings problems of its own, as shown by a young Bengali admirer who claims that Shah Rukh Khan films ruined her for life because they raised her romantic expectations from her partner to an impossible extent. In the end, to realise her fantasy of Shah Rukh, it was she who had to take on the hero’s role and propose to her boyfriend by bending down on her knee and using poetry and song.
The Bengali fan is not alone. Bhattacharya discloses that many women feel “romantically ruined” by Shah Rukh. A disheartened, 30-something former human resources manager, whose husband refused her permission to work after her daughter’s birth, tells the author: “In real life, there is no Shah Rukh.” In the manager’s eyes, her husband is not as understanding and loving as the ideal represented by Shah Rukh is.
A woman on celluloid is always the Beauty, the Bitch or the Bechari, never even our own muddled desi Bridget Jones. — Excerpt from the book
Throughout the book, Shah Rukh is generally kept on a pedestal through the voices of various women and also the author herself, who is a self-professed fan as well. He is called out critically a few times, though, for example about his claim to be a self-made success story and a “man from nowhere.”
To this, the author points out that no one comes from nowhere. Shah Rukh had excellent educational opportunities, leading to government-subsidised education at both Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia in the 1980s and these distinguished him economically.
Bhattacharya discusses several case studies of fervent fans who see in Shah Rukh a fantasy companion devoted in love towards his heroines in the films, and splendidly respectful of women in his interviews. These fans are diverse, ranging from an accountant to a flight attendant, a domestic worker and a garment worker.
“The Accountant”, as she wishes to be called in the book, tells Bhattacharya of her choice to spend her life watching Shah Rukh films instead of getting married. Her workplace and Shah Rukh-starrers make up her world as a singleton. She is despondent that her career is not celebrated by her family as her marriage would have been, and it is Shah Rukh Khan who provides her both comfort and escape at such moments.
Another fan, identified as “Gold” from Jaisalmer, explains that she grew up singing and dancing to love songs from Shah Rukh Khan films. When she turned 15, though, her mother made her stop. When she asked to go to the cinema, she was informed that it was no longer a proper place for her.
But Gold’s love for Shah Rukh was unabated. At 18, she went to Jaisalmer’s Ramesh Talkies cinema to see Devdas with a German college student who was in India to volunteer at a heritage preservation organisation. A neighbour, one Mr Arora, spotted her and informed the adult woman’s father that “Gold bohot free hoti chali ja rahi hai” [Gold is getting out of hand].
Gold rebelled against the restrictive environment and ran away to Delhi to become a flight attendant. From that point in her journey onwards, Shah Rukh remains her one constant in life, his songs, films and interviews providing her with both entertainment and distraction.
All these women that Bhattacharya writes of — including Lily the domestic worker and Manju the garment worker — aspire to visit Mannat, Shah Rukh Khan’s home in Mumbai, but this can be difficult because the streets outside the mansion are usually swarming with men.
The author, however, does manage to go there, alone, on Shah Rukh’s birthday. Later, she posted on social media about meeting with Shah Rukh at Mannat and giving him a copy of her book. The person at the heart of her book reciprocated with a handwritten note: “Thank you, for putting me to some good use … My love and thanks to you and all those wonderful women who like me so much. More power to you and your tribe.”
In looking at the complex web of women chasing Shah Rukh in their fantasies, while remaining stuck in a real world that doesn’t echo a man such as their icon, Bhattacharya paints the intimate portraits of the desires of these women well.
The statistical data filling the book to the brim is very informative but, organisationally speaking, it would have served readers better if the explanatory graphs were given at relevant places over the course of the book rather than sticking them all at the end. Perhaps this is something the author can look into for a future edition.
The reviewer is a poet and educator. She tweets @FatimaI294
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 5th, 2023
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