“I thought I was collecting stories about how women see Shah Rukh Khan and his films. In fact, I was collecting narratives of how they saw themselves and those around them.” This is the crux of Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, an ambitious and impassioned non-fiction book that looks at the lives of women in India through the lens of their fandom. Shrayana Bhattacharya, a senior economist at the World Bank, spoke to women across economic strata for 15 years about love, work, agency, and the actor whose films offer everything from diversion to comfort and encouragement. Over Skype, Lounge speaks to Bhattacharya about how she used the actor to better understand his admirers. Edited excerpts:
Did the realisation that this is a book about Shah Rukh’s female fans, and not about the man himself, arrive at the start?
I think it came towards the middle, to be honest. In 2006, I was sent to collect data, the way any research assistant would. All these women I was sent to survey, when I would ask them about their wages, their working conditions, these were realities they were very aware of. I was uncomfortable that these people were so bored, so I started talking about Shah Rukh. I thought I was asking them about him, about his films, but instead they were talking about their husbands, their lovers, how difficult it is to earn money to watch Shah Rukh.
I diligently had these conversations. Some of them knew I was thinking of converting these into an academic book at that time. Till 2013 it was, to me, these women and how they see Shah Rukh. Then, I decided—for personal reasons—that I wanted to broaden the scope of the book to include my own class. It’s when I started to talk to them and went back to look at the old notes that it occurred to me this was no longer a book about Shah Rukh Khan. I realised he was actually a research device. Then I completely restructured the book.
Shah Rukh is somewhat of a Trojan horse here, a way to get to the real subjects of the book. Are there other works you encountered that use a similar approach?
I had two influences. There’s a long piece called Frank Sinatra Has A Cold (by Gay Talese). I was very struck by that. There was also a wonderful documentary on Schopenhauer, which I saw at the British Council in Delhi. It’s not about him but about how people are playing his music in their own lives.
One thing I was keen on was to not follow the path of formal film studies, in which the agency is given to the actor and the star, and people like the ones in my book can be seduced into liking them. I don’t think anyone’s like that. Ordinary people can pick and choose and construct these stars for themselves.
One thing you reiterate is that these women are active creators of the Shah Rukh persona.
Received wisdom was he was the creator of that persona, and everyone else was just a consumer. But I realised that narrative is totally wrong. If you look at what’s usually said about Shah Rukh, it’s that he’s an NRI (non-resident Indian) star, who caters to thirsty housewives. I did not see that at all. I knew that he was the person who narrated the story around social mobility, but the amount he symbolised that to people from an elite background surprised me.
And then what really surprised me was the way women in working class and low-income communities thought of him as being an escape when their lives were so difficult, giving them almost a demonstration of what a good man could be. I was shocked about the way women would cry about his films when talking about the lack of romantic agency in their lives. I was really surprised how, for a younger generation of women, he represents opportunity and liberalisation.
Why do you term his best performance that of the “unapologetic middle-class superstar”?
This is where the economy reacts with film. Inequality among our top 10%, the difference between the mega rich and the merely rich, has grown unimaginably. And I think he captures this. When people look at him, they see a merely rich person who has become mega rich. He has been, from his early 20s, the hyper elite of our country. And yet people feel so taxed because of the way network wealth is so important in our economy, that they will all look at him as someone who “made it”, who triumphed over patronage and networks.
Another reason I think is important is he came to prominence in that liberalisation period. Suddenly, there were creative spirits of the economy that had been unleashed—he’s one example of that. He capitalised on everything the reform process maintained. He himself says, in his TED talk (2017), that he did well because the economy and technology allowed him to do well in the early 1990s. We think of him as capturing that original moment.
I will say one more thing. If you look at his (early) interviews, I don’t think anyone is talking about money and the need to earn it and hold on to it (as much as he is). Bollywood stars don’t talk about money. But he’s saying openly in interviews that I needed to take loans, I needed to buy a house. He was very open about it.
You write that women who grew up watching Shah Rukh films graduated to watching his interviews in their 30s. Why do you think this is?
I think there are three reasons. One is that he was one of the first actors who, in the 1990s, talked about feeling bad, feeling depressed. I think a lot of women connected with him because he addressed these everyday negative feelings of anxiety, competition, job market issues.
The second reason people were very enchanted was that he was a good public speaker. I know so many women, and men also, who said they would take tips on how to talk in public from his interviews. And the third is just that they are really charming and fun. He will entertain you, he will illuminate—it’s a performance.
And there’s a fourth thing, which is particularly for women. If you look at the interviews, he was always talking about his mother, his wife. He was talking about marital fidelity, about his female co-stars. We can say some of it might be posturing—but he was saying it. I don’t think any of our male superstars at that time were valorising womanhood.
At one point, you paint, and address, a composite picture of the Shah Rukh fan. It reminded me of how, in market research, one is asked to visualise the target group as a single person.
The way I did that was, there were about a hundred women from my class group whom I spoke to. I wrote up an average. And then I thought, what’s a way to communicate an average? So what’s on the page is the median elite Shah Rukh fan.
Did you debate whether to interview Shah Rukh for the book?
Actually, I never thought of it. First of all, I knew that if I interviewed him I would faint or do something stupid. Something terrible would happen, that I was very conscious of.
On a more serious note, sometime around 2013, I understood this is not a text about Shah Rukh but a text about gender and economy, and he played this research device role to enter into the lives of these women. I realised, much like that piece on Sinatra, that he doesn’t need to be involved, because, in a way, it’s not him as a person but him as a construct. I realised that if he entered the agency would no longer be with the ordinary fan. He’s so powerful—it would just become him and his voice.
The book was to release around the time the storm over his son Aryan Khan exploded. Were you worried that a narrative you had constructed over so many years might spin out of control?
No, and this is something that’s heartening. I was confident that the love for him superseded whatever internet trollery political agents could buy. Having said that, I faced abuse from right-wing nuts when I put up an innocuous tweet about how I used to stand outside Mannat. I know that because of who he is and where we are as a country, the moment you say this generation of women is in love with a Muslim actor, there are people who will react with extremely hateful views.