Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh Khan: How the Bollywood icon is a metaphor for freedom and aspirations

Indian economist Shrayana Bhattacharya’s critically acclaimed debut non-fiction meticulously analyses the influence of SRK

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Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Thu 1 Sep 2022, 9:19 PM

Shrayana Bhattacharya is an economist trained at Delhi University and the Harvard Kennedy School. Since 2006, she has worked on research projects with the Institute of Social Studies Trust, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and Centre for Policy Research (CPR).

Her first book of non-fiction Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India's Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence was published by HarperCollins India in November 2021 and recently by Liberty Books in Pakistan. Bhattacharya has won the Times of India JK Paper AutHer Prize for Best Non-Fiction Author and the SKOCH Economic Forum Prize for Literature.

Shrayana Bhattacharya
Shrayana Bhattacharya

In a conversation with wknd. Bhattacharya talks about her book, which was in the making for 15 years.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

What was the inspiration behind writing the book. How did you stumble upon the idea?

I was in my early 20s in 2006 and employed as a research assistant at a feminist think tank that was working on a research project with SEWA — one the world's largest labour unions in India for women. My job was to help interview and collect information on the wages and working conditions of women involved in making incense sticks or garments at home. They earned about a quarter of minimum wage and their lives were full of struggle against employers/contractors who did not pay them well and conservative families that were not too happy that these women had to step out of the home and earn money. During my early days of fieldwork, realised that many of the women I was interviewing were well aware of their own economic deprivations and labour rights. They found my standard survey questions rather repetitive and boring. So, I started asking them about their favourite actor. Several of the women I met at that time — from India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh to Gujarat — were mad Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) fans. And when we talked about Mr Khan, the tone and energy of the conversations just radically bared their souls. Everyone wanted to talk! These women were much keener to discuss what excited them about him and made them smile, than talk about their sorrows and poverty. So, I decided, at that moment, to follow this research path. I met several SRK fans in that 2006-08 period and I followed their lives for the next 15 years. The inspiration was these women I met and how much they struggled to do something as simple as follow or watch their favourite movie star. I had never expected the conversation about Mr Khan to reveal so much about women's compromised access to money, equality in relationships, leisure, free time, markets and freedom of movement. But over the years, that's the shape these conversations took.

What kind of research did you do and how long did it take you to write this book?

The book is a combination of scholarly literature, economic theories, statistics and longitudinal qualitative research spanning two decades. I repeatedly interviewed a set of nine women in the book for 12 to 15 years (between 2006 till early 2021) and I also interviewed about 80 elite English-speaking fans over a shorter period. These conversations took time as I needed to transcribe and make sure everyone I surveyed was comfortable with the way I was writing about them and that I protected their privacy. Also, I collated and analysed all the data on employment trends and interviewed economists and activists on how they saw the storyline I was picking up and these are in the book. I measured how much women speak in Mr Khan's films relative to other big Bollywood blockbusters. Finally, I also interviewed film critics to be more rigorous and balanced in the way I introduced Mr Khan to the reader. It took 15 years and I’m glad I invested the time.

What’s common between Vidya, an engineer and a Tamil Brahmin from Delhi, Rampur’s Manju, Lily Soren from Jharkhand?

Amplified by caste and class, each one of them is fighting for more economic and personal freedom in one of the most masculine economies in the world. The recent World Economic Forum (WEF) report places India in the global bottom five when it comes to women's economic participation. Gender gaps in India are alarming and women are socialised to accept their primary role in society is to get married, be good mothers and ritual abiding caregivers. Each one of the women in my book, in her own way, walks away from these traditional scripts of being a 'good' Indian woman. As a result, each is made to feel unsafe, unworthy, lonely, and guilty. Yet, they are steadfast in their plans to find love and livelihoods on their own terms. And of course, they are all mad SRK fans.

Is there a female gaze and how does it reflect in your book?

Yes, one of the reasons I wanted to write the book using a more personal conversational style that anchors a discussion of women's economic behaviour in their emotional lives was that I wanted to rebel against the way many economists usually write about the economy. The male gaze believes the economy lies in our factories and fields and is an impersonal set of profit-orientated transactions. The women I've followed see the economy very differently, and I've tried to chronicle this 'female gaze'. For example, a female gaze towards the economy would credibly reward the care work women do, without which we would have no workforce. Further, a female gaze towards the economy would recognise the home as a principal workplace for women. In India, majority of urban women engaged in manufacturing are doing so from their own homes. The female gaze would push us to invest in shelter security and boosting local flexible jobs. The female gaze also understands that love and our economic behaviour are deeply linked — women spend hours of labour time to earn love and offer love. Love is used as a language within families to restrict women from furthering career ambitions. The female gaze would acknowledge love as a key lever in our economic frameworks.

Is SRK a metaphor for comfort? If so, how?

In the book, women rely on his icon when they feel taxed or lonely because they are not conforming with societal expectations. When real men make the women in my book cry or second guess themselves, they smile at Shah Rukh. He offers relief, affection, wisdom (in his films and interviews), comfort and entertainment. But more than comfort, he is a metaphor for aspirations and freedom in the book. When I say these women are "desperately seeking Shah Rukh", I don’t mean they are seeking a celebrity. They are desperately seeking the money, safe spaces and free time to watch him. They are also desperately seeking a world where they are free to laugh and have fun with safety and no judgement. And they are also seeking men who will love them for who they are and support their freedom to rest, work and watch movies.

Is there an economics of seeking love? How do you delineate this expression through your work?

Yes, it plays out differently across class groups. For example, in the book you see so many elite and middle-class women who feel that they don't need to marry or settle as they can earn enough to hold out for love. Their mothers could not afford to live on their own. The economy has offered opportunities for such women to flourish, and they would rather work and earn themselves and navigate the mating market with more power. There are middle-class women in my book who are the first in their families to study or work outside the home, and therefore can meet men beyond their family circles. You also see women from our precariat unwilling to marry boys from their immediate communities as the economy is making it tough for men to hold on to a steady income. At the same time, because the housing market and public space remain unsafe and costly for single women, many capitulate into unhappy marriages as they are not allowed to live alone. Women drop out of employment after marriage, triggered by the belief that nurturing and loving within the family is their primary job. Men do not approach the economy believing they need to share in this labour of love. India is in the bottom five when it comes to men helping in housework. The economy is shaping our love lives, and the labour of love (that women overwhelmingly perform through domestic chores) regulates how much women can participate in paid employment.

How would posterity remember SRK?

As the sexiest man India ever produced! And on a serious note, a wickedly funny and deeply self-aware icon who made it on his own without network wealth and ended up revolutionising celebrity culture in India. He will always embody the best of what the country can be — loving, plural and prosperous.

Lastly, what was meeting SRK like?

They say you should never meet your heroes. But if SRK is your hero, you must meet him! It was surreal and an important milestone in the 15 years journey of the book. I’m happy to report I did not faint. He thanked me for putting him to "good use" and expressed gratitude and love for all the women involved in my work. I'm forever grateful to him for catalysing this unusual research method I was able to use in the book to explore women's voices and aspirations.

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