What Shah Rukh Khan means for Indian women’s freedom and the economy’s gender crisis

Feminist economist Shrayana Bhattacharya's new book maps the economic and personal trajectories of ordinary Indian women united by their love for film idol Shah Rukh Khan

By Neha Kirpal

A new book on the female gaze, Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence (HarperCollins, INR 699), is the story of how women have experienced post-liberalization India. In the book, New Delhi-based author Shrayana Bhattacharya maps the economic and personal trajectories of a diverse group of women. Divided by class but united in fandom, they remain steadfast in their search for intimacy, independence and fun. Embracing Hindi film idol Shah Rukh Khan allows them a small respite from an oppressive culture.

Trained in development economics at Delhi University and Harvard University, Bhattacharya has focused on issues related to social policy and jobs since 2014 in her role as an economist at a multilateral development bank. Prior to this, she worked on research projects with the Centre for Policy Research, SEWA Union and Institute of Social Studies Trust.

In this exclusive interview, she talks to us among other things about why SRK embodies independence and a kind of ideal love for young women in India, the qualities of his character that young women seek in their partners, and some of the startling findings that she came across in her research.

Shrayana Bhattacharya

Tell our readers how you decided to write your recent book Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh.

Through a series of accidents and research projects, I met SRK fans from different classes and communities across India. These women in my book form a fan-club that exists in my head; but they are not only fans of SRK; they are also fans of their own economic independence. For more than a decade, through repeated interviews, I followed these women and their quest to find love and livelihoods. My hope was to simply tell their stories, while using data to explain the socio-economic contexts that informed their dreams and disappointments.

When I say the women in my book are seeking SRK, I do not mean they are worshipping or chasing a celebrity. They are seeking the freedom and finances to watch SRK; they are seeking men and families who will love them for who they are and support their choices. It sounds simple but the book shows you how difficult this search is for any Indian woman today.

The book is not about Mr Khan, it is about the staggering gender crisis in our economy. India is in the bottom five countries of the world when it comes to women’s economic freedoms and participation. Drawing on 30 years of data, academic literature and personal stories, I try to unpack and explain this crisis to the reader.

My hope was to convey the economic data in an accessible way, while also highlighting the emotions and messy realities behind the alarming statistics. I wrote it for anyone—irrespective of whether they are SRK fans or not—interested in understanding womanhood in contemporary India, and how the economy is shaping our self-worth.

What process did you use to write it, and how long did it take you to complete?

Because I chose to repeatedly interview the same women, the book took nearly 15 years to complete. A key decision was to rely on Mr Khan as an anchor for the research, as opposed to following a more conventional research route, where I would directly ask women about their lives. In 2006, I was in my early twenties, and employed as a research assistant by a feminist think tank to undertake surveys of women working in different sectors across India. As I asked these women questions about their wages, working conditions and employment issues, several seemed rather bored of my questions.

Many of these women, from garment-workers in the villages of UP to women making incense sticks for quarter of minimum wage in the slums of Ahmedabad, were fighting for their own economic rights. They were arguing with employers, they were unionizing and organizing as workers and sisters. They really did not an outsider like me to ask them these questions. So, as an icebreaker, we would talk about the few things we had in common.

Everywhere I went, I met fellow SRK fans. As I probed more about why and when they watched Khan, these women started talking about why and when their families, workplaces and romances treated them poorly. They started using his songs, scenes and interviews to talk about the men in their real lives, their own hopes for freedom. These conversations led to the book.

Shah Rukh Khan in his signature pose used in several films

What were some of the interesting/startling findings that you came across in your research?

The fact that doing something as simple as watching your favourite movie-star is so incredibly difficult for most women in the country should startle all of us. The data on the rapid removal of women from the paid workforce is well-known among economists but continues to shock me. I use several data sources to highlight how women, especially those working outside the home, have barely any free time for fun or rest. The degree of emotional and physical surveillance on women’s bodies and hearts revealed by the stories is deeply worrying.

On a more hopeful note, I was pleasantly surprised by how fandom for Khan served as an unusual research technique. In a country where we are so divided by religion, caste, income and language, the love for his icon allowed a space for so many women to connect with each other’s experiences.

The love that SRK commands in so many hearts allowed me to enter into the lives of these women, it encouraged them to share their stories and use his filmography as language and metaphor. Seeing the power of popular Hindi cinema in uniting so many of us in laughter and tears was very powerful and moving.

Why is Shah Rukh Khan an aspirational figure for young people in the country? What does he represent, and why is he so loved? Why do you think SRK embodies independence and a kind of ideal love for young women in India?

In the book, you will notice how he means very different things to different people, based on their location and socio-economic circumstances. Each of the women I followed has constructed his persona, drawing on their own realities and his body of work.

To many, he represents the promise and charge of India’s big market reforms in the 1990s; his meteoric rise was parallel to India’s economic growth and telecom boom. To others, he represents social mobility, a man who made it on his own without any entrenched network wealth.

To most women in my book, he represents a progressive and loving masculinity (all these women ignore films where his characters stalk women or harm them), a man who is open about his feelings, does the dishes and engages deeply with the needs of women. Some want to marry a man like him, others want to be him. He represents economic and romantic freedom; this is why he is aspirational.

Shah Rukh Khan and Anushka Sharma in a still from Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008)

What are some of the qualities of Shah Rukh Khan’s character that young women seek in their partners?

Each woman sees him very differently. Some do not want a partner like him, they want to be like SRK—to have his success, status and independence. But nearly all the women, across class backgrounds and regions, said they admired the way he listened to and talked to women. I kept hearing words like izzat, tameez and ‘respect’ all the time.

A migrant domestic worker told me how his character in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi appreciates his wife’s labour in making the tiffin for him. I describe this in detail in the book. There are many such examples in the stories. Women appreciated his participating in the kitchen and how his characters performed significant emotional labour in their relationships with women.

It is hardly surprising that these attributes are valued in a country where so many women’s labours and desires go unacknowledged and unappreciated. India is in the bottom five in the world when it comes to men helping in housework. Finally, each woman thinks he is wildly sexy; an admission that causes major parental discomfort in many conservative Indian homes featured in the book.

As an economist who works on subjects related to social policy and jobs, how did this theme of the female gaze resonate with you?

Economics tends to be a masculine profession. Feminists have fought to force the discipline to acknowledge and incorporate women’s realities more accurately into theories, solutions and the way data is measured and collected. Therefore, I was very keen to capture and document how women see the economy.

I have always been very committed to doing a different kind of social science, one that is more grounded and one that genuinely listens to the people we claim to study and write about. The book was also a way to liberate myself from the standard way academicians and technocrats write about the economy.

Personally, what is your opinion of SRK? Are you a fan?

I am a mad fan. I wrote the book as a love-letter for Indian womanhood and him. I really hope he reads and engages with the book. Inshallah.

What are you working on next?

Another nonfiction project. It will longitudinal, so will probably take me a decade to finish!

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