“My life has always been heteronormative hell,” opens Shrayana Bhattacharya’s remarkable book Desperately Seeking Shahrukh: Lonely Young Women and The Search for Intimacy and Independence. It’s a pithy, funny sentence in what I’d assumed would be a socio-cultural commentary on masculinity and fandom. The book is that, but it also bends genre – incorporating an economic analysis of women’s loves and lives in India, blending sociological theories with lived realities, and putting in words the allure of Shah Rukh Khan, dismantling his public persona as well as gently suggesting the limits of what we can know about celebrity.
Instead of centering the movie star the book is ostensibly about, Bhattacharya begins by centering herself and her experience dating as an independent, English-speaking, upper-caste resident of Delhi. “Bruised and burned, I oscillate along the spectrum of a banal romantic mania…Monogamy has felt like a fetishized scarce commodity, making a committed relationship the most coveted contract.” Framing monogamy as an economic endeavor, Bhattacharya recounts her romantic mistrials before plunging us back into the present: A virus has taken over the world, and suddenly she’s no longer smug about her solitude, “prepared to live in equanimity with her singledom.” Instead she struggles with loneliness, planning virtual friend-dates. And, Bhattacharya writes, in her darkest moments, there is Shah Rukh Khan: “Arms wide open, promising the ultimate refuge in love and conjugality, yet mocking the sham of my filmy fantasies and expectations. His image serves as a constant reminder of how far I’ve traveled. Chronically dissatisfied with the men I keep trying to be worthy of. I am tired, I am disappointed and I am desperate, but as I have learned over the past decade, I am also not alone.”
This is not a book about Shah Rukh Khan, Bhattacharya warns us. This is a book about some of his female fans, who use the actor and his icon to speak about themselves. Bhattacharya, a devoted fan, is a capable tour guide as she takes us into the lives and homes of women who love Shah Rukh Khan – chronicling the fandom and lives of elite women, middle class women, and women who make up the informal economy, these fans’ stories illustrate how Khan’s celebrity frame conversations on inequalities within families, workplaces and contemporary romances. Woven throughout these women’s anecdotes are Bhattacharya’s own failures, her approach to dating, as well as some wry and sardonic commentary on how patriarchy has affected her own life. The book, peppered with hard facts, funny details, and the very human desires of all of the women she interviews, tells a story about modern India that’s detailed, absorbing and revelatory.
“If you blossom late, or prioritize your education, or come to the city as a single woman and find yourself looking for a mate in your late twenties and thirties, Delhi closes itself on you,” writes Bhattacharya in the book’s first section, titled Fantasies. In this early section, she writes about her own love for Khan and writes about fans who believed that they were romantically ruined by Shah Rukh Khan, having invented the ideal man based around his public persona: his self-deprecating jokes in interviews, his devotion to his wife and family. It’s in this Fantasies section, that Bhattacharya introduces us to another upper-caste, educated, single woman in Delhi, Vidya. For Vidya, Shah Rukh represents the sublime, something that cannot be clearly articulated or expressed, it must be experienced. He’s a talisman, in him she sees his triumph over the pedigreed actors. He’s symbolic of her own struggle– one that Bhattacharya is quick to explain is self-indulgent and somewhat imagined.
In Part Two of the book, Baazigar, Bhattacharya moves away from hyper-privileged female fans and focuses on two middle class women: an accountant and a flight attendant and for both of these women Bhattacharya reminds the reader that though these are professions that are often overlooked– both women are radicals. It’s here that Bhattacharya’s background as an economist really shines – she’s able to shine a direct light onto their lives by making sure that the readers knows that there’s data to back up how rare these women are: both women are single, both have broken from the traditional lives that were afforded to them, navigating their families, marriage proposals. They’re both gamblers– the flight attendant runs away from home– a massive gamble, modeling to make ends meet, and finally enrolling in school to become an air hostess for Air India. The accountant wages a quiet battle within her home to make sure that she can sit for accountancy exams, work in big city offices, and pushes back against the marriage proposals that keep coming her way.
Throughout these stories of these women and their fandom, Bhattacharya realizes that both women use fantasies and fandom of Shah Rukh Khan as substitutes for the real thing – both refuse to give up work, careers and independence as the obvious price for love and conformity. And woven throughout are plots of Khan’s movies, lyrics from his songs, quotes from his interviews: it’s in these details that the book really shines. Women don’t just talk about Shah Rukh Khan as an object of affection, they focus on the details he brings to his characters. The flight attendant obsesses over how much attention Khan plays to the neck and shoulders of his female co-leads. The accountant rewatches Om Shanti Om for Khan’s dialogue which offer her hope and consolation.
In Part Three of the book, titled Work From Home, Bhattacharya writes about the fandom of women in households at or below the poverty lines. She’s tasked with surveying these women for her job at a think-tank. In between her survey questions, to break up the monotony of the interviews, Bhattacharya would often fall back onto Bollywood to help forge connections, asking them about their favorite Bollywood stars. Once, she asked a Khan fan just what it was about him that they loved so much. “There’s no major reason,” answered one of the women, Zahira, who lives and works in Bapunagar. But Zahira goes on to elaborate a pretty major reason for their fandom: it’s because of how he speaks to and treats women. There’s love and respect. It’s the way he looks at his heroine. For Zahira, who married at sixteen and gave birth at seventeen, and left her alcoholic husband, that kind of tenderness counts for quite a lot.
It’s in part three of this book that Bhattacharya introduces the reader to my favorite of Shah Rukh Khan’s fans – pseudonomimized Manju, a young Muslim woman from Uttar Pradesh, who discovers Khan on monthly trips her working mother takes to Bareilly, where she meets her mother’s boss’s daughter, a mega fan, with whom she’s able to watch movies. Manju eventually begins hosting viewing parties in her own town, inviting women to watch popular Shah Rukh Khan movies. It’s these movies that teaches Manju that there’s a whole world of men out there, that there’s a world outside of her village. Manju runs away from her arranged marriage, takes a job in a Noida garment factory, before eventually returning to her husband.
It’s also in this section that I realized just how much Bollywood captures the imagination and interest of young women. A young woman from Jharkhand, Lily, while watching Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, watches Shah Rukh Khan serenade as she cooks his meals. For her, a man who’s so happy about female domestic labor, who doesn’t take it for granted, is unlike anything she’s experienced before.
Bhattacharya writes that she realizes that these stories may disappoint, as they don’t recount any large political or socially radical changes that are happening– many are resistant to participate in organized movements against the patriarchy. Instead, “they simply yearn for marital bliss and fantasize about a more meaningful relationship with the men in their lives.” Their reasons for loving Khan, for using his myth and the roles he’s played, diverse as they may be, have helped create a sense of self and identity for themselves. “Through watching Shah Rukh and his fan-women, I’ve seen how his films and celebrity despise flirtations with toxicity and radiation bolster man ordinary women’s appetite for love and dignity,” Bhattacharya explains.
This is not a book about Shah Rukh Khan. But it’s a book about how women see men, which men capture our imagination, and about the public and private revolutions women in India are having. Shah Rukh Khan helps these women speak clearly and evocatively about their own desires. The book is a riveting read, partially because Bhattacharya inserts herself and her own voice with such a sharp and astute understanding of her own place within these worlds. It’s made better because of the way that she contextualizes these women within India, using employment data, history, and carefully drawn analyses of the worlds they inhibit. Shah Rukh Khan fans will love the book, there’s enough of him layered throughout the book that even a superfan will learn something, but it’s a book that should be read by anyone hoping to understand the ways in which patriarchy acts as a force, about the limits of large scale change, and to understand the economy, which “is nothing but our moods and relationships, which define who produces and transacts what.”
Mariya Karimjee is a freelance writer. All information and facts provided are the sole responsibility of the writer.