“Why are you so fond of Shah Rukh Khan?”
Recently, I asked a few of my friends about Bollywood’s superstar. It was a new question that they hadn’t considered before. But I didn’t know either. A new book called Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh made me curious.
He was described as “charming”, “relatable” as an actor, “funny”, sarcastic, and “candid” during interviews. And he is “unapologetic” about his quest for fame and fortune. They reflected on the different roles that he had played and remarked how he wasn’t a “macho” man but was sensitive to the needs of the women he loved.
“It’s true! He is loved for his love for women! One of my best friends said this, and was surprised by her realization.
This is what Shrayana Bhattacharya, author, found out when she asked the exact same question to dozens more women who were all Khan fans.
Surprisingly, however, his stories about female fans are in fact a story of economic inequality.
“In telling you about their decision to turn to Shah Rukh they’re telling me when, where, and how they did it,” says Ms Bhattacharya. This exposes the fantasies, worries, and misfortunes that women have to make when they love someone in a world that puts them in an ever-changing disadvantage.
It is not a rush survey. The survey covers nearly 20 years of friendships, discussions, and interactions with single women, married, or some combination thereof, in northern India. They can be Hindu, Muslim or Christian and are happy homemakers as well contented and dissatisfied working women. Only their love can unite them.
Khan, Coca-Cola, and cable TV were all part of the new India, which was a period of unprecedented economic reforms that opened India up to the rest of the world. This is what we refer to as liberalization.
“I wanted to tell a story of those ‘post-liberalisation’ women and I found in Khan an unusual ally,” Ms Bhattacharya says. You can see how.
When she visited incense stick producers in an Indian urban slum, in 2006, she discovered that they were getting bored of asking about their salaries. In a break she began to talk with them about their favorite Bollywood actor.
They were more excited to talk about their delights and Shah Rukh was what they loved.
This became an icebreaker during subsequent surveys. Ms Bhattacharya soon discovered that the women were not only united by Khan, but also by “an unequal labour market” and personal struggles. That was the case even for wealthy and middle-class women.
Why aren’t boys and men more like Shah Rukh? This was the common refrain. “They are building him. He is all being made up. It’s based on reality and dreams,” says Ms Bhattacharya.
Khan’s complete devotion to his heroine was a sign that he would listen and pay attention to women. Khan’s anxiety over his future, which was a key feature in many roles made him an excellent partner for women, whose lives rarely are their own. Khan, who was an openly vulnerable man and was often a messy crier (a rare Bollywood gentleman) meant that he never hesitated to express his feelings for them.
I wish that someone would talk or touch me as much as he did with Kajol, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. But it’s not going to happen. A young Muslim worker in garment manufacturing says that her husband is so moody and hard on his hands.
This rich and unhappyly married daughter of the former monarchs stated that her goal was to raise her sons as “good men.” They “can cry” and can make wives feel secure and loved, according to her definition.
They aren’t just gushing fangirls blind to Khans other problematic roles which include stalking and violence.
Instead, they have a critical look. These films were not approved of by them and they have stated so.
They didn’t remember the drama or glamour – even though they enjoyed it – but those seemingly small moments.
Dilwale Dulhaniya was Khan’s best-known hit, and perhaps Bollywood’s most loved romance. However, the mother to a fan girl noticed something unique: “It’s the first time that the hero had ever been seen peeling a carrot in film. He also spent so much time spending time with his household women.”
That was to her, incredibly romantic. These women spoke not of sexual desire or lust, although that was to be expected.
Khan was an escape from everyday life, or a relief from suffering and heartbreak. They wanted him to be their husband not just because he was a Bollywood actor, but because his considerate nature made him a desirable choice. Being considerate would allow you to work and save money or even let your dreams come true – even though it meant taking you to the movie hall to catch the Shah Rukh-starrer.
His female supporters include the bureaucrat, whose mother beat her, who sneaked off to Khan films as a teenager; the young woman who worked in garment production and had to pay her brothers hard-earned cash to get Khan’s latest movie on big screen; the housekeeper who told her priest she would skip Sunday mass four times to go to Khan’s film screenings on TV. The simple pleasure of seeing a film on TV is something that many women love.
His poorer followers tended to not watch a movie until later in life and instead relied on the songs of others for their entertainment. Even that is something to be ashamed of.
“It is extremely hard for women to have fun. – Listen to a song, star-gaze to an actor.” Ms Bhattacharya said. When a woman claims she loves an actor, it means she admires how a man appears and is likely to be judged.
Ms Bhattacharya wrote that although these women were not radicals but rebelled in search of these small pleasures. He posted posters on their beds, so they rebelled. They also listened to and danced to his music and watched his movies. Eventually, they realized what life was all about.
One example is that the bureaucrat wanted her freedom and didn’t want to be asked for permission to see a Khan film again. After a sneaky trip to Khan cinema to see a film, a young girl ran from her home. A hurriedly organized match was made with a man who wasn’t a fan of Khan films and was unhappy about the fact she was. After Khan’s death, she became a flight attendant. She then married Khan.
Khan was not a forbidden promise for me and my friends, whose privilege afforded us far more freedom. Before I started this book, I didn’t fully appreciate the silent rebellion of my aunt and mother who enjoyed the trip to the movies almost every Friday night. I was the one who went along and didn’t realize my luck.
He is still a thread connecting our diverse childhoods. One of the women claimed Khan helped her learn better English by giving interviews. He taught me Hindi.
Ms Bhattacharya said that he was also an icon in his day – although a lot has happened since then.
The younger women aren’t interested in marrying Khan; they want him to be their husband – they want his independence and success.”
Harper Collins India publishes Shrayana Bhattacharya’s Desperately Searching Shah Rukh. India’s Young Single Women and The Search for Intimacy, Independence
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