“Romantically Ruined” by Shah Rukh Khan
PUBLISHED August 28, 2022
“My life has always been a heteronormative hell,” opens Shrayana Bhattacharya’s remarkable book Desperately Seeking Shahrukh: Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence. It’s a concise and fun phrase in what I had assumed was a socio-cultural commentary on masculinity and fandom. The book is that, but it also bends gender – incorporating an economic analysis of the loves and lives of women in India, weaving together sociological theories and lived realities, and putting into words the appeal of Shah Rukh Khan, dismantling his public persona. and gently suggesting the limits of what we can know about fame.
Instead of centering the movie star the book is apparently about, Bhattacharya begins by focusing on herself and her dating experience as an independent, English-speaking, upper-caste resident of Delhi. “Bruised and burned, I vacillate along the spectrum of a mundane romantic mania…Monogamy has felt like a fetishized rare commodity, making a committed relationship the most coveted contract.” Presenting monogamy as an economic enterprise, Bhattacharya recounts her romantic setbacks before plunging us back into the present: a virus has invaded the world, and suddenly she is no longer satisfied with her loneliness, “ready to live in equanimity with his celibacy. Instead, she struggles with loneliness, scheduling virtual dates with friends. And, writes Bhattacharya, in his darkest moments there is Shah Rukh Khan: “With arms wide open, promising the ultimate refuge in love and conjugality, but laughing at the deception of my filmic fantasies and expectations. His image constantly reminds me of the path I have traveled. Chronically dissatisfied with the men I keep trying to be worthy of. I’m tired, I’m disappointed and I’m desperate, but as I’ve learned over the past decade, I’m not alone either.
This is not a book about Shah Rukh Khan, warns Bhattacharya. This is a book about some of his female fans, who use the actor and his icon to talk about themselves. Bhattacharya, a devoted fan, is a knowledgeable 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 fan stories illustrate how Khan’s stardom frames conversations about inequality within families, workplaces and contemporary romances. The stories of these women are woven through the stories of these women, Bhattacharya’s own failures, his approach to dating, as well as ironic and sardonic comments about how patriarchy has affected his own life. The book, peppered with hard facts, amusing details and the very human desires of all the women she interviews, tells a story about modern India that is detailed, captivating and revealing.
“If you blossom late, or prioritize your studies, or come to town as a single woman and find yourself looking for a mate in your late twenties and thirties, Delhi shuts down about you,” writes Bhattacharya in the first section of the book, titled Fantasies. In this first section, she writes about her own love for Khan and writes about fans who thought they were being romantically ruined by Shah Rukh Khan, having invented the ideal man based on his public persona: his self-deprecating jokes in interviews, his devotion to his wife and family. It is in this Fantasies section that Bhattacharya introduces us to another single educated upper caste woman in Delhi, Vidya. For Vidya, Shah Rukh represents the sublime, something that cannot be clearly articulated or expressed, it must be experienced. He is a talisman, in him she sees her triumph over pedigree actors. He is symbolic of his own struggle – one which Bhattacharya is quick to explain is indulgent and somewhat imaginary.
In the second part of the book, Baazigar, Bhattacharya moves away from the hyper-privileged female fans and focuses on two middle class women: an accountant and a flight attendant and for these two women Bhattacharya reminds the reader that well whether these are professions that are often overlooked – both women are radical. It is here that Bhattacharya’s experience as an economist really shines – she is able to shine a direct light on their lives by ensuring that readers know there is data to back up the scarcity of these women: two women are single, both have broken away from the traditional lives offered to them, navigating their families, marriage proposals. They are both gamblers – the stewardess runs away from home – a huge gamble, modeling to make ends meet, and finally enrolling in school to become a flight attendant for Air India. The accountant fights a quiet battle at home to ensure she can pass accounting exams, work in big-city offices, and fend off the marriage proposals that keep coming her way.
Throughout these stories of these women and their fandom, Bhattacharya realizes that the two women are using the fantasies and fandom of Shah Rukh Khan as substitutes for reality – both refuse to give up work, careers and independence as the obvious price of love and conformity. And woven throughout are plots from Khan’s films, 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 stewardess is obsessed with the attention Khan gives to the neck and shoulders of his female co-leaders. The accountant reviews Om Shanti Om for Khan’s dialogue which offers him hope and consolation.
In the third part of the book, titled Work From Home, Bhattacharya writes about the fandom of women in households at or below the poverty line. She is assigned to investigate these women for her work in a think tank. In between his probing questions, to break up the monotony of the interviews, Bhattacharya would often fall back on Bollywood to help forge connections, asking them about their favorite Bollywood stars. She once asked a Khan fan what they loved about him so much. “There is no major reason,” replied one of the women, Zahira, who lives and works in Bapunagar. But Zahira goes on to explain a pretty big reason for their fandom: it’s because of the way he talks to and treats women. There is 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 means a lot.
It is in Part Three of this book that Bhattacharya introduces the reader to my fan favorite Shah Rukh Khan – pseudonymized 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 parents. the boss’s daughter, a mega fan, with whom she can watch movies. Manju eventually begins hosting viewing parties in his own town, inviting women to watch popular Shah Rukh Khan films. It is these films that teach Manju that there is a whole world of men out there, that there is a world outside his village. Manju runs away from her arranged marriage, takes a job in a garment factory in Noida, before finally returning to her husband.
It was also in this section that I realized 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 serenade Shah Rukh Khan as she cooks her meals. To her, a man who is so happy about female domestic work, who doesn’t take it for granted, is unlike anything she’s known before.
Bhattacharya writes that she realizes these stories can be disappointing, as they don’t tell of big, sweeping political or social changes taking place – many are reluctant to participate in organized movements against patriarchy. Instead, “they simply yearn for marital bliss and fantasize about a more meaningful relationship with the men in their lives.” Their reasons for liking Khan, using his mythos, and the roles he played, as diverse as they were, helped create a sense of self and identity for themselves. “Watching Shah Rukh and his fans, I saw how his films and celebrities despise flirtations with toxicity and radiation enhance ordinary women’s appetite for love and dignity,” says Bhattacharya.
This is not a book about Shah Rukh Khan. But it’s a book about how women see men, about the men who capture our imaginations, and about the public and private revolutions women are experiencing in India. Shah Rukh Khan helps these women speak clearly and evocatively about their own desires. The book is a fascinating read, in part because Bhattacharya inserts herself and her own voice with such a sharp and shrewd understanding of her own place in these worlds. It’s made better by the way she contextualizes these women in India, using employment data, history and carefully drawn analyzes of the worlds they inhibit. Fans of Shah Rukh Khan will love the book, there’s enough of him layered throughout that even a superfan can learn something, but it’s a book that should be read by anyone hoping to understand the way whose patriarchy acts as a force, on the limits of large-scale change, and to understand the economy, which “is nothing but our moods and our relationships, which define who produces and does what”.
Mariya Karimjee is a freelance writer. All information and facts provided are the sole responsibility of the author.