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Photo: Hugo Ribadeau Dumas, 2017

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The Empowering King of Bollywood

About: Shrayana Bhattacharya, Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence, Harper Collins


by Hugo Ribadeau Dumas , 14 February



Shah Rukh Khan, one of the most celebrated Bollywood actors, has contributed to shape the sense of respect, intimacy, and independence of generations of Indian women across boundaries of caste, class and religion. Adoring a film star could actually prove to be an empowering experience.

In India, certain English-speaking cultural elites have a tendency to snub mainstream Hindi cinema, which they view as too crass, too predictable and – often for good reasons – too regressive. Abroad, the image of Indian cinema is not much better; exoticized and ridiculed, « Bollywood » is caricatured as a visual carnival, jammed with blazing colours, lacrimal fluids and dance moves. However, as goes megastar Shah Rukh Khan’s classic one-liner (Om Shanti Om, 2007), ‘picture abhi baaki hai, mere dost’ – “the movie isn’t over yet, my friend”, and Hindi cinema still has much more to say.

This is exactly what Shrayana Bhattacharya argues in Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence (2021, Harper Collins). In case you never heard about Shah Rukh Khan, you may want to update your cinematographic knowledge, for he is an absolute icon for a good share of humanity. With his signature open arms, his unabashed over-acting, and his characteristic energy-loaded elocution, King Khan arguably became the most venerated Hindi actor over the past three decades. Born in 1965 in New Delhi, he has appeared in more than 80 Hindi movies and became in the process one of the most eminent Indian faces across the globe. In 2021, a quantitative survey identified Shah Rukh Khan as the “world’s most in-demand actor”.

Bhattacharya’s book contends that Shah Rukh Khan’s filmography has offered a precious refuge to a wide range of Indian women, who found in his movies a space to breed individual aspirations for a better, more equal society. This claim could be unsettling for many readers since Shah Rukh Khan’s greater-than-life romances on the big screen are famous for being shamelessly kitsch and “gloriously impractical” (p. 391).

Yet, as the author puts it, “the idea that mass masala or romance films do not provoke introspection or thought because they do not conform to Western aesthetic does or are not gritty depictions of ‘issues’ is just straight-up condescending and inaccurate” (p393). Under the witty prose of Bhattacharya, Hindi cinema – known for effectively objectifying women, glamourising harassment and even normalising rape – reveals its potential as a vehicle for empowerment.

Stories of love, feminine struggle and non-radical social change

Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna - Full Song | Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge | Shah Rukh Khan | Kajol

Although film studies are useful to deconstruct the messages and the significance of movies, they rarely give evidence of their actual impact on the masses. Filling the gap, this book analyses what Shah Rukh Khan has done to a whole generation of women. However, here, Shah Rukh Khan is not the star of the show: the narration actually focuses on the women who love him.

Bhattacharya draws the portrait of ten fan-women hailing from contrasting backgrounds, such as an aristocrat, a charted accountant and a home-based informal worker. As we navigate through their lives, and particularly their love lives, the author attempts to answer the following question: despite wildly different lifestyles, aspirations and challenges, what unites all these women in their adoration for Shah Rukh Khan?

In their own way, all the characters of the book deviated from the classic womanhood script prescribed by society. For example, one woman sacrificed marriage prospects to prioritise her career, another one engaged in the ruthless dating market at the risk of repeated disillusions, and several of them separated temporarily or permanently from their family to nurture independence. These stories, which we follow chronologically on the same timeline as Shah Rukh Khan’s blockbusters, are not about ‘smashing patriarchy’, a radical slogan Bhattacharya rejects. Instead, they are narratives of slow, unspectacular, but genuine social change.

Shah Rukh Khan: a champion for women’s agency?

These life choices often came with a hefty price: loneliness. The book argues that being lonely, even when surrounded by an army of kins, is a recurrent condition in the life of Indian women. In the light of this harsh and gloomy reality, Shah Rukh Khan came as a respite, a cathartic escape, a ray of hope. For, in the galaxy of Hindi cinema, SRK stands out. In most of his movies, not only he excels in romance, but his main weapons of seduction are not his muscles or his bravado: instead, he shows vulnerability, listens to women and accommodates their desires.

Of course, Shah Rukh Khan’s love affairs are famously unrealistic. But this is not the point. What really matters is how he looks at his female partners in the movies and, indirectly, at his female viewers. Bhattacharya’s claims are confirmed by data. As part of my own research (yet to be published), I found out, with the help of computational methods based on Artificial Intelligence, that movies starring Shah Rukh Khan tended to give more space on screen to female characters, as compared to films with other stars like Salman Khan, Aamir Khan or Akshay Kumar.

Fan-women are not naive. They are fully aware that the compassionate and sensitive gentleman played by Shah Rukh Khan is a fictional creation. In fact, precisely, the contrast between the screen and the street, between the romantic dream experienced by heroines and their own disappointments, is what fuels their resentment against the prevailing system and lifts their desire to aspire for something else. That way, Shah Rukh Khan became, for many women, a companion in their daily struggles and an encouragement to pretend to more agency.

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Photo: Hugo Ribadeau Dumas, 2017

A ‘female-gaze’ on the economy

Bhattacharya is an economist, trained at Delhi University and Harvard, currently working for the World Bank. During more than a decade, the researcher carried repeated in-depth interviews with Shah Rukh Khan fans she met through her work, her circle of acquaintances or serendipitous encounters. Her detailed ethnographic analysis is systematically peppered up with valuable econometric insights – her specialty – to put observations from the ground in perspective with the bigger picture. The unembarrassed multidisciplinary approach of the book, borrowing with equal ease from sociology, anthropology and popular culture, results in a very refreshing comment on Indian society.

Yet the author is not just an observer. She is also a full-fledged character of the book, in the sense that she is herself mad about Shah Rukh Khan. The book is very intimate and includes poignant sections about the author’s own battles with loneliness and the rigidity of social conventions. And while she is an unapologetic fan, she is not a blind one. She for instance acknowledges the darker sides of the actor, from his earlier contribution in normalising toxic courtship culture (like in Darr, 1993) to his most recent macho avatars (as in Chennai Express, 2013).

A strong contribution in the theorization of fandom and the politics of intimacy

The author’s own passion for the actor is never detrimental to her argument; it reinforces it. Probably the greatest academic contribution of this book is the reflection on fandom. Bhattacharya argues that adoring a film star is not a childish, frivolous indulgence, but a meaningful social and economic activity. Watching movies and following the updates of an actor requires free-time, money, mobility, and even the permission from relatives – it is therefore not a hobby accessible to all. Additionally, embracing fandom entails acknowledging one’s feelings, and sometimes even sexual temptation, which many women have not been socialised to celebrate. Therefore, for certain individuals, a task as simple as performing fandom can be life-altering. This argument echoes the work of S. Phadke, S. Ranade and S. Khan, who recognized the basic act of loitering in the streets as being potentially revolutionary for women (Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, Penguin Random House, 2011).

More generally, this book is a case in favour of a more systematic investigation of the economy of emotions and the politics of intimacy. The author believes that data is not sufficient to explain economic phenomena, as there is often a wide array of emotions hidden behind statistics. She gives the example of the decline in female employment rates in India, which cannot be fully comprehended without paying attention to the emotional charge attached with working outside home for a woman. Overall, Bhattacharya contends that social transformation is, to a large extent, a process occurring at an inter-personal, intimate level. This position could be put in parallel with the reflections by A. Blom and S. Tawa Lama-Rewal, who underscored the importance of integrating emotions in the analysis of political movements (Emotions, Mobilisations and South Asian Politics, Routledge, 2020).

Going further in the understanding of fandom

In addition to secondary data and first-hand testimonies, the book also relies on the contribution of established experts, like economists Naila Kabeer and Jean Drèze. Maybe it could have been illuminating to collect more views from those who participated in manufacturing the Shah Rukh Khan myth. Although the man himself should be credited for his aura and vision, there is also probably a large team of producers, directors, writers and advisors who may have participated in forging his scripted persona. According to which processes does a cultural symbol such as Shah Rukh Khan come into being? How much of the contours of fandom is consciously crafted by media professionals, and how much happens by accident? Of course, these questions go way beyond the scope of the book.

Likewise, while the ‘female gaze’ Bhattacharya sets on Shah Rukh Khan is precious, it could be also beneficial to carry similar research on his male fan club, which the author actually suggests in the conclusion. Do these men like him for the same reasons than women? Could Shah Rukh Khan’s ways have positively influenced their own understanding of gender dynamics, or – like Salman Khan’s devotees – are they more attracted by his most virile attributes? Similarly, as Shah Rukh Khan is an international phenomenon, does Shah Rukh Khan holds a different meaning for his numerous fans living in Pakistan, Bangladesh or, say, Egypt or Germany? Such additional studies could enrich the conceptualisation of fandom initiated by the author.

What future for the national monument that is Shah Rukh Khan?

In October 2021, as the present book was about to be released, the actor was dragged into a chaotic sequence of events. His 24-year-old son, Aryan Khan, was arrested by the Narcotic Control Bureau under the accusation of carrying drugs. He was finally released from police custody after 25 days, due to a dearth of evidence. In the end, the dramatization of his arrest, as well as the tone of the coverage by right-wing media, gave the odd impression that the actor himself was targeted. And along with him, the symbol he represents. Indeed, Shah Rukh Khan hails from a Muslim background; in a country where religious nationalism is becoming increasingly divisive, this detail is far from being anecdotical.

Shah Rukh Khan never personally assumed the role of icon of India’s diversity – many liberals and Muslims actually hold grudge against him for remaining silent at the time of rising intolerance. Yet, the fact that he, a Muslim, has garnered so much love in India and abroad vigorously upsets the narrow definition of Indianness which has gained growing acceptance in the last few years. In this context, more than ever, the affection fans have developed for Shah Rukh Khan definitely holds importance –for Indian women indeed, and for India in general.

Shrayana Bhattacharya, Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence, Harper Collins 2021.

by Hugo Ribadeau Dumas, 14 February

Further reading

To go further
Four recent Hindi movies with different perspectives on love in India:
Love & Shukla, by Jatla Siddartha (2017). On the challenges of performing love in the environment of a crowded low-income locality.
Sir, by Rohena Gera (2018). On inter-class love.
Once Again, by Kanwal Sethi (2018). On love after a certain age.
Geeli Pucchi, by Neeraj Ghaywan, part of the anthology film Ajeeb Daastaans (2021). On inter-caste and same-sex love.

To quote this article :

Hugo Ribadeau Dumas, « The Empowering King of Bollywood », Books and Ideas , 14 February 2022. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : https://booksandideas.net/The-Empowering-King-of-Bollywood.html

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