This past month has been both incredibly damaging but also deeply edifying to the myth of Shah Rukh Khan, with the arrest and bail hearings of his son. I say 'myth' looking at the language people have employed in his defense, the prose they have put forward, the poetry they have sublimated, then translated, snowballing in gleeful virality, and the magazine editions they have commissioned with essays saying nothing and everything about Shah Rukh.
But the collective image they conjured was certainly not of a human being. Like the platitudes of a farewell message or a eulogy, they were comforting but also trite, as if they were describing a film character, injected with our aspirations, dusted off the rough edges, and the clear contradictions. Perhaps we don't care that he is a human. That he is Shah Rukh Khan is enough.
Economist Shrayana Bhattacharya in her fascinating book Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India's Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence (Harper Collins, Rs 562), her love letter to both Shah Rukh — not Shah Rukh Khan, not SRK, but Shah Rukh, an invitation to intimacy — and women, calls him "the receptacle of so many of our expectations". Often, she capitalizes the H in He when referring to him, both aware of and buying into his god-like stardom.
That Shah Rukh Khan is a myth is something even he acknowledges. He described himself in a 2019 interview with the American comedian David Letterman as "an employee of the myth of Shah Rukh Khan". It is why he stands, perched on Mannat — his sea-facing house in Bandra, and also, literally, the aspirations he arouses from his fans — waving at the audience who throng and wait outside with bands of musicians and guttural slogans. The tourists mull about, selfies are taken, and the police are present for crowd control on his birthday and special occasions. (Today, on his birthday, an imposter came pretending to be Shah Rukh, poised over the sunroof of a car, while Shah Rukh is in Alibaug with his family.) But, with all this fanfare, is it possible to extract the human from the myth? No? The alternative, which is what Bhattacharya does here, is then to contextualize that myth.
She notes that over the decades she has come and visited Mannat — "a middle-class monument" — now it is mostly men who are there, crowding cheek by jowl, despite his fan base being mostly women. But this is not surprising because much like the theaters, crowded public spaces are often taboo to women, given the potential for harassment and the hurdles one has to encounter at home to be allowed to participate in public.
In 2017, for example, 60% of the audience members at an Indian cinema hall were men. Even in Mumbai, the single screen theaters are often bastions of male assertion. Most of the women Bhattacharya speaks to — from small towns, villages, big cities, the metropolis — were often dictated to never visit the theater. When they did so secretly, they were punished, slapped. It was an unsafe place, unbecoming of a woman. And yet, Shah Rukh emerged in their lives, "divided by class, united by fandom", with pirated copies and music cassettes of his films, the television revolution that brought his cinema into the house, and later the internet, which would bring the entire archive of his films and interviews under the access of a thumb swipe. You could enter his name into Google and the wormhole is yours to endure and sift through. (The most fascinating factoid of fandom in this book, but also least delved into, are the places where the share of Shah Rukh's searches are the highest — Siliguri, Andaman and Nicbar. Then, there is Coimbatore, one of only three cities in India where there are more Shah Rukh than Salman Khan searches.)
"If a man likes Shah Rukh, he is usually progressive. If a man likes Salman, he is bad news. If a man likes Aamir, he's often a bearded liberal who likes his own voice too much. My test rarely fails." – A fan Bhattacharya spoke to
But Bhattacharya is clear that while he elicits female fandom, he isn't a feminist icon. The characters he plays often champion noxious ideas of entitlement or dated pursuits of love. But his unthreatening gait, his inviting charm, and his interviews where he champions his wife paint an aura of the masculine ideal. Many women speak of wanting a man like Shah Rukh. Sometimes they mean Shah Rukh, the person — an outsider who made it big without any connections. Sometimes they mean his characters — "fragile figures" with some, like Raj from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, "[offering] private moments of emotional support to women". Despite championing patriarchal ideas, he also cooked in the kitchen in DDLJ, the fans argued. That was enough to elicit desire, or aspiration, or solace, or distraction, "While he isn't a feminist icon, he is certainly a female one."
Even by measuring the screen time given to the men as compared to the women in his films, Bhattacharya notes how there is more space and time for women in his cinematic universe compared to his contemporaries. The percentage share of dialogues for women ranges from 27% in Karan Arjun and 38% in Chennai Express to 57% in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and 60% in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Bahubali is 28%, Bajrangi Bhaijan is 20%, and Dangal is 31%.
Reading Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, I often felt like I was reading two different, often unconnected books — one on the condition of women in the labour market, and the other, about how these women relate to, aspire towards, or seek solace from Shah Rukh. This duality is made apparent from the epigraph itself, which has a quote from Shah Rukh about fantasies and the World Economic Forum about the gender gap. How do these two worlds cohere? Mostly, they don't.
The women Bhattacharya speaks to — 80 in-depth interviews across Delhi, Bhopal, Chandigarh, Lucknow, Raipur, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Patna — to springboard from and describe the labour market, are also fans of Shah Rukh Khan.
The book on the labour market is cutting, precise, laden with statistics, and then counter-statistics to doubts you might and will have; the kind of careful defensiveness that comes from being surrounded by skeptics. Bhattacharya notes that the labour force participation of women has dropped despite the economic boom. The numbers are shocking. Between 2004 and 2011, while the economy was growing at around 7%, the share of women in the labour force fell to 33%, and thereon even further. In 2017, it hit a historic low of 23.3%. The pandemic further pushed this decline. India is the only middle-income country where economic growth and poverty reduction has not led to more women working outside of their home. India is placed among the bottom 5 countries on gender gap in economic participation. Unsurprisingly, India is also in the bottom five when it comes to the share of men helping with housework. But this isn't just an economic problem. It is a problem of social conditioning, for even among the wealthiest top twenty percent of urbans Indians between the ages of 20 and 55, only 6% of married women were employed.
But how does this connect to Shah Rukh? The women Bhattacharya speaks to — 80 in-depth interviews across Delhi, Bhopal, Chandigarh, Lucknow, Raipur, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Patna — to springboard from and describe the labour market, are also fans of Shah Rukh Khan. The tether, as one can imagine, between the labour market and the Shah Rukh fandom, is very thin.
It is this part of the book, on Shah Rukh's fandom, that feels awkward and repetitive in its insistence on profundity. The insights are shaky, like throwing ideas at a wall, hoping something will stick. She uses the famous "Shah Rukh or Salman?" question as an icebreaker, and has met many a fan through this. Some of them are confused by her prodding. What was she looking for within a fandom? Did it need a 400-page book? Often Shah Rukh emerges only on the edges of their story, unimportant, but dressed up to feel central.
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There is, however, a lovely, moving stretch where Bhattacharya describes how home-based embroidery workers in Rampur came together to start a "fund for fun", to pool money to rent Shah Rukh movies that can be watched by all the women in the safety of a home, for they weren't allowed to go to theaters, "Once every few months, the women of [the] village came together to smile at Shah Rukh." She also notes how so many of the women she spoke to were disappointed by his move towards action movies in the 2010s. Who was he becoming? They wanted their romantic star. But was it just that? Or was attraction towards him a marker of something greater, signaling a moral code?
One of the fans Bhattacharya interviews, facetiously, but also, perhaps, correctly, developed a test to detect misogyny in Indian men using the fandom they belong to, "If a man likes Shah Rukh, he is usually progressive. If a man likes Salman, he is bad news. If a man likes Aamir, he's often a bearded liberal who likes his own voice too much. My test rarely fails."