Interview by J. Shruti
Edited excerpts from the conversation…
Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh repeatedly compounds the actor’s singular space in Indian cinema in his role in catering to female desire. When did you become a Shah Rukh Khan fan, and at what point did your arguments about how that desire cuts across class and caste lines become apparent to you?
I am a very banal Shah Rukh Khan fan. I mean, I am a kid born in the early 1980s. There is an entire generation of English-speaking elite fans, and that’s the community I belong to. Shah Rukh was basically our [generation’s] first big matinee idol and superstar. Because of the post-liberalisation boom in telecommunications and satellite television, we could watch his interviews any time. He was easily accessible to us beyond just the movies. And I think a fan was born through those interactions – the films as well as the interviews.
As for the book and the idea of exploring fandom, I was in my early twenties in 2006, and at that time I had studied gender and economics. I was working for the Institute of Social Studies Trust, a feminist think tank, and we decided to do a project on the wages and working conditions of women in the informal sector. These women were working from home in very harsh economic circumstances – making incense sticks or garments at home and earning about a quarter of the minimum wage in India. I was sent there with a survey questionnaire, and I was supposed to fill it up with how much money these women made, what their economic challenges were, and so on. Quite unexpectedly, when I went to my first field site to start the survey, I realised that these women were excruciatingly bored with my questions because they were dealing with their own economic realities – many of them were organising and fighting with their employers to improve their wages; in some cases, they were also part of unions. As an icebreaker, I would ask women all the time, “Who is your favourite actor?” And everywhere I went, I met Shah Rukh Khan fans unsurprisingly, given the power of his icon.
There were two things that emerged. One was, everybody kept saying “Have you seen the way he speaks to women?”, and words like “izzat” and “tameez” kept coming up, along with different local idioms for respect and love. I started to probe – the process of which lasted for 15 years – talking to them whenever Mr. Khan had a release, which was around festival season usually. I also went back and measured the number of times women speak in Mr. Khan’s films and, unsurprisingly, our findings revealed that they speak a lot more in his movies than they do in many other kinds of cinema. It wasn’t difficult to put two and two together…. In a country where women are always scrutinised and silenced, a man, a popular icon, who is constantly talking to women, engaging with women, crying in front of women, is open with his feelings in front of women; it really isn’t that surprising that he is the one who will capture all our imagination – across classes.
While the various ways women engage with him are different across class, caste, region and language – this was one enduring characteristic – when they were telling me how they loved Shah Rukh, they were speaking to a crisis of masculinity. This notion of love is very much tied – at least for the women I was speaking to, and most of them come from fairly heteronormative understandings of love, sex and marriage – to the wounded, insecure masculine that many of these women were dealing with in their real lives. So, they turned to fantasy, and to Mr. Khan, who provided an ideal of a very different kind of a man. So, while I was a banal fan earlier, it is through these conversations in the last 15 years that my fandom for him has exponentially grown because now when I see him, I think of all these conversations I have had with these women. It’s a very different charge that his icon holds – at least for me.
In your book, you talk about how Shah Rukh Khan’s apparent upward mobility with regard to class has become a focal point of attraction for women across class and caste divides. They find this trajectory aspirational and, as they consume his experience through interviews, many of them feel seen by the economic nature of the compromises Shah Rukh Khan had had to make in his early life before he became a multimillionaire.
“Does economics play a role in love?” I think that’s fundamentally what you are asking me. I have two responses to that: what does love have to do with economics, and what does the economy have to do with love? One, in a country where women’s personal ambitions are constantly being stymied – we have one of the highest unemployment rates in the world for women which, far from changing, dramatically increased in the past 30 years, and employment has, in fact, collapsed in rural areas – they do look up to a star who is successful. But, I think what they are looking up to is how they feel when they hear him talk about women in the workplace. There is a tremendous charge that film stars’ utterances hold in India. For a girl growing up, for example, in the slums of Ahmedabad, hearing a superstar talking about women needing toilets in public spaces means something – he was actively talking about women’s sanitation issues in the late ’90s and early 2000s before it became trendy to talk about feminism. Apparently, he did invest in these mechanisms as well, and, I think, for a young girl to hear a man who is a superstar – who is very successful – talk about issues that are actually stymieing her ability to go and study, that is what she would admire, much more than the money that he makes or even the success that he has.
The second issue is the huge gender imbalance which translates into women’s economic rights being compromised – mostly because we have limited access to public space. So, where women are socialised to depend on men, then many women also want a man who is dependable. Beyond real life, Shah Rukh also played that role in his films. If you look at the characters he has played, he has played a lover women can depend on – he will care for you, and that gives you a sense of security. In a country which makes women feel insecure all the time, to fantasise about an actor who offers security, even if it is a fantasy, it is very special.
If we think about what economics has to do with love, of course the economy shapes our desires, our ability to actuate our desires, to meet potential mates. You can meet potential boyfriends through offices or workspaces – and for women who can’t access offices or workspaces, the economy is severely compromising their ability to access romantic freedom, and the two are very closely interlinked. So, by articulating some of the structural reasons which make it hard for women to occupy public spaces and exercise their economic muscle, Shah Rukh offers them a promise of safety, dependability, love and security – even if it is completely fantastical.
Your research grounds the power dynamics that exist in romantic equations by citing different conditions set by lovers in relationships based on economic privilege. We think of romantic love through a rose-tinted lens, where the narrative is capable of eliminating any barrier as long as it is “true” enough. What are some of the limits on romantic love that you have come across in your research and reporting?
We live in a world where we have a deeply capitalistic notion of how we relate to each other. “I love you, if you take care of me”, “I love you if your waist size is 28”. This is how we approach romantic desire and, in that sense, love has become a transaction. And if you look at the stories in the book, each of the women is revolting against this in her own way. This is why I find studying fandom very interesting – none of us knows Shah Rukh Khan, and we never will. I hope to [laughs], but we never will. [Bhattacharya recently got to meet the actor at Mannat, his home, where he now keeps a copy of her book]. And there is no transactional component here because many of the women who love him can’t even afford to watch his films, so it’s not like they are even transacting at that level. And the reason that they love him is that they have projected various parts of their reality on to him – their hopes, their frustrations – and so on.
In this transactional culture of love, there are societal limits to romantic freedom – and this is especially true for our country where women’s sexuality is heavily guarded because of notions of caste purity. Because love mediates a family standing, who a woman loves and who she cares for will further the future and honour of her family – and I think that is the way families think about love, sadly. Even in 2021, a survey found that Indian families do not want their women to marry outside the caste boundaries. And if you look at men, currently the script of masculinity is such that your status is related to the number of partners, the bodies of your partners, and how closely your partner’s face resembles what you see in popular media. There is a script of sexual accumulation that men seem to subscribe to – much more than women – and there seems to be no limit to that sexual accumulation when it comes to their romantic freedom. You can see how much mental health crisis love is generating in a lot of young women, who feel bad about their bodies and themselves. I also think that men, too, are feeling bad about themselves, by subscribing to this transactional notion of romance, which is why they are behaving this way.
Going back to your experiences, you mention your dynamic with “The One”, a man who comes from enormous socio-economic privilege and accumulated ancestral wealth. It seems like even though you understood the shortcomings of that relationship while you were still in it, something held you back from acting on that realisation. It is the same kind of helplessness that runs across many of these stories, where the temptation to stay in a relationship sometimes feels greater than the need for self-preservation because of either conditioning or incapacitation due to economic circumstances, or both?
There are two things – anthropologists have talked about the northern belt of India, the Middle East and parts of North Africa, and they call them “classical patriarchy belts”. And what they say is that women have limited access to sheer survival in these belts because physical space is so unsafe for women, assets are not granted and guaranteed for women, and their ability to just live on their own is not possible. They rely on men and marriage to a large extent to earn material security, emotional security as well as mere survival. In these contexts – which are so socially and economically lopsided against women – the notion of love becomes an act of self-preservation. And we keep saying this in South Asia, and there are jokes about how girls always “settle”. But, we are told to settle fundamentally because of fear. Even our loved ones, our mothers and fathers, are worried about whether their daughter will be able to survive on her own, economically speaking. Even for elite women living in metropolitan cities in India, being a single woman is very tough in terms of the taxes that society imposes on you. So, “settling” for marriage becomes an act of self-preservation – in the latter’s case you might sacrifice the idea of love as well.
One of the women in my book is an extremely posh Rajput woman whose father is in heavy debt, and she decides to marry a man who is extremely well off because, in a way, marriage is insurance – it is a debt-recovery instrument. She actually describes it as that, and it is really sad. When people have been reading the book, they have been telling me that reading that part makes them very uncomfortable. She gave up on notions of love because she realised she needed to make sure her family was okay. She negotiates a kind of self-love for herself within the marriage when she ends up creating her own space. So, even in these oppressive circumstances, you can find love for yourself. I think the one thing that the women in my book seem to be doing is that they are all trying to love themselves even if they did not find traditional, heteronormative love – the ideal mate that Shah Rukh’s fantasy represents – and the one thing that I realised through the book is how difficult the family, society, institutions and our government make it for women to just love themselves. I will give you an example. If you wanted to express love for yourself by finding a nice house for yourself, a one-room flat, which you would do up the way you want to, and you find joy in decorating it and creating a nest for yourself, the question becomes this: how many women in our country can afford to find a house on our own, or even a single-room flat, and feel safe in doing so, feel secure in doing so, not receive social sanction and censure in doing so? To me, that’s a beautiful illustration of how our structures right now, be it financial or governmental institutions, make it so difficult for women to just love themselves.
Many of the women in my book choose to love themselves by watching an actor because it gives them pleasure. They want to watch Shah Rukh Khan because it’s fun for them. It is a great way of expressing love for yourself – having fun. Women are judged constantly for having fun! All the women told me, “If I just go and watch a movie on my own, my family will think I am being selfish.” This is a country where we should remember that 6 out of 10 people in a cinema hall are men, women don’t go on their own. Even when you have to go to a beauty parlour, you have to negotiate so much. I believe, therefore, that the ultimate privilege in this country is taking time out for yourself, to just do something for yourself without any social pressure. And those acts of self-love are so difficult for women to express. Self-love is self-preservation – that is your core self, trying to preserve what is beautiful and good about one’s spirit and self.
Frequently, in the interviews in Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, the underlying primal emotion that comes to the fore is loneliness. What is your opinion on Indian popular culture’s and society’s proclamation that romantic love is a singular way to assuage loneliness?
I don’t think romantic love is the only way to assuage loneliness. In fact, there are many routes: self-love, fun, fantasy, doing things on your own…. So many of the women in my book are doing things on their own for their own pleasure. That is the way to assuage loneliness. One of them was so hurt by a series of terrible love affairs which she had had, that she spent a substantial amount of time watching old documentaries of Shah Rukh, where he is doing interviews and speaking about his own loneliness – and that gave her a tremendous amount of pleasure. Those images were so meaningful to her that they almost brought her back to life.
The current mating market is designed to make you feel lonely. We all seem to approach it as individualistic agents without any sense of empathy for ourselves or clarity for our preferences: who do we want, what exactly do we want and, why do we want the people that we seem to want. I don’t think we have actually taken a step back to ask ourselves some of these questions. There is a cache that a certain kind of romantic love has, but that is completely connected, to my mind, with the transactional culture of the market and status. I know people who are seemingly perfect couples, but they are very lonely in their own marriages. Marriage and having a mate are no guarantees against loneliness. A man may love you or a woman may love you, but you may still feel very lonely. This culture tells you if you find a mate, you are sorted. It is rubbish. To me, fun, friendship, solidarity, work, art and solitude are the paths out of loneliness – not this candy floss, co-dependent nature of romantic love that our current market seems to be selling.
Watch the accompanying video, a part of our Instagram series on learning how to love, here.