It took Shrayana Bhattacharya a long time to realise that she was in a relationship with a man who would never see her as an equal. This phenomenon, she soon discovered, was suffocatingly widespread. Independent, feminist women like her kept falling for insecure men with fragile egos, who were steeped in classism with a dash of casual sexism. Men who located their pride in caste, their sexual escapades, even how tall they were.
This was during the early 2010s.
While nursing the heartbreak, she immersed herself more deeply in her ambitious project that she had kickstarted around 2006. It centred around the world’s biggest superstar, often hailed as the “Tom Cruise of India,” for whose birthday even Dubai’s Burj Khalifa towers light up.
This week, she finally came out with everything she learnt over a decade and a half, in the form of the book: Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence.
“I initially envisioned the book as purely academic,” Bhattacharya, a developmental economist who studied at Delhi University and Harvard, told VICE. “But then I realised that what the economy feels like is crucial if we are to ever solve or understand anything. Economics is not soulless; it’s human. Something brutal is happening to women in India and I wanted people to have access to that information through human stories. I wanted to reclaim these lives from the statistics.”
This was where Shah Rukh Khan emerged as the common denominator. The 56-year-old actor, who made his debut in the Hindi film industry in 1992, was the thread that tied together stories of women navigating their loneliness and looking for freedom. All the women she spoke to, across classes and regions, had one thing in common: their deep love for Shah Rukh Khan. “His effect was all-pervasive. I couldn’t escape him and I didn’t want to.”
Her tryst with her ex, whom she refers to in the book as “The One,” coincided with Khan’s 2013 release, Chennai Express. “From his softer, romantic and almost vulnerable roles in the past, he took a surprisingly hyper-masculine turn in that movie. This was telling of a larger cultural shift.”
Over an exhaustive research process that ended only in the early months of the pandemic, Bhattacharya interviewed a range of subjects, all straight women – from domestic workers finding their way in India’s cities, accountants yearning for validation from their own parents, wealthy women wedded to philandering patriarchs, to migrant labourers. Some, she crossed paths with while on work trips. Others, through email shoutouts and chance accidents in movie halls screening SRK films. She encountered most of her economically fragile subjects during her trips to various parts of India for research projects she did for non-profit organisations.
One of her first subjects was the wife of a rich, upper-caste, small-town Indian royal. “When I first met her, I judged her,” said Bhattacharya. “She was too pretty, loaded with money and privilege. What could go wrong?”
But Bhattacharya soon discovered that her marriage was a compromise. Though she came from a rich family herself, she was in debt. Her husband would cheat on her with small-time Bollywood actresses, but she couldn’t care less. There was no love to begin with, and she had to find a way out.
“The marriage was essentially a business deal. She had different aspirations for herself. She wanted to study philosophy and be an academic. For her, freedom meant cultivating a completely different unit for herself,” said Bhattacharya.
After her husband beat her up within the first month of the marriage, the woman threatened to divorce him. To keep their family reputation intact, her husband's family allowed her all the liberties. She rented an apartment for herself without his knowledge in New Delhi, had a no-strings-attached relationship, and longed to be held the way Shah Rukh held his heroines. “I call her ‘single’ within the marriage. Her story demolished my idea of judging people from the cover. There’s a lot of violence hidden under those beautiful chiffon saris.”
Bhattacharya then discovered how loneliness can break even seemingly successful women in India. The country continues to suffer from one of the lowest female labour participation rates in the world. And yet, as we learn from the book, even the few women who manage to land coveted government jobs often go unacknowledged for their efforts, even by their own parents. In the case of the character of “The Accountant,” who is referred to as simply that throughout her story, Khan’s films comforted her. She looked to his movies and witty interviews when she was feeling low or invalidated. His punchy dialogues and interviews celebrating the virtues of strength, hard work and individuality kept her going.
“She was supporting her family, even buying gifts for her male cousin. Despite this, at all stages, her family kept minimising her choices,” Bhattacharya said. “She kept looking for that one voice that would tell her it was okay to stay single and dedicate your life to a profession. No one was mirroring what she felt were very meaningful choices. Everyone was only interested in her position in the marriage market, not the job market.”
The men would find The Accountant either too tall or simply too successful. One day, after one of the “rejections” by a man who thought she was too dark, she simply broke down in her mother’s arms. That was the tipping point for her parents. They could finally see how suffocating this ordeal was for their daughter. “The breaking down was the apex of her loneliness. Until that day, she had managed to keep a brave front. But the bravado broke that day. Hers is a story of how our own loved ones can make us feel miserable about ourselves. On paper, she’s made it. She has a government job. But she was never validated.”
As a teen, the only time The Accountant’s mother had struck her was when she’d discovered that she had gone to a Shah Rukh Khan movie with a boy. Now, however, she can finally watch Shah Rukh’s movies in peace and hum his romantic songs. And no one can hit her for that. “I’ve done a lot of hard work to reach Shah Rukh,” she told Bhattacharya. The real hard work was to attain the freedom to spend her time and her life the way she wanted, and SRK steps in as a good analogy to prove her point.
As Bhattacharya also observed in the book, SRK’s female fans love him because his eyes convey a vulnerability that is otherwise rare in Indian men. In his films, he promises them the love of an ideal man who will have the right combination of words that will do justice to love, with just the right touch to tell them it’ll all work out in the end.
There were some surprising discoveries along the way, too. Even though Khan’s filmography primarily comprises him spreading his arms for the women he loves in his trademark style, followed by teary-eyed confessions of admiration and vulnerability, his earlier films had him play characters with dark streaks. In the 1993 romantic psychological thriller Darr: A Violent Love Story, Khan plays an obsessive stalker who would go to any lengths to marry his school crush, even to the point of attempting to kill her husband.
Gold Mendriatta, a woman in her mid-20s, strangely related to Khan’s character in Darr after a particularly toxic breakup. This was despite the fact that she had been harassed by creepy men like the one Khan plays in the movie. “Her story made me realise that loneliness has different facets,” explained Bhattacharya. “One of the aspects of loneliness is also anger. She told me how she wanted to rip the skin off his face at that moment, and how there was no point denying the ugly feelings associated with romantic relationships.”
For her less privileged subjects, primarily domestic workers, Bhattacharya discovered that the path to Shah Rukh, and ultimately to happiness, was a carefully cultivated one. Often, it clashed with religion itself. This was highlighted through the story of Lily, a househelp based in Delhi, who decided quite early on that she would only work for expats and never Indians, not even the ones actually residing in other countries but with houses in India.
“She knew based on what she'd heard from her own aunts and neighbours the many horrors that domestic workers were subjected to by rich Indians. But Lily had a TV and a bathroom of her own at her non-Indian employer’s home; this was a privilege.”
In 2010, a TV channel decided to air Khan’s movies every Sunday for a month in honour of his birthday in November. This presented a quandary for Lily, a devout Christian. The movie timings coincided with her Sunday church services. It was either Shah Rukh Khan or Jesus. Even if it meant that she would be considered “too cool for church” by her friends, she chose the onscreen superstar, the one who promised her unabashed love and romance.
“Among all the women I met, a common theme emerged – they did not allow themselves to be defeated by their circumstances,” said Bhattacharya. “My project was never about Shah Rukh himself; he was just the sweetener. I simply wanted to highlight the extraordinary stories of women defeating the patriarchy by simply living and going to work every day, and they exist just three metres away from us.”
Follow Arman Khan on Instagram.