The first movie I watched in a theatre was the 2002 box office hit Devdas. I was only six, with no knowledge of movies or stardom, yet here I was sitting in a stuffy auditorium patiently waiting for the huge screen to come to life. Air-conditioned movie theatres were a rarity in India and it was not uncommon to leave halls with bug bites, sweat patches, and even mysterious stains on your clothes.

In those days any director worth his salt would ensure that the movie was at least three hours long. Propped with melodramatic songs, high drama, and an actual plot, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas stood at a respectable duration of 174 minutes. Such an extended period of darkness and silence could have easily agitated a child, but I remember leaving the hall a new person – entirely fascinated and aware that my life as I knew it had changed forever.

I was now privy to the intoxicating charms of Bollywood movies and, more importantly, a man (almost as old as my father) who presented the endless possibilities of what a person can be – as a son, friend, and lover. Armed with budding devotion and frank admiration, a fan was born.

Unlike the women before me, I did not grow up on a staple of Shah Rukh Khan romances. The Rahuls and Rajs were already a decade old and the actor, already approaching his 40s, took to love stories of dignified Aman (Kal Ho Na Ho) and Mohan (Swades) who were as earnest about being triumphant in love as in their commitment to their communities.

My mother lamented how Shah Rukh was no longer the hero who would stand in freezing temperatures with his arms stretched out for his beloved while at the same time appreciating him for acting his age and bringing certain gravity to love. These nuances were lost on me – I did not think of Shah Rukh as the lover boy that she did, I thought him too old for me and indeed he was.

Instead, to me he presented the idea of what an ideal man should be – charismatic, kind, vulnerable. Over the next few years, I accompanied my parents to the theatres for the actor’s major releases, while spending weekend breaks catching up on his hits from the ’90s. The two Shah Rukhs were in complete harmony with each other and I was growing up on a healthy diet of what romances look like and how men should treat women once the first flushes of romance start to ebb.

A silent, distant, and ‘logical’ fan

In Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence, Shrayana Bhattacharya pieces together the stories of many women like me from across India through years of following (and being) the fandom – across class, caste, and language divides. The author sees Shah Rukh-worship not as an act of mindless allegiance, but a rebellion against social mores. As she digs deeper into years of sustained loyalty to the star, it is revealed to her how the superstar has shaped the desire for respect, intimacy, and independence among women across all strata of Indian society.

Quite unlike the fans Bhattacharya followed in her research, I pride myself on being a “logical” fan. Meaning, my home is devoid of any Shah Rukh iconography – you will not find posters, ticket stubs, or newspaper cutouts. I deify him in other ways though, I best remember lyrics of Shah Rukh songs, usually re-watch movies featuring him, and I look forward to his Twitter interactions with fans.

My love for him is and has always been silent and distant. I come from an upper class, urban, well-educated Bengali family. Women in my family enjoy freedoms that make us (rather depressingly) an elite minority in the country. Seeking permission never came naturally to us and within the family we are actively encouraged to pursue our passions. I grew up without restrictions and I take my independence for granted.

When Bhattacharya’s book claims that there’s a link between being a Shah Rukh fan and female independence, I am stumped. The author finds suitable examples in Delhi, where an air hostess from Jaisalmer and a house staff member from rural Jharkhand make their way to the national capital in search of livelihood, sex, and independence. These are spunky women who found a way out of community-made hell, with a little help from Shah Rukh.

Shah Rukh Khan and women’s quest for individuality

The seeds of defiance were sown early in childhood when the girls saved up to go to a movie and buy cassettes, or unabashedly declared their love for a man in communities where asserting individuality could very well endanger their lives. Similar stories were found in the slums of Ahmedabad and decrepit towns of Uttar Pradesh. Here, mothers and daughters encouraged each other to aspire to the independence enjoyed by Shah Rukh’s heroines and marriages where the husband, if not as charming as the actor, would be kind enough to stand up for his wife.

To an urban readership these stories sound rather incredulous, but to a great chunk of fan-women this is what Shah Rukh is – an escape from the harsh realities of life and a fantasy of what life can be. Through Shah Rukh, the data and numbers of meticulously researched women come to life. The unequal distribution of household chores between women and men, dipping female employment rates, lack of access to personal mobiles and more can be explained with Shah Rukh’s female fans’ focused determination to ache for him in private, alongside hatching plans to gain social and financial mobility.

Twitter feminism, restricted to the hyper-elite, makes no sense to these women; they aim for the feminist liberation that they see in Shah Rukh’s movies – where the heroine is desired by her husband, never reprimanded for going out by herself, and the hero doing his best to win over the heroine’s entire clan.

Pilgrimage to Mannat and a few realisations

As I was reading Bhattacharya’s empathetic observations, I realised Shah Rukh was a vastly different icon for these women than he is for me. I seldom think about him but his birthday is one of the rare celebrity birthdays that I remember – to put it plainly, I cannot claim him the way some of his fans do. I consider myself too pragmatic to be serenaded in mustard fields or the Swiss Alps. I want a good man but I can do without the dramatics.

But despite my attempts at practicality, I visited Mannat in 2020. I was 23 and accompanied by my boyfriend at that time. We were in the city on a whirlwind 48-hour trip and I could not return home without making a pilgrimage to Bandstand. Unsurprisingly, I found myself in the company of fans who were also waiting for their turn to take a picture at the famed gates of Shah Rukh’s mansion.

That was the last vacation my ex-boyfriend and I took together, and for non-Shah Rukh related reasons, the relationship ended soon afterwards. Once the sadness and resentment settled down, I look back to him accompanying me to Mannat as a great act of love. He was never a fan of Bollywood and had no real fondness for Shah Rukh. In fact, we had reached a companionable agreement to not discuss “mass movies” since for him it’d mean bemoaning the subpar arts and me passionately defending a certain ageing actor who was somewhat responsible for the said subparness.

Putting aside his distaste for Bollywood and agreeing to indulge the fan-girl in me remains one of his most generous gestures in the relationship. It’s been some time since we broke up and at 25, I’m without a romantic partner. I have a job that I love, free to go about my days (and nights) as I please, financial independence, and a retirement plan in place. As far as being a woman in India is concerned, I’m stunningly privileged.

However, these privileges do not substitute for romantic love. I’m young and concerns about marriage are yet to dawn on me. Love for me is largely defined by shared interests, clever flirtations, and having a good time – all perfectly reasonable expectations. So even though Shah Rukh is not a liberating force in my life, my perceptions of love have been shaped by the men he has portrayed.

The Amans, Rahuls, and Rajs have made me and other fan-women realise that regardless of which India we belong to, all of us are worthy of respect, thoughtfulness, and most importantly, love. As Shah Rukh approaches his 60s, he still remains wildly popular among women of all ages – a happy thread in a sisterhood that is otherwise bound by physical, generational, and psychological pain. We love Shah Rukh not because he shimmies with his heroines in the rain or during snowfall, but because he has made millions of women believe that they are deserving of the epic loves that they see in his movies.

Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence

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