Shrayana Bhattacharya is an economist and the author of Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence (2021). In her book she takes a look at how Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan has inspired Indian women in their quest for fun, intimacy, and independence. At the Kolkata Literary Meet, 2022, Bhattacharya spoke to about researching and writing the book, and her own experiences as a Shah Rukh fan. Excerpts from the interview:

How far back do Shah Rukh Khan and you go? Do you remember the first moment when you were starstruck by him?
The first movie of Shah Rukh’s that I saw was Baazigar (1993). I watched the movie while I was visiting my grandmother in Kalyani. Her house was right next to a cinema hall. I must have been no older than ten. Without much thought I was sent to watch the movie, but Baazigar is not the movie with which you introduce anyone to Shah Rukh! It’s so bloody and messed up!

I was just a kid back then. I remember watching the song Ye Kaali Kaali Aankhein in the movie and thinking, “Oh, this guy is cute!” While I was researching for my book, I realised that my start to the journey wasn’t unique at all – for a lot of women from my age and class background, Baazigar was their first Shah Rukh movie as well. The movie released during the holiday season and I believe young girls across India were making a beeline to the theatres watch the movie. I was very young and I only remembered all the songs and dances – the plot of the movie hardly mattered!

But the movie that really made me fall in love with Shah Rukh was Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994). We went to watch it in a theatre and my parents were keen to watch it – not for Shah Rukh but for Naseeruddin Shah. I found his portrayal of a below-average student really charming. You know how difficult it is to be a student in India and there was something really beautiful about his character trying his best despite things not working out in his favour. Every young person could relate to Shah Rukh’s anxieties – students in our country are always worrying and there’s a pressure to succeed and do well no matter what.

Even though I was only 11 or 12, I could empathise with a character who was so vulnerable, so comfortable with not doing well in his studies. Shah Rukh seemed to tell me that it’s okay to not be remarkable, that life works out eventually. I think every young person needs that kind of reassurance. The message of the film is still so fresh.

I even watched Asoka (2001) three times in a single day! I managed to get the tickets somehow and spent the entire day watching Shah Rukh in the comfort of an air-conditioned hall. The visuals were superb, and I thought he looked very handsome with long hair. So swashbuckling, really, so terrific!

Shah Rukh Khan in 'Baazigar' (1994) | Courtesy Venus Movies.

You are also an economist. At what point in your career did you realise there could be a connection between socio-economic conditions of women and Bollywood?
In 2006, when the book starts, I was sent to Ahmedabad on my first work project of my career. I was required to speak to working women of lower economic classes – they were the subjects of my research. Conversations outside of work would often be about movies and Shah Rukh. I realised that when they spoke about Shah Rukh, they were not really talking about him – they were talking about purchasing power, freedom of movement, accessibility to media and market.

I told my boss, Ratna Sudarshan, who was more of a mentor and a guide, about these women. She was extremely encouraging and asked me to write a report – she realised there might be more to these stories. I decided to write about women and their relationship with Hindi cinemas and Shah Rukh – instead of Ahmedabad I chose to write about Uttar Pradesh because those findings were even more surprising. As I started writing, I realised that there was a lot going on underneath.

I sent Ratna my first report in late 2006 and she decided to discuss the paper with Naila Kabeer, one of the world’s leading gender economists. I was in my early 20s and suddenly all of these important figures were reading my paper! That was really encouraging because as a young person, you need to be told that you are moving in the right direction. I really relied on these women to guide me. I have always believed that the book is a product of complete generosity.

The feedback to my paper was enthusiastic and I decided to follow my instincts. I had decided the title of my book in 2006 – I always wanted it to be Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh! I picked up the energy that I had witnessed in my subjects – the desperation not for Shah Rukh himself, but to have fun, to just be.

Was it easy to get women to talk about Shah Rukh?
I have realised that when you really lean in to people and are genuinely curious about their lives, they want to talk about things that interest them. That’s the thing about all of us – we all want to be heard, to be understood. My conversations made me realise that humour, pleasure are very powerful research devices. When people open up to you, you learn a lot about the general state of affairs. And who would have thought Shah Rukh could be a research tool!

I was also very open about my love for Shah Rukh. I spoke rather candidly about my personal life and that helped me start the conversations. But really, people always want to talk about things that bring them joy – Bollywood, Shah Rukh, pleasure, humour. I could sense the shift in energy – suddenly their eyes lit up, they would start talking animatedly!

Since I also followed the women over a course of time, the conversations would be very organic. We would catch up every now and then, and I would just ask them about their lives at that point in time. There was a sense of sisterhood and we were just checking up on one another through conversations on things that we mutually enjoyed. When you interact with people freely and with no judgment, you will be surprised to see how passionate they are, how willing!

Shah Rukh Khan in 'Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa' (1994) | Courtesy Red Chillies Entertainment.

How differently do you think women in rural and urban areas view Shah Rukh? What were the most interesting revelations in both cases?
The amount and regularity of media access matters greatly in making a fan. Of course, urban women have much better access to Shah Rukh’s media than their counterparts who live in rural areas. Women in the cities watch interviews and social media posts of Shah Rukh along with his movies and songs. While women in the suburbs and villages rely on print material to know more about their him. The fundamental difference is in the length of access and duration of the icon’s body of work.

Women in cities are more likely to watch a film in a theatre. This seemingly easy task is difficult for women in villages – apart from concerns of money, they have to worry about making the journey to a cinema hall, the relative safety of it. The internet has not percolated that deep – many women remain digitally cut off from the rest of the world. This also shows how network infrastructure changes from state to state, cities to villages.

In the rural communities (in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand) that I interacted with, Shah Rukh is the poster boy of fun, fiction, and fantasy. In urban communities, Shah Rukh has emerged as the winner who has done spectacularly without nepotism. Women in rural areas don’t exactly think along those lines, probably because they don’t have access to languages to express these concerns. Women in cities are more interested in Shah Rukh as a person while women in rural areas are more likely to be interested in him as a film personality.

What misconceptions about women fans did you overcome during your course of research?
Personally, I did not have to overcome any misconceptions. I was a fan and part of a fabulous community! But yes, one thing that I did realise is that the bits of Shah Rukh that I thought were so obvious and universal were not so at all! As I spoke to more and more women, I realised that everyone had their own versions of Shah Rukh that they were fans of.

For example, a scene from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) was interpreted totally differently by me and another fan. I’m glad that I paid attention to these different points of view – that’s when I realised that even the common things that bind us together can be experienced in so many different ways! That was especially remarkable to me.

A misconception that I hope others overcome is the derision accorded to female pleasure and female fandoms. Even in the initial responses to the book, I have had people ask me why write about something so silly as Shah Rukh and his female fans? The first instinct seems to be to dismiss anything that has to do with women’s joy.

That changed when media outlets spoke encouragingly of the book – it helped get the word out that women’s pleasure is a serious resistance against the patriarchy, considering how women really are not allowed to pursue their interests. I hope men, especially cis-straight men, stop just for a few seconds before they dismiss a woman gushing about some celebrity or boy-band. Male pleasure is deified, why should women’s pleasure be considered foolish or shameful?

Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol in 'Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge' (1995) | Courtesy Yash Raj Films.

How did you pick your subjects? What were the other criteria apart from being a Shah Rukh fan?
I picked anyone who was willing to speak with me about Shah Rukh! Over the course of 15 years that it took me to put together the book, I lost touch with a few of my subjects. I tried to pick subjects who had their own phones – they were independent in that way. Among the elite fans, there were issues of visibility – in the sense that a few women did not want me to write about certain experiences of their fandom. I had to make decisions where I had to let someone go because it was becoming too onerous for me to pursue a subject who was not willing anymore.

I had to make sure to only write about things that my subjects were one hundred percent on board with. Now that the book is here, I know my subjects will be comfortable with how they have been portrayed. It was of utmost importance at all times for me to ensure their privacy, to not embarrass them. This is why I also wrote about myself as a fan in the book – I did not just want to be their observer or protector, I wanted to be their equal.

How has your relationship with Shah Rukh changed after fifteen years of researching him?
I have always loved him but now I longer see him as a film superstar. Now when I see him, I see the aspirations of thousands of women reflected in him. Every day I receive messages on my social media accounts from women of different age groups reading and enjoying the book, oftentimes the book is simultaneously being read by women of different generations of the same family. These are really heartwarming stories.

When I think about Shah Rukh now, I think of all these stories – I can no longer divorce him from the lived experiences of his female fans. He embodies the many Shah Rukhs that these women love and look up to. I will always be his fan and I will watch anything he does, but he’s more human to me now.

Shah Rukh Khan in 'Main Hoon Na' (2004) | Courtesy Red Chillies Entertainment.

What role do you think female Bollywood celebrities play in shaping the worldview of Indian women? What are the changes you have noticed over the years?
I think women in Bollywood haven’t got the recognition they deserve – think about Aishwarya Rai, she’s completely self-made too but people only talk about how beautiful she is, her relationships, her marriage. That is changing now – female fans want to know about success of their icons and not just their personal lives.

Back in the day ordinary women would feel a disconnect with female movie stars because they could not believe that someone so beautiful could ever have the kind of worries that they do.

The younger generations of women are more likely to be inspired by Priyanka Chopra or Deepika Padukone than any of the male actors. The Priyankas and Deepikas are introducing a new crop of women to the world and a different kind of femininity. The aspirations of female success are changing.

Despite the malign campaigns that pop up against Shah Rukh, his popularity remains unaffected. What do you think is the one quality that has made him a formidable force for so long?
It’s love. People love him and he is also so loving. He has always been very dignified in his public appearances. Even when his family was going through a tough time, he did not create any sensation – he managed to be respectful throughout the ordeal.

I have not come across fans who have a bad experience of meeting him in person. People are not foolish. They know what genuine love, dignity, and generosity look like. Shah Rukh embodies these qualities.

Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai in 'Mohabbatein' (2000) | Courtesy Yash Raj Films.

Does it sadden you to think Shah Rukh could very well be the last of superstars?
No, it does not. I think every generation makes its own superstars. I want everyone who reads the book to acknowledge that Shah Rukh symbolises pleasure for many women – he’s more than just a superstar to them. I think as long as we have personalities who give us pleasure, we will also have superstars.

I am hopeful. These stories have made me hopeful. Moreover, Shah Rukh is not going anywhere. His movies, songs, and interviews are always at our disposal.

Do you think it’s wise or even rational to look up to celebrities?
I can only speak for the women I spoke to and I don’t think any of them look up to Shah Rukh the way you and I would think. The “desperately seeking” in the title is not about literally seeking Shah Rukh but seeking their own freedom and independence – Shah Rukh is only a metaphor, a research tool.

The women want to earn their own livelihood, have access to safe spaces, and just do what they want to do. This aspiration is not harmful to anyone. People are not inspired by achievements, they are inspired by vulnerability. I think it’s perfectly sensible to look up to someone who has always made us feel so loved.

In my book, I have reversed the gaze. It’s not Shah Rukh who’s on the pedestal, it’s the women. He is someone who has made them happy for so many years; there’s nothing wrong with seeking anything that brings us joy.

Will you ever write a book about how Shah Rukh has influenced his male fans?
I think I would like to do a long-form piece on his straight, cis-male fans because I did meet many of them outside his house, Mannat. I would not write a book though. It’s someone else’s responsibility to write – someone who has embodied the experience.

Shah Rukh Khan in 'Jab Tak Hai Jaan' (2013) | Courtesy Yash Raj Films.

Also read:

Reading ‘Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh’: How an actor inspired my search for intimacy and acceptance