Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh review: Revolutions and the superstar 

Using Shah Rukh Khan’s films and the reforms of 1991 as starting points, Shrayana Bhattacharya makes women talk about their lives, from compromises to outright rebellion

March 12, 2022 04:28 pm | Updated 06:59 pm IST

With a title that screams Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh you would perhaps be forgiven if you thought this book fits in the chick-lit genre. I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was anything but. This genre-bending book looking at women in post-1991 India draws you in from the word go. 

I picked up the book just to relive my own fan-girl moments. But it does much more than just giving a peek into the iconic status of one of India’s favourite film stars Shah Rukh Khan. It presents a powerful commentary on the lives of Indian women and the ways they deal with inequities. Most importantly, it provides women a toolkit to navigate the changing landscape of economy and society in their search for freedom and happiness. 

Watershed moment 

The watershed moment of the 1991 reforms serves as an anchor, as the author traces the rise of the Indian economy and the simultaneous arrival of Shah Rukh Khan as a superstar. The author wears her economist hat lightly, but combines hard economic data, such as falling female labour force participation rate, hidden taxes women pay and a whole host of metrics, with surveys and interviews to paint a picture of the state of women. What makes this work special is her ability to use heart-warming, everyday stories to provide a relatable view of complex economic phenomena. 

The book draws on her work of following the trajectories of a group of women across caste, religion and class groups over several years. It has a generous smattering of songs and dialogues from SRK’s movies, deploying his work as a literary tool to string together stories of women whose paths would otherwise never cross. The magical SRK touch adds to the readability and fun quotient of the book. Sample this — Salman (Khan) protects women, Aamir teaches us and Shah Rukh sees us. You will find yourself nodding in agreement! 

‘Fantasies’ give a glimpse into what Shah Rukh inspired in young elite girls growing up in the 1990s. The stories, one of which is the author’s own, and interviews of women bring out the contradictions women confront and the compromises they have to make despite being educated and upwardly mobile. Questions are raised regarding gender relations among the well-heeled. “Why do women resign their love lives to the trappings of male power and prestige? Why do so many successful women acquire a taste and tolerance for inequality in their private lives?” 

An interesting side story is the ringside view of Delhi drawing rooms with their own codes; and the trappings of power and male chauvinism. Her astute observation about the gaps in confidence arising out of social conditioning — “The upper class mating market seemed neatly divided between males with unwarranted self confidence and women with unwarranted self-doubt” — makes one question and ponder over what can be done to bridge these gaps. 

The 1991 reforms are estimated to have pulled millions of people out of poverty. A transformation of this magnitude that included structural changes in the economy was bound to have an impact on women. The expansion in large scale manufacturing, urbanisation and the boom in IT services changed the nature of the economic opportunities available, thereby impacting familial relationships too. 

Gambles for a dream 

‘Baazigar’ tackles the changes in the nature of relations within families and the societal contract during this economic boom. It also throws light on the nature of resistance for women in tier two cities, away from the cosmopolitan milieu of the big cities. The stories of women in this section all involve the baazis, gambles that women in tier-II cities take in an attempt to live a life they dream of. The stories ‘The Accountant’ and ‘A Girl called Gold’ are characterised by the struggle and strife at home to gain an education, choose a career and resist the pressures to “settle down”. While Gold makes the ultimate gamble and runs away from her Rajasthan home, The Accountant wages her battle of resistance within the confines of her home, revealing the many shades of pushback against restrictive traditional family structures. Women claim their space in their own unique ways, choosing from a spectrum of options from compromise to outright rebellion. There is no magic bullet to empowerment. 

No book studying gender in India can be complete without studying the lives of women from the informal economy, who are in the bottom two-thirds of wages, in households at or below the poverty line. In ‘Working from Home’, the author leaves the capital and travels to Gujarat, Jharkhand and the Northeast. She provides insights into the invisible lives of women in home-based industries such as textiles and tobacco as also domestic and field survey workers. 

The first stop is Ahmedabad. Given the vast socio-economic gap between the author and the women, how does she get these women to open up about their lives, love and aspirations? Through Shah Rukh and his movies and music, of course! The women open up about their struggles after the author uses the ice breaker question: “who is your favourite actor?” Using the metaphor of dialogue from the movie Kuch Kuch Hota Hai — “a home that is built on the foundations of compromise and not love is not a home (ghar), it’s a house (makaan)” the author demonstrates the give and take that women of the slum struggle with for mobility and economic independence. The second story is from Rampur, U.P., where Manju represents the boredom of women in small town India that have been denied agency for work and leisure. While young men get to ride bikes and watch movies, girls are denied mobility for work or leisure thus experiencing inequality through boredom. 

In her conclusion, the author draws attention to the “crisis of love” and discusses solutions to issues women face. She makes a compelling argument to avoid big bang revolutions or twitter hashtag movements, instead imploring women to attempt “intimate revolutions”, where each one of us looks into our personal equations to address our own disequilibriums. 

Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh; Shrayana Bhattacharya, HarperCollins, ₹699.00.

The reviewer is a public policy enthusiast working with The Takshashila Institution in Bengaluru.

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