"I wrote the book for my grandmother and Shah Rukh Khan as my target readers": World Bank economist Shrayana Bhattacharya

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Actor Shah Rukh Khan (SRK). Initially, talking about movies served as an ice-breaker. Then, Bhattacharya found that talking about SRK’s songs and films with his fans also “allowed us to delve into the trickier terrain of discussing men, money and misogyny”.

World Bank economist Shrayana Bhattacharya met Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan at his home in Mumbai on April 24, 2022. Her book Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence (HarperCollins, 2021) had released late last year, and she had wanted to place a copy in Shah Rukh’s personal library.

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“The book has finally reached its intended destination: his library at Mannat,” Bhattacharya posted on Instagram a day later.

In the book, Bhattacharya uses stories to paint a series of portraits about “the female gaze” in post-liberalization India. In an email interview, she talked about fandom as an economic activity, how she conducted the interviews and writing seven drafts of the book.

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While interviewing women who turn to Shah Rukh Khan’s films and songs to fulfill their “fantasies of a friendlier masculinity”, did you imagine you’d get to meet him? 

No, never. I had simply hoped the book would reach him.

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Could you tell us about how the meeting was planned, the time you spent with him, what you talked about, how he made you feel, and what he said about your book?

It was a very important moment in the life of the book and my own life as a debut writer. All that I wanted to share is up on Instagram.

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What inspired you to study fandom as an entry point to learning about women’s sexual and economic freedom? 

15 years of conversations with women across all walks of life taught me to understand how fandom was not simply an exercise of celebrity worship or blind devotion. Fandom is an economic activity. It serves as a proxy for women being able to earn and spend money as they please, on their own pleasure. To follow the work of an artist requires free time, money, easy access to markets and media – these are all attributes of economic freedoms that women have struggled to secure. Further, so many of the women I interviewed would turn to Mr Khan’s songs, scenes and interviews as relief when their families and lovers would treat them unfairly. This allowed us to delve into the trickier terrain of discussing men, money and misogyny.

Could you highlight three of the most significant findings/insights from your research about the dating market for heterosexual women in India? 

That it remains a men’s market for three reasons.

First, because women constantly fear the brunt of unwanted pregnancies and are taught to regulate their sexual adventures without enough sex-ed or open conversations in schools or homes.

Second, because women continue to be judged if they explore their sexual desires while cis-het men are taught that sexual accumulation makes them more macho. This justifies awful emotional behaviours in the typical hetero market for love.

Finally, since women struggle to find safe housing, public spaces and a stable income to live on their own, many are unknowingly socialised into thinking of securing marriage through the mating market as an insurance or survival strategy. Men do not necessarily need the social approval of marriage as a milestone to claim personhood or public space with ease.

These lopsided economic terms enter into our love lives in different ways.

What criteria did you use to zero in on the women you interviewed for this book? 

Between 2006-2009, I met most women in the book through research projects I was doing on women working in the informal economy. I would often ask women about their favourite actors as an ice-breaker between survey questions. This is how I was introduced to SRK fans from different jobs and communities. Seeing their enthusiasm to talk about Mr Khan, I decided to pursue these conversations as much as I could. I had no strict criteria other than they felt comfortable talking to me and had time to review the transcribed texts (for non-English readers this meant they would hear my narration of the quotes) to ensure they were comfortable with the final writing. I finally wrote about a pool of women who were willing to participate for a long duration of time as the book relies on longitudinal research and repeated interviews.

What did they make of your research interests?

They were intrigued and amused. Most researchers and journalists would only ask them about welfare schemes and who they would vote for. Many

#Author interview, #books, #desperately seeking shah rukh: india’s lonely young women and the search for intimacy independence, #fandom, #feminist economics, #shah rukh khan, #shrayana bhattacharya, #women leisure,
were happy to talk about an actor who brought them so much joy, and use his icon to talk about themselves and their philosophies on how the world works for working women.

How did you develop a writing style that makes space for emotion and analysis, sisterhood and statistics?

Rewriting! I did seven drafts. The book feels like it is my PhD thesis. It benefited tremendously from the comments and provocations of my agent Shruti Debi. Also, the kindness of my brilliant editor Shougat Dasgupta. I was very clear that the book should be accessible to those who do not read social science regularly and are not from the fields of academia or development. I wrote it for my grandmother and Mr Khan as my target readers.

What kind of support did you receive from senior economists like Ratna Sudarshan, Devaki Jain, Naila Kabeer and Abhijit Banerjee?

I did not send any chapters to Prof Jain or Prof Banerjee before the final book was finished, and we were hoping for their blurbs. Shruti suggested we ask them and I was very nervous as they are tough readers and pioneering economists. I was relieved and delighted when both of them understood and appreciated what I was trying to do with the text.

Ratna and Naila are the reason that the book exists. They were my mentors when I had started to conceptualize the book between 2006-2008. I was working with Ratna at ISST (Institute of Social Studies Trust) and it was through the projects she engaged me on that I met some of the women I followed in the book. Naila read early chapters and offered valuable feedback and encouragement. She is also interviewed in the book. They formed something like an informal PhD committee for the book.

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