Recent events have unleashed endless commentary on the remarkable icon of Shah Rukh Khan. Between hot-takes, nostalgic tweets and high-minded op-eds, every Indian seems to have a story to tell about the actor. If you read these posts and pieces closely, you will realise the writer is not really writing about Khan. None of us know him. Through nearly three decades of scenes, songs and media interactions, he has become shorthand for an idea of India many of us are trying to rescue or hold on to. This is the power of Khan; he tells our stories.
Since Khan is usually represented as a hero for NRIs and elite urbane Indians, in my book, I spent 15 years mapping the journeys of fangirls from India’s low-income precariat and the new middle class — tribal domestic workers to in-flight attendants. Nearly all these women were the first in their conservative families to take up jobs outside the home. In seeking livelihoods of their own, these women are part of a meagre minority in a country with one of the lowest female employment rates in the world. What does Shah Rukh mean to them?
None of these women articulated Khan as a symbol of India’s syncretic secular spirit; his religion was scarcely mentioned. Fans refused to reduce him to his religious identity. Instead, they saw him as the ideal man — wise, witty, successful, and wildly sexy. In fact, with the proliferation of satellite TV and the internet, female fans had memorised media interactions where the actor offered life lessons and advocated progressive views on gender struggles. One fan, who kept an SRK journal, said her favourite was a 2015 quote where Khan said, ‘I would like to tell the ladies: Don’t give up your day job for a night husband!’ She read quotes like these each time she felt rejected by the job market or marriage market. Khan had become her self-help guru.
Fangirls would complain about the stalker-sexist roles Khan portrayed in the early part of his filmography but adored him for the love he expressed for women in iconic dialogues and public lectures. For them, Khan symbolised a radically different man from the real-life men surrounding them.
If Aamir’s celebrity is composed of competence and excellent film choices, Salman’s of brash masculine confidence, Shah Rukh exudes anxiety and vulnerability. He usually plays fragile figures — the fragile lover, the fragile hero, the fragile Muslim, even the fragile villain. In his films, Shah Rukh is rarely at ease with himself and those around him. The insecurities that bother Shah Rukh’s characters have evolved through the progress of a career spanning three decades. In the early 1990s, his characters are worried about finding love and success. From the second half of the nineties, even as Shah Rukh steadily became sleeker, his characters couldn’t mask their nerves about love and overseas migration. There is the anxiety of navigating tradition and romantic freedom as an NRI in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), the anxiety of an adopted child unsure of his elite father’s love in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and Pardes (1997). Despite bearing all symbols of globalised wealth, he still suffers the anxiety of marital infidelity in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), of nation-building in Swades (2004), Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000) or Main Hoon Na (2004), of being Muslim in My Name is Khan (2010), Raees (2017) and Chak De! India (2007). The past few years have seen unusual films, where the actor no longer plays the undeniably desirable male. Instead, in Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017) and Zero (2018), his characters are brimming with the anxiety of falling for spirited women who outrank them in social status.
In his films, the resolution of the hero’s anxieties about himself or his place in the world can range from faux-cool, ridiculous slapstick to sexist commentary. But they listen to women (Khan’s films have far more dialogue for women than his other contemporaries), and cry a thousand beautiful tears. His movies champion romantic choice for women in a country obsessed with controlling female sexuality. Only five percent of Indian women choose their own husbands.
When some of us mock or dismiss Khan’s candy-floss films as being cartoonish depictions of love, we must acknowledge that millions of women lap up this feast of romance. Not because they are foolish but because they feel so deeply unloved in their everyday lives. When society taxes them for their personal and professional ambitions, Shah Rukh’s romances offer respite and fun.
The story of love represented by Khan’s icon has been written by the lonely longing of countless ordinary women. Just like the movies, let us hope this love overpowers hate.
(Bhattacharya is the author of the forthcoming Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh)Internet Explorer Channel Network