Heading: Interview, Shrayana Bhattacharya, author, Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh – “I’m a loud and proud feminist economist”

Economist Shrayana Bhattacharya believes that in a deeply unequal country, filmy fandom bridges class divisions and narrow identities. Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, especially, allows people from vastly different backgrounds to talk to each other as equals. Her book uses Shah Rukh fandom to explore the struggles of Indian women as they work, worship and wed
Author Shrayana Bhattacharya (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Shrayana Bhattacharya (Courtesy the publisher)
Updated on Nov 27, 2021 01:11 PM IST
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ByKX Ronnie

How did your book take shape? When did it dawn on you that responses to questions about Shah Rukh Khan would help paint a better picture of the economic and social frailty of Indian women?

In the book, I draw on more than a decade of personal stories and statistics to describe how a diverse swathe of working women have experienced the period between liberalization and lockdown in India. Fandom for Mr Khan serves as an unusual research device, his pervasive and powerful icon allowed for many difficult conversations on men, money and misogyny to emerge. Between 2006 and 2008, I was a young research assistant for various projects aimed at understanding the working conditions of women in different types of precarious jobs. These women were engaged by low-paid home-based industries and as domestic workers. Each of the women I interviewed was well aware of her own labour struggles; each was contending and fighting for improved wages and rights for herself. These women did not really need an outside researcher to prod and remind them of their deprivations. They seemed thoroughly bored by my standard survey questions and efforts at data collection. So, we started taking breaks, what I call a “research recess” in the book. During these breaks, we would talk about the few things we shared, particularly Hindi film and its icon. And everywhere I went, I met SRK fans. I noticed this remarkable change in energy and enthusiasm to talk and share experiences the moment Mr Khan and his iconography were invoked. Much like any of us, these women were far happier to openly discuss what delighted them as opposed to what depressed them. In these early conversations, fandom emerged as a refreshing lens to understand women’s socio-economic realities. Because fandom is an economic activity. Following a movie star requires money, free time and easy access to markets and media. Most of the women I was meeting struggled to watch SRK films or listen to his songs as they lacked the cash and leisure time to do so. These insights fascinated me. I started keeping diligent diary notes of our conversations and managed to keep in touch with many of the women I met. We would talk during festivals and discuss the latest SRK releases. Steadily, over more than a decade of conversations, Mr Khan’s persona also offered an idealized benchmark through which these women began critiquing men and oppressive modes of masculinity surrounding them. The idea of the book originated as I read through the notes I had collected.

Could you detail the significance of Hindi cinema and the larger role that Shah Rukh Khan plays?

So much has been written and said about Mr Khan of late. Let me highlight the power to unite deeply different people. Through my research, I talked to a boatman and a bureaucrat about his movies. In our deeply unequal country, filmy fandom bridges class divisions and narrow identities. I had very little in common with many of the women I followed in my book. But adoring Shah Rukh Khan allowed us to talk to each other as equals in this one domain. He offered a shared experience which we could all relate to and talk about.

You’ve asked the women in the book how their love for Shah Rukh Khan began. How did yours begin? What does Shah Rukh mean to you?

My fandom is very banal and typical of a kid born in the 1980s. I grew up with Mr Khan. I saw Fauji and King Uncle.DDLJ was a tipping point in my fanhood, but Zero is my favourite film. I have followed most of the interviews and even tried my chance at seeking an autograph! But now, after all the years of research for the book and listening to how much he means to so many women, I admire him even more. I see him embodying all these women’s economic and personal struggles. I simply cannot divorce him from the love and comfort he has provided to so many women of my generation.

464pp, ₹550; HarperCollins
464pp, ₹550; HarperCollins

Do you think the story of Shah Rukh Khan mirrors the Indian narrative as well; More recently, the country’s growing intolerance for dissent, especially from its minorities?

The power of an icon lies in the stories he or she allows us to narrate about ourselves. Mr Khan has always told our stories. Recently, there was so much love that was demonstrated for him. Everyone seemed to have a heartwarming SRK story or memory to share. While there is a small-hearted circus that seems to delight in hate, they were outweighed by those who love SRK and the idea of India he represents.

In the book, you detail why “home and intimate relationship is where female autonomy is quashed, where Indian Constitution is crushed, where non-conforming women are taxed, where overt and covert abuse is rampant and self-denial supreme”. But girls were told to ‘Stay home’. So where are they safe?

One core theme running through the book, as you read the trajectories of many of the women in the chapters, is that changing gender relations in our everyday lives is an intimate and incremental process. By making their own money and choosing how to spend it, by having a favourite actor and unabashedly indulging their own pleasures, many of the women in the book upset their families as they were defying standard scripts of what Indian womanhood is supposed to look like. The family remains the fulcrum of social discrimination in India. Yet, women cannot abandon their families. Some want to negotiate a happier equilibrium within their homes as they love their family members. Those in violent and brutal homes may not be able to leave as they are unable to rely on the state or markets to provide them shelter, livelihoods or basic safety. Our social structures, which are mirrored in the job market, make women heavily dependent on marriage and men for survival and security. The women in the book are attacking those terms of dependence in their own ways. They bargain within their families and craft their own safe spaces by a complex set of negotiations over a long period of time.

Women’s attitudes towards work have changed over the years. Yet, we see many dropping out of the workforce in large numbers. Why is that so?

In the book, I summarize and synthesize various reasons why women are leaving the workforce. There are myriad reasons, and they operate differently based on class and region: families worry about women’s safety at workplaces; the availability of jobs is declining in the kinds of sectors that tend to employ women; many cannot migrate to find work as safe housing is not available for single working women; the post-liberalization phase of economic growth allowed conservative families to withdraw women from the job market; marriage and motherhood universally push women out of employment; and women cannot manage the joint burden of caregiving and employment. There are optimistic reasons too, like women are spending more time studying. However, beyond these technical reasons, there are what economists call “hidden taxes.” The stories in the book provide examples of these. Women experience tremendous nuisance and loneliness as they try to navigate unfair distribution of care work within the home, unsafe public spaces, and unfair workplaces (that usually reward men more than women). Women, particularly in the upper-middle-class, quit full-time jobs because being superwomen is physically and emotionally exhausting.

“Women’s access to an independent income is one of the most powerful tools of resistance against patriarchy,” you write. Please explain the “Income effect”.

A key theme in the book is how the seemingly simple task of a woman earning her own income, and spending it as she sees fit, can slowly and steadily trigger social change and alter gender attitudes within the home. Employment allows women to claim more independence — they can defy social norms as their jobs allow them to have access to financial support and networks from a world beyond their families. Employment is not just about earning an income, it allows us to make friends, explore new worlds, discuss news and exchange views with diverse groups of people, gossip and feel meaningful beyond just being beautiful and dutiful at home. The “income effect”, which has been described in the book, suggests that women may drop out of full-time jobs if the family can survive only on a man’s income. Following the phase of rapid economic growth in the 1990s, per capita income for Indians increased. In these circumstances, many families that enjoyed the benefits of growth felt that women did not need to work outside the home as men could manage expenditures easily. Several economists and sociologists say that higher household incomes allowed families to practice more conservative values about the role of women in the economy. The data bears it out. We see steep drops in female employment rates despite a phase of growth. I mention in the book how many researchers find that men have cornered most of the employment gains post-liberalization.

What is your advice to the feminists of Instagram and Twitter-Pradesh?

Feminism is more a practice than a label. I am a loud and proud feminist economist. I love nerding out on papers that economists who take a feminist lens produce –in particular Devaki Jain, Naila Kabeer, Jayati Ghosh and several others. These women force us to reevaluate how we understand the economy and how it is constructed. And are required reading to my mind. Regarding feminism on the internet, I think it is critical for women to claim space and voice in every part of our public sphere, including social media platforms. The internet is a very harsh space for women – so the value of online activism and standing one’s ground is even more critical. But I think all of us know that there is a large country out there which is not on any digital or social media platform. My book was written hoping to shed light on some of these humdrum hidden gender struggles. Selfishly, I am hoping my phrase “Twitter-Pradesh” goes viral!

Could the next Shah Rukh Khan be a woman?

As I mention in one of the final chapters, the teenage daughters of the women I followed were not interested in marrying a man like Shah Rukh. They wanted to be him. For the mothers, Khan represented their fantasies of a loving breadwinner and benevolent husband. On the other hand, for the daughters, female icons like Deepika Padukone or Priyanka Chopra represented their hopes for living an autonomous and professionally successful life as women. The teenagers I met admired how these female megastars continued to work successfully after marriage. The adolescent girls I encountered actively followed the lives of these women and learned from the way they handled failure, depression and bad boyfriends under the gaze of a scrutinizing public. This felt like an important generational shift.

KX Ronnie is a writer who lives in Kochi.

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Saturday, January 29, 2022