Solidarity in struggle

July 16, 2023

Bhattacharya discusses how the love of Shah Rukh Khan brings personal and financial freedom to working-class women

Solidarity in struggle


he dissemination of content through OTT and web series has opened up new viewership vistas and more fandom options. However, despite the changing trends in India (and South Asia), the ‘middle-class’ folklore of Shah Rukh remains holy and omnipresent. After the release and worldwide collection of Pathaan, Delhi-based economist Shrayana Bhattacharya has used her more than fifteen years of research and fandom for Shah Rukh to write a book. Bhattacharya is from Harvard. She works at the World Bank. Being a Pakistani and a Shah Rukh fan, commenting on the author’s Instagram post, I asked about the book’s availability in Pakistan. She suggested that I check with the Liberty Books. I immediately ordered the book. It is this small freedom - the right to earn money and to spend it according to one’s needs and wants - that Bhattacharya explains in the book.

The book is divided into four sections and fourteen chapters. It includes case studies of upper, middle and working-class women. It shows how these women must foster and advocate their need for financial independence and collective love for Shah Rukh. The book lists everything Shah Rukh in the first few pages. But the reader will find some cameos when Bhattacharya mentions him in icebreaking questions about film and cinema for her surveys. She uses statistics, her surveys and interactions with women from across India to painstakingly show a (gradually) changing picture of India and its relationship with women. Some of the statistics may not be of direct relevance to readers in Pakistan. What would resonate is these women’s resolve to gain financial autonomy and carve their ‘agency.’ She fondly calls it “daal sabzi feminism.” She tells her reader early that her stories are not be about radical feminism but about one a more regular and negotiable kind. This exposition sounds neither patronising nor pandering to a Western idiom. She does not show us rebels without a cause, but women, who use Shah Rukh to cultivate their financial autonomy.

Packed with casual sexism, male chauvinism and girls’ aspirations in “urban India,” Bhattacharya’s work shows how India has grown post-liberalisation. She makes sure that these stories carry familiarity and hope. In doing so, she traverses the ‘progressive’ and ‘not so progressive’ India, from Tamil Brahmins to Ahmedabad, the Santhali tribe in Jharkhand and working women in Nehru Camp in Delhi. In the urban landscape, women appear to have a voice. Post-liberalisation, this voice has declined in the labour market. Bhattacharya shows this through graphs, tables and statistics. At the start of the book, one graph juxtaposes urban-rural, male and female participation in the labour force, against Shah Rukh’s major releases, from 1993-2017.

Bhattacharya is cautious, generous and kind in presenting the economic and statistical jargon in a comprehensible language. She is keen to ensure that her work does not confuse the reader with technical phrases and theory. Instead, she uses breaks during interviews to ask questions about Shah Rukh Khan. These instances, responses and interaction are used to curate stories about women’s bodily autonomy and their financial baptism. Bhattacharya relates these stories to the findings of her surveys and her analysis.

What sets this book apart is how it introduces and presents a strong case of female domestic participation in India’s labour market in both formal and informal workplaces. It includes the precarity of domestic paid workers. One of the most significant triumphs of the book is how it brings forward and merges the issues of working-class women, their financial independence and their fandom for Shah Rukh. Bhattacharya makes an immense contribution to the need, recognition and lack of labour rights for home-based women workers in the post-pandemic world.

To make the reader see the whole picture, she uses her surveys, various reports and laws passed by the Indian governments. She mentions the grassroots power of a women-led union/ organisation SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association), “the largest organisation of poor and informal women workers in the world.” Her account leaves the reader with the urge to understand the lack of recognition of women, home-based workers. The book also discusses how the SEWA and these women have been negotiating fair wages and labour laws and how their work hours can go unaccounted for. It shows that many women are not entitled to maternity leave or government-introduced subsidies and that the uncertainty will only increase in the post-pandemic world.

In Pakistan, many issues of working-class women are not just sidelined but never taken up. According to a recent World Bank policy paper (June 2023), there is an acute lack of social security coverage and minimum wage enforcement for home-based women workers. Women and their participation in the labour force, recognition of their role and unionising for their rights are not immediate concerns for the government.

Bhattacharya urges her readers to recognise the changing nature of India’s gender-financial landscape: “They don’t need to marry a Shah Rukh. They need to be a Shah Rukh.”

Shah Rukh’s body of work may not be progressive and feminist, but he brings personal and financial freedom and leisure for many working-class women. Bhattacharya connects this personal freedom with financial independence. In doing so, she cherishes and binds women in solidarity of their struggles across borders.

Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh

Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and


Author: Shrayana Bhattacharya

Publisher: Liberty Books, 2022

Pages: 443

Price: Rs 1,175

The reviewer is a Lahore-based educationist and researcher

Solidarity in struggle