Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) for me, is an old lover. A relic of the past whom I now pass by with a shudder, with the green-yellow wave of nostalgia washing all over my exhausted limbs. It’s an odd feeling, a happiness for what has been, and an immense grief for what cannot be anymore. For the longest time I have defined romance and love through Rahul, Raj, and Aman. I modelled by deepest desires on a turtleneck-clad Shah Rukh opening his arms to me, as I let go of that one consequential flight with the world, erupting in blessed tears and laughter as I lived a Bollywood trope I had seen manifesting on the celluloid uncountable times. How’s that for some serious Emma Bovary delusions, albeit tinged by my exceedingly desi, brown aspirations?
However, looking back on all those fictional men I have loved, a disturbing pattern pierces through SRK’s charming demeanour. Raj Malhotra from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Big-Hearted Will Take Away the Bride) was the first in a long sequence of memorable SRK roles for me, my first conception of romance was carefully orchestrated to accommodate him. A whirlwind courtship in Europe, and the final denouement post parental approval, what could possibly be wrong? Raj’s love was fierce, a love so strong it could surpass countries and orthodoxies. To lovingly gaze at him serenading me in a sarso ka khet became a recurring daydream, surely, this was what an ideal man looked like.
I couldn’t have been more inaccurate.
In my foolish love for Raj, I discounted all his misogyny – explicit or not. Did he not ‘joke’ about raping a drunk Simran; holding onto her chastity for dear life? Did he not treat her like patriarchal property in asking her father for ‘permission’, as if she were transferable between two men? Simran’s pathetic refrain of “Babuji nahi maanenge” (father will not approve) shadows their romance at every step, for only her father’s approval matters – while her ever-so-docile mother languishes in the background. Add to that my leather jacket sporting Raj, with his courtship rituals that would most certainly qualify for sexual harassment; the sly touches, the unwanted advances, the persistent stalking – how familiar am I to these realities of my existence. Raj was never an ideal worth striving for, a realisation that took me long enough.
Raj was then succeeded by Rahul from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Some Things Happen). Rahul was a simple guy who married his college sweetheart, established a harmonious domestic space and single-handedly brought up their daughter post his wife’s untimely death. He displayed exemplary qualities of endurance, compassion and honesty. However, in my ignorant litanies for Rahul, I forgot all the women subjected to his male authority. His sexual propositioning of Tina within seconds of meeting her, his night-time intrusion of her bedroom and his constant efforts at claiming her seem like minor offences when compared to his treatment of Anjali. Rahul, my dear Rahul, is capable of imagining women in two reductive moulds – the tomboy or the diva. As a typical Bollywood hero, he remains largely dismissive of Anjali’s femininity (or the lack of it). She becomes worthy of his attention, only when she finally trades off her selfhood for a socially approved womanhood. Then, and only then, can Rahul ‘accept’ her as a potential sex partner (a fact glossed over by matrimony). In loving Rahul, I had betrayed my own kind, of my own volition. I had condemned Anjali to the gallows for not being desirable enough, feminine enough, pliant enough. In doing so, had I not let Rahul seduce me into accepting his shameless sexism as romance?
Rahul Raichand from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (Sometimes there’s Happiness, Sometimes there’s Sorrow) was no better. He was back to his old ways, in marrying a woman to ‘protect’ her after her father dies. Of course, marriage is the first thought on anyone’s mind in the middle of a funeral. By this point, my love for SRK had thinned – for it was a love that jeopardized my own identity. In aspiring to be a little like his women, I was unconsciously embedding myself into the fabric of patriarchy disguised by the eloquent rhetoric of love and relationships. Aman from Kal Ho Na Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come) was slightly better, with respect to his cancer and the cinematic license it afforded. But then, the ghosts of his problematic predecessors resurfaced in his practical forcing of Naina onto another man, with no concerns for her agency and selfhood. Once again, he was the saviour figure, swooping in on a woman’s life, solving her problems for her, egging her on to smile – obsessively conditioning and policing her. Naina may have reconciled to Aman’s politics eventually, but I never did.
As a woman, I will always be uncomfortable with SRK’s romance, having accepted it unquestioningly in the past. My grief for not being able to accept him may soon be overcome by a sense of victory in rejecting unworthy models of masculinity. Until then, I will continue to treat him like an old lover whose love cannot be accommodated by the woman I have grown into, by the woman I am growing into.
Raj: Rule. Also, the name of SRK’s character in many movies.
Desi: Here, Indian.
Sarso Ka Khet: A golden mustard field
Written by Aarooshi Garg