I met Manju in 2006. She was one of thirty-four young Muslim women I interviewed for a survey in populous and poverty-stricken Uttar Pradesh (you’ll have to read the entire chapter to understand why a Muslim woman chose ‘Manju’ as her pseudonym). Our interviews were short, part of a small-scale qualitative research effort conducted in two neighbouring villages in the district of Rampur. The district is classified as a ‘minority concentration’ area, as Muslim families account for half the population. Rampur has made significant contributions to Indian classical music and culture; the Raza library in Rampur town holds important texts, among them a 300-year-old Persian translation of the Valmiki Ramayan written in gold. The women I encountered were between fourteen and thirty-five years old. None had visited the famous library, nor indeed, completed primary schooling. They produced appliqué patchwork and embroidery at home, often working together in courtyards or in each other’s homes.
Manju was born at home, without a birth certificate. She was the first girl in her family to attend school of any kind, the only one able to do simple mental arithmetic and count numbers of objects quickly. I struggled at first to grasp what four or five years of government schooling had done for the young women I was meeting. Sure, Manju had acquired a very basic and already rusty understanding of math. She could recognise single-digit numbers. But more than the rudimentary education, formal schooling taught Manju and her friends about their own limitations. Through sitting in rooms listening to a dull teacher drone on, through watching the boys seated in a separate classroom with a better instructor, something important began to happen within these young girls. By realising that girls could not go to school if the separate toilet was not functional, by being unable to keep up with their lessons because of housework that was expected of them but not of boys, by being so proximate to the freedom boys enjoyed in public that was denied to girls, Manju and her friends had acquired a restlessness that was distinct from the equanimity displayed by their mothers and older sisters. These young women were unwilling to stay still and silent at home, bearing witness to their own misfortune. They too, like the boys, were somewhat literate, somewhat numerate and ready to explore the world.
In the years that followed our first meeting in 2006, I would often hear Manju describe Rampur and her hamlet as the ‘garbage-corner’ (kabaar-khana) of western Uttar Pradesh. “What you Delhi girls find useful about being here, I’ll never understand,” she scoffed at our research attempts. She thought girls like her needed kind and decent husbands and fathers, not a survey on wages and work. “Can your survey turn these men into Shah Rukh?” I explained that the state needed data to support workers’ rights and welfare, especially those without formal jobs and contracts. “The government will see us and our jobs through your survey, our suffering,” she said, “and then what? Have you met the local government officers? The post offices and police stations are full of fools and thugs, I become afraid if they even look at us.” She was confused. How would government involvement make anything better? Let’s discuss the new Shah Rukh film instead, she said. Fandom was a better use of our time together.
So I asked Manju about Shah Rukh, how they met and why she loved his persona. She was suddenly on fast-forward, hurtling through the fields towards Him. Taking deep gulps of air, giddy and full of half-smiles, she spoke without pause for forty-five minutes. This was our third meeting and first real conversation. “I was lucky, girls never get to go to the city here. But my mother needed to meet Aslam bhai for work and there was no one to help her carry the clothes.” She described her first visit to Darzi Chowk in Bareilly. In 1999, a few months before Eid, eight- or nine-year-old Manju and her twenty-something mother took a bus out of their village. The hour-long journey felt too short. This was the farthest Manju had ever travelled from her home. In Bareilly, she held her mother’s hand as they took a shared auto to Aslam’s house.
While Aslam and her mother talked business, Manju was offered a Pepsi and introduced to Aslam’s daughter Najma. Manju described the house to me, it was more opulent than anything she had ever seen. Aslam’s shop was also his home. The first floor served as his personal residence while the ground floor was for the shop and zari work. There were garments and order papers littered all over the two-room house. And then Manju spotted the television set. The pictures on the screen, she told me, were shinier than those she had seen on the three TVs in her village. She stared at Najma watching the TV all by herself. It felt like a dream. For a girl, having a TV to oneself in her hamlet was impossible. Najma invited Manju to join her. Together, they channel-surfed until they found a matinee telecast of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge on the local network operated by the cable-wallah.
DDLJ was the first Indian film to be shot with Dolby sound mix, the 35mm colours were vivid, and the studio had invested heavily in equipment, technicians and production quality. The director Aditya Chopra, son of the legendary filmmaker Yash Chopra, said in an interview that he “wanted to give Indian film audiences a beautiful love story and a beautiful film. We wanted to shoot Europe as best we could, as a way for ordinary Indians to experience and see countries and locations they were probably never going to visit.” The unreal and unattainable foreign landscapes matched the unreal and unattainable love affair between Simran and Raj.
For Manju, real life tasted so incredibly dull after those hours in front of Aslam’s glorious TV with DDLJ and Najma. How was she supposed to return to Rampur and get on with regular life? Too young to give much consideration to Shah Rukh’s looks, Manju loved his energy. She wanted to scream his name, dance unceasingly to the songs in the movie and repeat each line, relay all that she saw to her friends, and gossip about every scene. Manju wanted to watch the whole movie again. It was an afternoon of accidental discovery. She discovered Switzerland, she discovered London, she discovered Shah Rukh and she discovered Najma. Aslam’s daughter was a dedicated student and a fan of all things Shah Rukh. She had audio cassettes, CDs, photos and magazine cutouts gifted to her by her older brother. At thirteen, Najma was a few years older than Manju and attended a private school in Bareilly. A kind girl, aware of her good fortune, she loaned items from her Shah Rukh stash to Manju, as her family could always afford new music, magazines or posters. Najma told Manju that DDLJ had been released four years ago, that they were able to watch it on TV only because it was so old.
Realising that Manju was hooked, Najma told her about Shah Rukh’s other films; one set in a college was a particular favourite. And a plan was hatched. Najma promised to find videos of Shah Rukh films to show Manju whenever she visited. The local audio-video shop had started stocking VCDs in Darzi Chowk. The shop was a few steps away from Aslam’s home, and would rent out CD players as well. Najma convinced her older brother to rent these pirated prints every month when Manju and her mother would come to deliver orders. Aslam indulged his daughter, on the condition that Najma study hard and do well in school. Manju’s mother agreed to the movie marathons on the condition that Najma help Manju with her writing and reading for half an hour on each visit. Najma loved the idea of playing teacher and threw herself into Manju’s education. Najma’s good grades and the CD rental shops in the markets of Bareilly allowed Manju to begin her new life lessons—all through the filmography of Shah Rukh Khan.
On occasion, as Najma and Manju watched their films, their mothers would join them. Some days, they would meet Aslam’s buyers, often super-elite Muslim women who lived between the Gulf, Lucknow and Delhi. They supplied fabrics and garments to fashion designers and ran their own private retail networks. “Taraashke banaya hai,” Manju’s mother would say about how carefully these women had sculpted themselves—all alabaster skin, tinkling laughter and punishingly exquisite taste. One of these buyers, a Mrs Naqvi, was married into a renowned business family. She had developed a fondness for Manju’s mother, sending Eid presents through Aslam. Mrs Naqvi was a progressive patron of women’s self-help groups and home-based textile workers in the region. An alumna of one of India’s poshest girls’ schools, she consequently had a posh and glamorous network. Manju told me that Mrs Naqvi had even met Shah Rukh at a party: “She said he was kind to everyone who wanted a photo, but very Punjabi not Pathan, though I did not understand what she meant.”
Everyone in Manju’s home and village understood that these monthly trips to Bareilly for half a day were part of her mother’s efforts to be a good woman who was trying to earn more money for her family. What Manju’s mother never disclosed was that these visits were also meant for fun and education—to get away from rural routines, to make new friends and connections. They laughed, watched films, gossiped. Aslam and Najma would be notified of their visit a week in advance, enough time to organise payment for Manju’s mother and a film for Manju. The arrangement lasted from 1999 till 2003, as Manju grew from nine to thirteen years old. These four years served as Manju’s greatest education—the ‘Shah Rukh Shiksha Abhiyan’. Najma helped Manju improve her reading, writing and ability to do simple sums. She enjoyed playing the role of film festival curator too. Her friends would also join. And together they saw Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Pardes, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na, Dil To Pagal Hai, Dil Se, Yes Boss, Baazigar—the works.
Through that time, through those movies, Manju convinced herself that Love, the dangerous Yash Raj variety, was real. She knew, she told me, that Muslim women in rural UP would have a hard time finding love because they were denied the possibility of travel or going away to college. Discussing the films with Najma’s teenage friends, Manju learned that the term ‘girlfriend’ was used to describe the glamorous girls who accompanied rich boys at parties. And that these rich boys rarely married their girlfriends if these women only wore Western clothes. Manju learned too that there were men who looked just like her frowning, disciplinarian uncles in London and America. She realised that Indians could run shops in faraway lands. Manju danced and whirled with Shah Rukh, made certain to learn the ‘Mere Khwabon Mein Jo Aye’ song by heart. She watched the cool college kids in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and admired a life she knew she could never have.
Here was a kind, well-spoken man with dimples who lived abroad, paid attention to women and earned good money. Manju had never witnessed such masculine poetry before. There, in a tiny room in Bareilly, while her mother went about the business of earning an independent livelihood, Manju sipped her Pepsi and decided to fall in love with Shah Rukh. Her first favourite actor, her first favourite anything. Her first favourite of consequence. A man who taught her about her own desire for discovery. Just as importantly, he taught her that there were different kinds of men out there, that there was a large world beyond the torpor of traditional village life. I asked her what she thought of all these movies, and the first link she drew was with the men surrounding her. ‘Each time I’d watch his films, I wondered why the boys around us were so different from him. I guess that’s why he is a hero. I wish they would learn manners from him, but they keep racing bikes and building muscles like Salman.’
This is an edited extract from Bhattacharya’s forthcoming book Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh (HarperCollins India).