There’s a photograph of me with a friend, taken at Mumbai's bandstand promenade in 2009. We’re kneeling, and our hands are raised in mock supplication towards some unknown entity just out of the frame.
You can tell by the smiles on our faces that we broke into mad fits of giggles just as the shutter fell.
We thought we were looking at Mannat, Shah Rukh Khan’s home, but we weren’t.
I have absolutely no idea how we got this wrong, or whose house we were actually kneeling in front of.
But we thought we’d found Shah Rukh’s house, and that was good enough.
Seven years later, I stand outside the real "Mannat" – a corner house with dark, big gates that shut out most of the inside from view, guards who manage to look both harried and amused at the same time, and the kind of low, buzzing energy in the air you usually expect at a carnival.
Near the gate, a small crowd obscures the word “Mannat” from view as each person takes their turn at a photograph next to it.
Vendors sell chai and chana jor garam, samosas and Pepsi.
Before arriving, I had a particular picture in mind of the people I’d see – giddy kids and teenagers, mostly, perhaps people from far-off cities and towns.
Instead, there are entire families with uncles, aunts, grandparents and kids; there are college students, old couples and young couples, solo tourists. There are people from Delhi and Bangalore, from Kohlapur and Jamshedpur and Agra, from Mulud and Haldia.
All of us, standing outside a house we can barely see, and definitely cannot enter – satisfied just to be in close proximity to the flesh and blood, real life version of one of our screen gods, or at least, his place of residence.
Seven years ago, I doubt my friend and I had given our little trip to not-Shah Rukh’s-home much thought. It had just made sense to check out where our favourite Bollywood star lived .
Now, I wonder what made us do it? What makes the hundreds and thousands of people who flock to celebrity homes each year, do it.
Why do we tour celebrity homes and stand outside them? Why do we take photographs with buildings and signages? Why does our Mumbai checklist include Mannat and Galaxy, Pratiksha and Jalsa?
To begin with, the mock-reverent post we struck in the photo is a clue.
We were goofing around, but we may have sincerely felt some of the celebrity worship that has quickly become the biggest way of honouring our stars.
And more than anything else, we’re used to turning the stars on our screens into idols and demigods, elevating them from the role of a beautiful, talented, even exceptional human being, to a God who can make no mistakes.
And while this further widens the gap between our world and theirs, it also allows us to conjure up an idol we can worship with a fervour that is both incredibly vulnerable and powerful (remember the havoc SRK’s Gaurav wrecks in Fan).
It gives us superheroes, albeit imaginary ones. We can now hope to be them, see them, and perhaps one day, even meet them.
But what do you do when your Gods won’t appear? Simple – you make a pilgrimage their homes.
Those homes that become our places of worship – places that, if we stand outside them with enough fervour and hope, might bring us a little closer to someone otherwise removed and unreachable.
I’ve heard that entire crowds gather outside Amitabh Bachchan's house every Sunday evening, when he comes out for a few minutes on his balcony and waves to his fans.
A kind of darshan of the biggest name in Bollywood.
In those five minutes, the fans see their god become real, but even this reality is skewed, its perception affected by temporality and surreality.
Sometimes, spotting your God in flesh and blood can make you believe in him even more.
Mumbai’s dotted with star-homes, all of them irrevocably woven in with the city’s narrative, offered up as not just sites of fan-worship, but also landmarks and monuments to prospective sight-seers.
On my first trip to Mumbai, a taxi-driver took it upon himself to point out every actor, director and singer’s house to me. “That’s where Kishore Kumar lived. That’s where Lata Mangeshkar lives. That’s Salman’s home.”
He punctuated his tour with other landmarks – the Haji Ali Dargah, Juhu Beach, Chowpatty, the Prince of Wales museum, Flora Fountain, Siddhi Vinayak.
In front of “Mannat”, I run into a middle-aged couple on a sightseeing tour of their own.
He’s a fan, she isn’t. They’ve come from Indore, and it’s their first day in Mumbai.
“Our hotel’s nearby, and this seemed like a good thing to do on our first day. We’re going to Salman Khan’s house next. You can’t come to Mumbai and not see these houses”, he says.
So perhaps not everyone outside Mannat is on a fan’s pilgrimage. Perhaps some are merely here to see everything Mumbai has to offer, standing outside the house the way they’d stand outside Gateway of India – staring at something historic and larger than life, something they can’t really be a part of, but can definitely make a part of their story.
Though of course, the bigger part of the crowd is made up of fans.
People here to place their gods in brick and mortar (and glass and chrome and steel) homes – an almost familiar setting despite the obvious differences – a setting that’s real and tangible, unlike the fleeting, dreamlike world actors otherwise inhabit on screen.
For so many of us, that tenuous, barely there connection is good enough.
A lady from Kohlapur tells me that her eldest daughter loves Shah Rukh. The girl herself is standing close to the main gate, chatting excitedly to her siblings. “It’s our last day in the city. She insisted we come here to see where SRK lives.”
Another 20-something from Jamshedpur is here with his family. They've come for the mother’s medical treatment, but have sneaked a few hours to tour the houses of the rich and famous. “I’ve been to Shah Rukh and Salman’s house twice”, the guy says. He calls it “fangrazing”, and laughs at his own word. “This is as close to them as some of us can get in real life. Otherwise it’s all on the screen.”
For almost all of India, this statement holds true. This is as close as we’ll get to this world. Otherwise, it’s too remote, too distant – our access to it is through screens and words and pictures, and our understanding clouded by glossy magazines and bright lights.
Our only physical, tangible link to it is this imposing, impossibly luxurious, gated house that we've turned into a temple.
Some temples, it turns out, don’t even need the idol inside.
There’s a general air of festivity outside Mannat, and Shah Rukh isn’t even home.
I’m told this by a middle aged lady from Agra who’s just finished talking to one of the guards, so I know her information is legit.
“They’re all out, the whole family, except the youngest son”, she tells us, quite cheerily. No one seems to care. Someone mentions Raees. “Movie promotion ke liye gayein honge”. He must be out promoting the movie.
And this is where I make a mistake. “What’s the point then”, I wonder aloud. “If you don’t get to see him, then what’s the point of coming here?”.
I don’t know what I’ve done, but the crowd around me thins. In fact, I’m left with a pretty good opportunity to take a “Mannat” selfie myself. Well.
Later, while he makes me a chhota chana jor garam (30 bucks, price hiked due to real estate value, I assume), a young boy tells me that I’ve scared people away with my question.
“Aapne toh unko embarrass kar diya, madam”, he says. “Star nahin dikhta toh kya, ghar toh dekha na”. You embarrassed them madam. Even if they don’t get to see the stars, at least they saw the house.
He tells me that almost everyone who comes here knows they won’t get to see Shah Rukh.
The superstar hardly ever shows up, except on special occasions, and there’s nothing special about tonight. Not for him.
But to all of us, every one milling around this home they can barely see and cannot enter, it’s a pretty special night.
Swati Daftuar is a commissioning editor for BuzzFeed and is based in Mumbai.
Contact Swati Daftuar at Swati.Daftuar@buzzfeed.com.
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