Sharukh Khan (or Shah Rukh Khan, as he signs his name) may be relatively unknown in America, but he’s one of the biggest superstars in the world. He is like the George Clooney of Bollywood, the Indian film industry. He has won dozens of acting awards for his starring roles in more than 70 films and television programs, almost exclusively in India. He’s also a powerful Bollywood producer, and has been named one of the most powerful entertainers in the world by many international publications. He has received honorary awards and titles all over the world too – conferred the Darjah Mulia Seri Melaka in Maylasia (it’s like a knighthood), and the French government gave him an Order of the Arts and Literature award.
There’s actually some debate about whether Khan is “the George Clooney of Bollywood” – that’s just how I think of him. People have called him “the Tom Cruise” or “the Brad Pitt” of Bollywood too. Any and all of them kind of fit – he’s the number one star of Bollywood films, and millions of Indians and Asians follow his comings and goings religiously. Speaking of religion, Khan is practicing Muslim. He’s also outspoken about his own faith, and the Hindu faith of his wife. His fans include Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians, and Khan is respectful of them all.
So, here’s what we know: international superstar Khan flew into New Jersey’s Liberty International Airport on Saturday. He was on his way to Chicago to promote his film My Name Is Khan, which is about racial profiling in America. He was also slated to attend an event to celebrate India’s Independence Day. But it was in Jersey when customs officers stopped Khan and held him for a disputed length of time. Also under dispute is Khan’s general treatment while being held, and if the whole incident should be called a “detention”. Here’s a good example of how the Indian media is handling the incident:
”My name is Khan.” ”Oh it is, is it? Step aside, please.”
The way it was related, that might well have been the opening exchange between Shahrukh Khan and an unnamed, uniformed, super-empowered US immigration official who had no idea (and didn’t care) that the man in front of him is the star of a film by the same name (My Name is Khan), much less that he is a universal Bollywood icon.
SRK, as the actor star is known by his popular acronym, was asked to indeed step aside for a ”secondary inspection” at Newark’s ironically named (in this context) Liberty International airport on Friday en route to an event to celebrate India’s Independence Day in Chicago, President Barack Obama’s hometown. But that was only after a ”primary inspection.”
A ”secondary inspection” is when the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer manning the immigration counter asks a visitor (or even a US citizen) to move to a separate area for questioning if he cannot initially verify the visitor’s information or does not have all of the required documentation, so as to not hold up the rest of the queue.
It is not clear why Khan, who is a frequent visitor to the US, and only recently spent a month here shooting for “My Name is Khan,” was subjected to a ”secondary inspection,” which in itself does not constitute detention.
But the actor surmises that it was because of his last name; in other words, his Muslim identity. He was questioned for nearly two hours, asked what he thought were irrelevant questions, denied the use of his cell phone (which isn’t unusual; visitors cannot use mobile phones before clearing immigration) and was finally allowed to make just one phone call under the rules.
”I told them I was a movie star and had recently visited the country for the shooting of my film. Nothing seemed to convince the immigration officer. There were other immigration officers who even vouched for me but this particular officer did not listen to anyone. I even told them I had an invitation from the South Asian community and was there to attend an event.” Khan told ToI.
Indian and US officials rushed into damage control mode after word came in from Khan’s family that that the actor had been ”detained” and Khan’s vast fan base went ballistic. Timothy Roemer, the new US ambassador in New Delhi whose first week on the job it is, said he was trying to ascertain what exactly had happened at Liberty, and that Shahrukh Khan was a global icon whose film were much loved even by Americans and he was always welcome in the US.
But Khan, from all accounts, doesn’t feel so welcome and says he will review his plans to visit the US again. In a slew of media interviews after the incident, he said his papers were in order, it seemed to be a case of religious profiling, and the incident was a ”little embarrassing” for an entertainer of his stature. Khan’s upcoming film ”My Name is Khan,” a movie about an Indian Muslim setting out on a journey across the United States, is certain to get a boost after the incident.
It is not the first time that an Indian entertainer with a Muslim identity has been asked to step aside for additional scrutiny. Actors Aamir Khan and Irrfan Khan have had similar experience. So has the Canadian-Indian writer Rohinton Mistry, a Parsi, who once cancelled a book tour of the US soon after 9/11 because he felt he was being needlessly profiled. Other Indian visitors, not necessarily Muslims, have felt singled out.
But there is an American side to the story too. US officials who have spoken to this correspondent on the subject in the past feel that some Indian visitors are needlessly huffy about routine security procedures, and there is a broad cultural mismatch or misunderstanding between the two countries in their view of rules and authority. India, one official said, has too much of a ”VIP culture” that gives some people a false sense of privilege and entitlement that does not sit well in a world of ever increasing security threats. Even minor delays and inconveniences are exaggerated and conflated into major protocol breaches by some Indians.
For now though, the cry has already gone up in India for ”pay back” and subjecting US VIPs visiting India to the same treatment as the Khans say they get in US. Even senior government ministers have jumped into the fray. ”I am of the opinion that the way we are frisked, for example I too was frisked, we should also do the same to them,” Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni told a news agency. Others have suggested the ”Brazilian model,” where Brazilia adopted similar security protocol as Washington, including photographing and fingerprinting visitors. Khan himself is said to have joked that Angelina Jolie must be subjected to the same treatment.
Of course, if Jolie or Clooney or Pitt (or Congressmen and Senators) are subjected to such treatment, it is unlikely we would ever hear about it — since they seldom make a to-do about such things. But then it is even less likely that they would be subjected to such a welcome, given the Indian mix of VIP culture and Athithi Devo Bhava – even at the risk of imperiling security.
[From Times of India]
The article also has more information on the tit-for-tat between India and America as far as security measures go, and there’s some international bickering that’s a little funny. I’m actually surprised that an Indian publication would go so far as to insinuate that Americans stars are more likely to roll with the punches, security-wise, while Indian stars are more demanding of special treatment. Fox News is reporting that the customs officials claim that Khan was only detained for 66 minutes, and that everything was done according to standard procedure, and Khan was absolutely “not detained”. According to the boys in Jersey, the real holdup was Khan’s lost baggage. Awesome – blame the whole incident on the baggage people and be done with it.