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Ordeals of Khans

 | April 16, 2012

Indian action Shahrukh Khan was for the second time in recent years stopped by immigration officers at an American airport last week, and interrogated.

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Curiously, Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan’s utterances on the screen, My Name is Khan and I am not a terrorist, seem to have had little effect. Despite Khan’s Rizwan mouthing this line innumerable times in the 2010 film, My Name is Khan, the star was for the second time in recent years stopped by immigration officers at an American airport last week. And interrogated.

(In the movie, Khan plays an Asperger’s Syndrome victim, Rizwan Khan, and is also victimised by the U.S. authorities because of his name.)

Obviously, Khan’s name must have popped up on the airport’s computer screen as a possible terror suspect.

Invited by as prestigious a university as Yale to deliver the Chubb lecture, Khan was detained for two hours at a New York airport and questioned.

He had flown in from India in a private plane with Neeta Ambani (wife of industrialist Mukesh Ambani). While Ambani and others were quickly cleared by the authorities, Khan had to stay back.

Yale had to intervene before the Indian actor could walk out of the airport. He was reportedly furious, but later calmed down.

During the lecture, Khan joked about the airport incident to Yale students. “Yes, it always happens. It is nice. Whenever I start feeling arrogant about myself, I take a trip to America. The immigration guy kicks the stars out of stardom,” he quipped.

While I understand the US authorities’ anxiety neurosis post 9/11, they tend to stretch it a little too far. And names like Khan appear to get them into a state of paranoia, almost into a panic mode.

Strangely, Khan’s first brush with the American Immigration was during his 2009 trip to promote/shoot My Name is Khan. On his way to Chicago, he was detained and grilled at Newark Airport for two hours.

“Nothing seemed to convince the immigration officer”, Khan lamented later, and he was really angry after the “traumatic incident”. He said he felt humiliated, more so because he was not even allowed to make a telephone call.

Khan is not a lone victim. Indian director Kabir Khan was questioned on three separate occasions in the US. Indian actor Irrfan Khan was asked to step aside in American airports at least four times, and this could be a reason why he has done away with Khan in his name. He now uses just Irrfan.

In India, although only celebrities draw media and diplomatic attention  when they have to face uncalled for scrutiny in the US, the fact is that hundreds of ordinary Indians have been in situations as traumatic as – or worse than — those faced by the Khans.

In fairness to the American system, one must appreciate the fact that even the late Senator Edward Kennedy was quizzed five times in 30 days some years ago, because his name was on the government’s “no-fly list”.

Nonetheless, the mechanism needs to be fine-tuned, so that travellers from India (or from anywhere else) are not needlessly subjected to such humiliating treatment.

And, yes, the Indian media must also highlight the plight of ordinary Indians rather than only that of cinema stars and other celebrities.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.

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