Indian Actor's Questioning at Airport Draws Criticism

Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan was questioned at an airport in Newark. "I was really hassled -- perhaps because of my name being Khan," he said.
Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan was questioned at an airport in Newark. "I was really hassled -- perhaps because of my name being Khan," he said. (By Gautam Singh -- Associated Press)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 16, 2009

NEW DELHI, Aug. 15 -- One of India's biggest movie stars said he was detained and questioned at Newark Liberty International Airport early Saturday, causing outrage across his home country and reigniting discussion of the hardships many Indians say they face while traveling abroad.

Shah Rukh Khan, 43, known here as the King of Bollywood, was on his way to Chicago for a parade later Saturday to mark India's Independence Day when immigration officials at Newark pulled him aside and interrogated him. The star of scores of top-grossing films was released after Indian consular officials vouched for him.

"I was really hassled -- perhaps because of my name being Khan," he said in a text message to reporters in India. "These guys just wouldn't let me through."

Khan recently finished a shoot in the United States for his upcoming film, "My Name Is Khan," which happens to be about a Muslim's harrowing experience with racial profiling. Khan told reporters that in real life he "felt angry and humiliated."

Jen Friedberg, a spokeswoman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, said the agency did not request that Khan be detained, the Associated Press reported.

A spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection said Khan was questioned for 66 minutes as part of the agency's routine process to screen foreign travelers and was not detained, the AP reported.

The incident followed another recent example of an Indian coming under suspicion for what talk show pundits here call "flying while brown." Last month, Continental Airlines apologized to former Indian president Abdul Kalam for frisking him at the New Delhi airport.

News of Khan's detention broke on a day of national pride, marked by parades, family picnics and girls wearing bangles in green and orange -- the colors of the Indian flag. News channels aired nonstop coverage of Khan's troubles, along with reactions from Bollywood A-listers, civil rights officials and security experts, some of whom defended the questioning in a post-9/11 world.

U.S. Ambassador to India Timothy J. Roemer released a statement Saturday saying the American government was "trying to ascertain the facts of the case -- to understand what took place."

"Shah Rukh Khan, the actor and global icon, is a very welcome guest in the United States. Many Americans love his films," Roemer said.

India's information and broadcasting minister, Ambika Soni, suggested that Americans should be treated the way Khan was when they arrive in India.

"There have been too many instances like these in the U.S. concerning Indians," Soni said on television.

Actress Priyanka Chopra, a friend of Khan's, expressed on Twitter a widely held view: "Its such behavior that fuels hatred n racism. SRK's a world figure for Gods sake. GET REAL!!" But not everyone appeared upset.

Meghnad Desai, an Indian-born economist, member of Britain's House of Lords and author of books on Indian cinema and globalization, joked in an interview in New Delhi that the whole thing seemed like a publicity stunt for Khan's new film.

"The U.S. government was an inadvertent accomplice to 20th Century Fox, which is investing millions in this movie," he said.

"This was a no-no for India-U.S. relations."

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