Shah Rukh Khan’s detention at the Los Angeles airport may have outraged many in India but popular actor Kamal Haasan thinks the US authorities were following rules and were correct in not giving the Bollywood star special treatment.
“We don’t need to overreact just because this Khan is a Shah Rukh. I don’t think Shah Rukh himself minded the detention. He would never say, ‘I am Shah Rukh Khan, so I should be treated differently,” the legendary Tamil cinestar said.
Haasan said Shah Rukh’s fan may feel injured on his behalf but the US was an injured nation that was just being careful.
“It happened to me and I had to miss my flight. There was no great apology or anything. It’s the rules they’re following.”
Haasan doesn’t recommend a separate treatment by the US immigration to Shah Rukh. “I’d recommend that they be kind to all Khans. They can’t generalise about all Khans. It’s as awful as saying all Americans are stupid.”
Another actor, Irrfan Khan, has gone through the ordeal of being detained on two occasions in American airports and dropped the Khan from his name.
But Haasan said he was willing to go the other way and change his name from Kamal to Qamal. “I’m often mistaken for a Muslim and I don’t correct the misconception. My brothers Charu Haasan and Chandra Haasan don’t have to face this,” he said.
“Please remember the fabric of our nation is woven with saffron, white and green. We can’t pull out any of the colours. We have to co-exist. The crusades are over.”
Irrfan told me that more than physical torture, the wound of humiliation never heals after a “horrific experience”.
“It happened to me on two occasions. I was detained in New York and Los Angeles airport for secondary interrogation. I was outraged. I was told to quietly come into a room for questioning and identification verification. I wasn’t allowed to talk. When I tried to ask why I was being treated this way, I was told to keep quiet. I wasn’t allowed to use my phone. They said, ‘No, you just sit down.’ All because my name was Irrfan Khan. You can’t argue or rationalize,” the actor said.
Director Kabir Khan, known for his blockbusters Ek Tha Tiger and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, also had to face the brunt of what he called Islamophobia in the United States.
He said when he was flying from Los Angeles to Washington and talking to a co-passenger in Hindi when others complained they were talking in a ‘strange’ language. Within no time two burly FBI agents came on board and took him and his co-passengers to the front of the plane.
“When they got to know my name, they questioned me for more than two hours, googled my name for terrorist links and then finally allowed me to fly,” he said.
“We were flying just 15 days after 9/11 so the fear and paranoia were not totally unjustified.”
He said he was asked by the FBI agents if he had been to Pakistan. “I told them no. If I had told them that I had been to Afghanistan, they’d have freaked out.”
He said two other passengers on board refused to fly with them and were asked to de-board.
“So you see post 9/11 persecution comes with its inbuilt safety measures. But I honestly think a part of the global fear is justified. We can’t blame people for being paranoid after what had happened.”
However, when Kabir was questioned again at an American airport he refused to take it lying down.
“On a second occasion in New York, when I was detained, I blew my top. I told this big Black American guy, ‘Please clear the confusion about my identity once and for all. Or don’t provide me with a visa. I don’t want to come back to the US.’ The guy wanted to know if it was a threat. I was taken aback. Mira Nair had to intervene. She advised me to never counter-question them,” he said.
“This is the free spirit of America. This 90-minute detention changed me completely. Can you imagine what a 90-day detention can do to an innocent man thrown into jail.”
Haasan too is a defiant mood and thought at one point to change his name to a more pronounced Islamic-sounding ‘Qamal Haasan’.
“I thought of it just to show a sense of solidarity with my Muslim brothers, including Shah Rukh whom I am very fond of. It doesn’t matter whether I am really Muslim or not. If I have to suffer for my name I’m willing to do so,” said Haasan.
The actor said his father did a “mischievous thing” because of his quirky sense of humour and gave him a Muslim-sounding name. “And the ambiguity of my name does confuse the Americans. I enjoy that. My father too enjoyed the ambivalence. In fact he was keen that I spell my name ‘Kamal’ with ‘Q’ in a very Islamic way,” he said.
“I almost listened to him. Then I backtracked. But I feel I should go for it. While he was alive he would often ask me if I was mistaken me for a Muslim.”
Haasan said he is frequently taken aside by the US immigration department and asked questions. “Just because we do business with America they think we are questionable. If we’re so touchy about immigration rules in American, we shouldn’t be doing business with them.”
Haasan felt racial and cultural suspicions existed in every society, even in India.
“Talk to an Afghani who comes to visit India. Afghani students can’t get rooms to stay in India. There’s resistance to Afghani passports in India. And why are we so touchy about American treatment? They’ve a 9/11 to caution them. With 9/11 Australia is hostile to Indians. India should stop acting paranoid about racial profiling.”
However not every Khan is unhappy with the treatment in American airports.
Foreign travel is no longer a hassle for television actor Iqbal Khan. Till recently, he was denied a visa to the US because of his surname.
But that has changed.
“My foreign trips, specially trips to the US, are no longer a hassle. After the media took up the issue of my visa, I received a call from the American consulate. Now I’ve a 10-year visa to the US,” Iqbal said.
He said he was deeply embittered by the religious, cultural and racial segregation he witnessed while applying for a visa to the US but is now happy to report American airports have a prayer room.
“I pray five times a day. And I’m happy to say there’s prayer room on the American airports. It makes travel to America all the more pleasant and welcome,” he said.