By Samantha Henry
The Associated Press
NEWARK, New Jersey (AP) — Shah Rukh Khan is one of the most recognizable movie stars in the world.
In nearly every country he travels to, Khan is given a red-carpet welcome and swarmed by thousands of adoring fans.
But the 44-year-old megastar of Bollywood, as Mumbai’s film industry is known, wasn’t recognized at Newark Liberty International Airport last Friday.
He was detained by U.S. immigration officials for more than an hour and held for questioning.
That treatment of the face of the Indian film industry, which churns out an estimated two films a day and generates billions of dollars in ticket sales each year, is reverberating in the U.S. and abroad.
In India on Sunday, angry fans burned a U.S. flag in protest. Fellow Indian film stars and political leaders condemned what they called “humiliating” treatment of the star.
“It’s ironic they picked on someone who is such a symbol of progressive values in India and would be considered so anywhere else in the world,” said Wasim Khan — no relation — an Indian Muslim from New Jersey. “It should be a matter of concern for all of us who believe in a world of greater tolerance and peace and progressing toward a greater understanding among different peoples and cultures.”
Although Hollywood earns more revenue and has more expensive productions, Bollywood dwarfs Hollywood in the number of movies it produces and the frenzy that surrounds its top stars.
And nobody generates more fervor than the man they call “King Khan.”
A Muslim actor in a predominantly Hindu nation, Khan, who is married to a Hindu woman, is often referred to as the “world’s biggest movie star.”
In Bollywood, his appeal stretches far beyond India and deep into the Muslim world — from Indonesia to the Middle East.
His happy-go-lucky personality on and off camera, his reluctance to take sides in politically charged matters, and his ‘can’t we all just get along?’ approach to deep divisions between Muslims and Hindus have made him a defacto ambassador for a global generation striving to overcome ancient hatreds.
Khan initially said his treatment by U.S. authorities left him “angry and humiliated,” but later downplayed those comments and described the airport experience as “a procedure that needs to be followed, but an unfortunate procedure.”
Khan told the Times of India on Monday, Aug. 17, that he didn’t want an apology from the U.S. authorities, he just wanted to go home.
Ironically, Khan was in the U.S. to promote his new film, mainly shot in California, about an Indian Muslim with Asperger’s syndrome living in a post-Sept. 11 America. His character’s anti-social ticks and odd behavior are mistaken by U.S. authorities as suspicious and he’s detained as a suspected terrorist.
U.S. immigration authorities have denied they stopped Khan because of his Muslim surname or that he was flagged on any computer alert lists. They say his questioning was routine and was only prolonged because his bag had been lost by the airline.
The explanation has done little to calm the anger of Khan’s vast fan base, or the ire of Indian Muslims in the U.S., some of whom have been subjected to airport stops in the years following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Saeed Patel, 45, an Indian Muslim from New Jersey who is an American citizen and has three U.S.-born children, was detained last year when returning home to Newark airport.
He is still upset at how he was treated. He is angry, however, that protesters in India are burning the American flag, saying America is much more tolerant of different religions than India.
Patel hopes the incident with Khan becomes a lesson for people to realize Muslims still face profiling.
“Obviously we are outraged,” Patel said. “But in a way, we are sort of glad it happened to him so it becomes something that people talk about.” ♦