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Actor's U.S. Detention Sparks Outrage In India


The United States and India are allies and more or less friends, but from time to time they have a falling out, which is what happened in the last few days. The controversy is about how U.S. officials treated one of India's most familiar faces. NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves has been tracking the story.

PHILIP REEVES: To follow this story, you need to know who this man is.

Mr. SHAH RUKH KHAN (Actor): And it's not that I don't have time and I'm anyone important, but I always got…

REEVES: Half the world's never heard of him. The other half calls him king. He's Shah Rukh Khan, one of India's most revered actors, the 43-year-old star of a long list of blockbusters. Khan is to Bollywood what Brad Pitt is to Hollywood. Anyone who's spent more than a day in south Asia knows who he is. Every time I log onto an Indian newspaper, Khan's craggy yet youthful features seem to gaze out of the screen, especially at the moment.

In the last few days, Shah Rukh Khan's been at the center of a huge controversy. It's about what happened last week when he landed in the United States, where he has many fans. There are differing accounts. There's no doubt, though, King Khan was questioned by U.S. officials at Newark International Airport in New Jersey for more than one hour. When this news reached India's shores, there was outrage. Its TV anchors went into overdrive.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man: Shah Rukh Khan has suffered deep humiliation at the hands of agents at a United States airport. In fact…

REEVES: Security checks at American airports are a very touchy subject among South Asians. They often complain of feeling humiliated by being singled out for questioning. This complaint's particularly common from those with a Muslim background and name like Khan.

There's another issue in play here. When they're on home territory, India's celebrities tend to be treated like royalty. They're used to fawning, not frisking. Indians routinely give them special treatment. A large number of VIPs, though not actors, are actually exempt by law from security checks in Indian airports.

Many Indians were genuinely scandalized when it emerged a few weeks back that security personnel from Continental Airlines searched a former Indian president as he boarded a flight from India to the U.S. Those same people are even more angry now that their movie idol Shah Rukh Khan's suffered a similar indignity.

Not everyone feels that way. An intriguing and nuanced public debate's going on in India over the way Shah Rukh Khan was treated. Some people have come out on America's side, arguing that U.S. border staff were only doing their job. Remember, it's only eight months since a bunch of militants sailed into Mumbai - the home of Bollywood - from Pakistan and killed more than 160 people. That was just one attack. Indians have endured plenty of others. They know all about the need for a nation to protect itself.

Some Indian commentators are now arguing it's time for India to stop giving VIPs special privileges and treat them like everyone else. As for Shah Rukh Khan, at first he seemed to take offense. He's since downplayed the incident, acknowledging airport checks are necessary, but saying the U.S. needs to fine-tune its approach.

The debate's throwing up one or two unsavory fringe elements - Indian Hindu nationalists, for example, who are only too happy to see Muslims being given a hard time. Some cynics are muttering that the whole thing's about publicity. Shah Rukh Khan is starring in a movie due out early next year. It happens to be called, "My Name is Khan," and is about the racial profiling of Muslims.

But the cynics view won't wash with many South Asians who feel they deserve a warmer welcome when they arrive in the land of the free, and that the way Shah Rukh Khan was treated proved their point.

Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.