Shah Rukh Khan said it himself: “The Immigration guys kicked the star out of stardom.” In those nine words Shah Rukh gave us an instant insight into the nature of stardom in India, how we treat our stars and how they perceive themselves.
Whatever Shah Rukh might see as the perks of his stardom, there is one truth not universally acknowledged, especially by stars themselves: Stardom can offer you the world but it entitles you to nothing more than it does the average citizen of India. The perks that come your way are a gift, a bonus, largesse, offerings, courtesies and privileges that spring from love, admiration, fandom, commercial interest or plain obsequiousness.
Forgive the long lists; they are merely to illustrate that US Homeland security is not in the business of extending any of those perks to the average visitor. They've got a job to do and as with so many other professions, they can be over-conscientious or goof up once in a way and they're not always fair.
We now learn that terror mastermind Riyaz Bhatkal and other lesser luminaries of that murky world often use Shah Rukh Khan as an alias, which is why the real McCoy gets questioned every time he sets foot in the US. Immigration officers at New York airport had picked on him in 2009 and then, last week, officers at the small White Plains airport repeated the routine.
Every time this sort of thing happens to Shah Rukh Khan or any other Indian celebrity or politician, there is an uproar from our side, though one fails to understand the rationale behind it. Why should US Immigration treat Shah Rukh or any other star or celebrity differently from you and me? And why should the Ministry of External Affairs demand an apology in this case and not on behalf of thousands of other Indians who are similarly singled out?
This, despite the fact that the US remains unrepentant. Any apologies that are offered are always carefully worded. They express regret for the inconvenience and delay, but they don't promise it won't happen again.
It is reasonably safe to assume that Shah Rukh's Immigration records will show that he was detained for questioning in 2009, but cleared for entry into the US. Which means it is entirely possible they will do it again, should he pay the country another visit.
News is that Shah Rukh is seething at the “humiliation”, especially since the others travelling with him — among them industrialist Mukesh Ambanis's wife Nita Ambani, who was accompanying him to Yale — were cleared without a problem. Would it help him to know that thousands of other Indians have undergone a similar experience? In fact, a number of Indian film production units have run into visa problems presumably because of racial profiling.
Actor Irrfan Khan, who is actually more widely recognised in the US because of his many roles in Hollywood movies, has been detained more than once because of his surname.
Irrfan has taken it in his stride, Shah Rukh decided to talk about it. Because that is Shah Rukh's I-take-things-head-on style. And because superstars don't take kindly to obstructions in their path.
Film stars are our new royalty; they are used to sweeping grandly through doors held open for them, protected by their mobile entourage, much like the maharajas of old.
They are accustomed to people fawning over them, fighting to offer them gifts, begging for an audience in the manner maharajahs' subjects used to.
Many of their nicknames are telling — King Khan and Badshah of Bollywood for Shah Rukh, Shahenshah for Amitabh Bachchan.
They live life king-like, if not king-size. Many of us travelling on an Indian passport have been asked to undergo a body scan or an extra search at airports abroad. Problem is, here in apna Bharat, there is so much bowing and scraping before ‘big names' who get so accustomed to rules being bent or at least disregarded for them that they expect the same everywhere else.
It's the same principle that lets “VIPs” speed walk through the queues at Tirupati while the masses sweat it out. Or sees Sachin Tendulkar asking for the duty on his Ferrari to be waived when he got it free to begin with. Sure, Sachin has done us proud, he is a great batsman and the rest of it. So give him the Bharat Ratna if you want, but not a duty waiver, please.
Shah Rukh can legitimately hope to get a Padma Bhushan or a National Award but to expect special treatment from US Homeland security is pushing it. And he knows it. As he joked later at Yale, where he had been invited to speak, “Whenever I start feeling too arrogant about myself, I make a trip to America.”
Perhaps some part of Shah Rukh's discomfort at the questioning is because he's being subjected to a different kind of grilling in his interactions back home with another ruthless entity — the Indian media. If it's not his alleged bashing up of Shirish Kunder, it is his falling out with ex-buddy Salman Khan. Or, now, rumours of his link-up with co-star Priyanka Chopra. With his wife Gauri and her gang of girlfriends leading a social boycott of Priyanka, Shah Rukh's marriage seems to have hit some serious turbulence. And that could well turn out be far more dangerous than those pesky Immigration officers.