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When You Spy Upon A Star
From Indian Times

By Gloria Suhasini

New York – As their plane approached the magic silhouette of Manhattan, like any other 20-year-old tourist coming to New York for the first time, Samyuktha Varma was understandably thrilled. So were the other members of her family traveling with her on American Trans Air Flight 204 from Chicago.

Her father, Ravi Varma, at a windowside seat, called out excitedly, pointing to such world famous landmarks at the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. Tittering in Malayalam, the family repeatedly switched seats.

Fighter jets scrambled to escort the plane with Samyuktha Varma to La Guardia after a 9/11-jitters complaint by a fellow passenger.

It made this usually uneventful approach to New York tense and anxious.

First, Samyuktha Varma was not just any other girl, but the No. 1 rising star of Malayalam cinema, having acted in 18 movies in just three years. And this was after Sept. 11.

A passenger saw Varma and her family excitedly conversing in an alien language combined with what she thought were "suspicious actions." She informed the flight crew, and as per a security drill post-Sept. 11, they informed the pilot who, in turn, notified ground control.

Fighter jets scrambled to escort the plane to La Guardia airport even as Varma, her parents, sister and two colleagues were preparing for the plane to land.

Accompanying Varma and her family were Biju Narayanan, 29, a pop singer in Kerala, and Jairaj Kattanellur, 39, a comedian. Varma, along with Narayanan and Kattanellur, is touring the U.S. with a variety show. The group was flying into New York after performing at the Federation of Kerala Associations of North America convention in Chicago during July 4th through the 5th.

When the plane landed, seven policemen entered, along with the lady passenger who made the complaint. She identified the group and all of them, along with another passenger who had been seen conversing with them, were taken into custody by police. "They came straight to us with the lady and she pointed to us one by one," Narayanan told News India-Times. He said they were taken to a room in the airport where police in plainclothes interrogated the men separately. They were asked about their religion, and whether they had visited Pakistan or Afghanistan. "They asked if I have performed at any concert in Pakistan. I explained to them that Kerala is a small state in south India and that it was not [geographically] close to Pakistan."

Narayanan and Kattanellur were also asked whether they had performed in the Middle East. They said the reason behind these questions could have been the visas to Gulf countries in their passports. "We go there to perform at star nights. Tours like this are not new to us. This is my fourth trip to America," Narayanan said.

But for Varma and her family, this was their first trip to the U.S. According to Narayanan, the actress’ father, Ravi Varma, had a window seat, while his wife and daughters were seated two rows behind. "They were so excited that were exchanging seats to be at the window. Maybe this is what got the lady scared. We were not passing notes like she said. Maybe it was a napkin or something," said Narayanan.

"I don’t know, maybe they thought we were choosing targets or something," the filmstar’s father was quoted as saying by The New York Times, a reference to his somewhat excitedly pointing out landmarks to his family.

Alan Hicks, spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department, told News India-Times, "My understanding is that they were changing seats and passing notes within themselves. We had to act upon the reports by other passengers and the flight crew. The flight landed at 11:10 p.m. The questioning went on until 3:00 a.m." Hicks said Port Authority Police and the Joint Terrorism Task Force interrogated seven passengers.

Varma, whose last film, ‘Thenkasipattanam’ was a blockbuster, said the police asked her and her mother and sister to wait in a "conference hall" while the men were questioned. "They were very polite. We didn’t feel like they were suspecting something was wrong. I thought maybe it was about our visa," Varma told News India-Times.

She added that she is aware that the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the U.S. had had a deep impact on Americans. "They must be really affected very much to suspect us as terrorists," she said, adding, "We were not dressed differently... My sister and I were wearing kurta and jeans."

Silvia Leonza, who sits at the front desk of the Holiday Inn Express in Paramus, N.J., where Varma stayed during the East Coast part of her tour, said there was no reason why they should have been questioned. "People are paranoid after what happened last September. These people, honestly, they don’t look anything like terrorists," said the Hispanic woman.

Cheru Vijayan, promoter of "Show 2002" at Queens College, at which Varma was scheduled to perform on July 20, went to the airport to receive the filmstar. He said the police told him that the group needed to be questioned. "They were allowed to go after four hours," he said.

Varma is not bitter about the experience. "America is a good country, and I understand people are afraid of people who look different," the Times quoted her as saying.

Narayanan, too, looking at the "positive side" of the incident, said: "It will be a big boost to our image. When we go back [to Kerala] we will be invited for talk shows, interviews. Media attention and publicity will be coming our way." But, he added, on a more serious note: "I think we have, in fact, done some good to the Indian people’s image as foreigners. We acted calmly. We didn’t get angry with the lady or the police. We were very cooperative."

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