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,"
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 dont know, maybe they thought
we were choosing targets or something," the filmstars
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 didnt 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 dont
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 peoples image
as foreigners. We acted calmly. We didnt get angry with the
lady or the police. We were very cooperative."
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