Posted by Nahrain from ev-01-lr30c.Stanford.EDU (126.96.36.199) on Thursday, July 18, 2002 at 6:45PM :
Bollywood Farce: Indian Actress and Family Are Detained
By LYDIA POLGREEN
he Vermas could have been any family flying into New York City for the first time. Looking down on the glittering island, Ravi Verma delivered an excited monologue in Malayalam, pointing out the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the skyscrapers of the financial district to his wife and two daughters.
This was no ordinary family. One of Mr. Verma's daughters, a star of Bollywood movies, is on a tour of the United States. Her fans in Kerala, in southern India, consider her the Julia Roberts of Malayalam-language films. She has starred in 18.
But other passengers on American Trans Air Flight 204 from Chicago Tuesday night feared that the family had a more sinister purpose. Acting on a nervous passenger's suspicions, the authorities called in two fighter jets to escort the plane to La Guardia Airport, where it landed at 11:05. The entire family, two traveling companions and another man were taken into custody for several hours of questioning by the joint terrorism task force.
"I don't know, maybe they thought we were choosing targets or something," Mr. Verma said yesterday in an interview at his hotel in New Jersey. His 20-year-old daughter the movie star, Samyuktha Verma, is touring in a variety show with an Indian singer and a comedian for audiences across the country. Ms. Verma's last film, "Thenkasipattanam," was the highest-grossing Malayalam film ever.
What unfolded on the flight and at the airport Tuesday night was a comedy of errors worthy of most ingenious screenwriters in Bollywood, India's film industry, Mr. Verma said yesterday. "Really, it was all a misunderstanding," he said.
According to law enforcement officials, a passenger on the flight had been alarmed by the behavior of members of the group and alerted a flight attendant.
"At least one passenger perceived the seven to be engaged in suspicious actions," said Alan Hicks, a spokesman for the Port Authority. "According to passengers they were constantly passing notes and switching seats. A passenger reported this to a flight attendant, who notified the pilot, who notified ground control."
Ms. Verma, a petite, dark-eyed young woman whose quiet, shy demeanor gives no hint that she has starred in 18 movies in the last three years, gave a different account.
"We were enjoying the flight and we were all very excited," she said. "we were arguing over who would sit next to the window because New York is such a beautiful city, and it was our first time here. When the plane landed, the police came on and a woman pointed to us. Then they took the men away."
The men, the other members of Ms. Verma's troupe, were Biju Narayanan, 29, a star pop singer in Kerala, and Jairaj Kattanellur, 39, a comedian specializing in satire and mimicry. The seven or eight police officers also took a third man from India who was not part of the group but was sitting nearby, she said.
"The policemen had guns, and we had never seen anything like this except maybe in films," Ms. Verma said. "We were scared because we didn't know what to do or what we have done."
The men in the group were questioned separately, Mr. Verma said. They were asked what they were doing in America, whether they had been to Pakistan or Afghanistan, and what religion they practiced. They are all Hindus, like the majority of Indians. The police finally decided that the people in the group, who were going to New York from Dallas to perform at Queens College on Saturday, were harmless, and let them go shortly before 4 a.m.
"The tragedy is they left Dallas at 1 o'clock, and they were out until 4 a.m., and hadn't eaten anything but peanuts," said Jacob Roy, publisher of "Malayalampathram," a weekly Malayalam paper that circulates all over the United States, who went to the airport Tuesday night to pick up the group.
News that the actress had been detained annoyed many people in New York's Indian community.
"You know what?" said Aseem Chhabra. "We all look like terrorists." Mr. Chhabra is a freelance journalist in New York who writes about the Indian entertainment industry. "I understand people are still on high alert, even though it has been almost a year after 9/11. We are all scared. But come on. This woman is an actress, not a terrorist."
Lisa Jacobson Brown, a spokeswoman for American Trans Air, said: "The only statement we are going to make is that A.T.A. is doing and will continue doing everything we can to ensure the safety of our passengers."
Ms. Verma had no hard feelings.
"At first I thought I would never want to come to America again, I was so scared," Ms. Verma said.
"But the police were very nice to us. They made sure we were comfortable and they treated us well. America is good country, and I understand people are afraid of people who look different."
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