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Harrowing time in Toronto

ON APRIL 27 evening, one of Asia's most well known actors was prevented from boarding a flight in Canada. Reason? He was suspected to be a terrorist! ``You can't have a name like Kamal Haasan, which sounds very Islamic, and hope to be left in peace in the American subcontinent," Kamal told this writer on the phone from Toronto soon after the episode. Kamal Haasan who was there shooting for his latest comedy in Tamil ``Panchathantram" replayed the entire harrowing and humiliating incident he was involved in at the Toronto airport. He went there to board a flight to Los Angeles, U.S.

``It started quite comically, actually," Kamal began. ``The customs authorities asked me what I was doing in that part of the world. I told them I was shooting for a film. They then asked me who my producer was. I told them my producer's name. Then they asked me why I was flying to Los Angeles. I told them I was going for prosthetic makeup. They evidently didn't know what that was. I explained I needed to assume a particular look for the character I was playing in my next film (for director Priyadarshan). They then wanted to know who was paying my air travel bills. I pleaded ignorance about such minute details. They said I must have all these important details handy for customs purposes. I assured them my papers were in order. But one of the officers led me inside almost as though I was one of bad guys in Rambo," Kamal Haasan laughed drily.

Reliving the difficult hours at the alien airport, Kamal Haasan continued: ``I requested them to let me make a call to my producer who, incidentally, was supposed to fly out from Toronto the same night, back to India.

The customs authorities refused. `You're not allowed to use cell phone,' was the reply. They made me wait for half an hour and then interrogated me again. This time I was grilled like a terrorist. `Are you going for shooting to L.A.?' I said I was going to finalise some points regarding my makeup. `Then why did you tell us you were going for shooting?' they shot back. I told them I never said that, and what I said was I had finished shooting in Toronto and was proceeding to L.A. for makeup. `You mean to say you do makeup in L.A. and shoot in India?' they asked.''

``I explained that the special makeup was being designed for a film. `So you work in the U.S. Do you have a work permit?' they asked me. Then they wanted to know why I was in Las Vegas before going to Toronto. I patiently explained that I was there for a convention of National Association Of Broadcasters.

Then they suddenly said I could leave. When I looked at my ticket it said, `REFUSED'. I asked them if that meant I couldn't board my flight to L.A., and they said, `No, you can't.'

Stranded in Toronto on a Sunday, a holiday, Kamal Haasan woke up all his friends in the American embassy. ``When the customs guys were asked about my treatment they said I wasn't polite. That's a pure lie. I didn't once throw my weight around or try to impress on them who I was.''

``I didn't allow my face to reveal exasperation. I'm a great fan of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. If the immigration authorities expected me to grovel, I was not going to do it. I would rather not travel. No, I wasn't impolite. They were impolite. I was upset because people were waiting for me in L.A. My Tamil fans and friends in Toronto are very upset.

Kamal Haasan is not the first Indian showbiz icon to be harassed in this way. Earlier this month, Aamir Khan was interrogated for an hour and even strip-searched at the airport in Chicago.

``His name is Aamir Khan and mine is Kamal Haasan. We can't get away with Islamic names like these after what bin Laden did. As a matter of fact when I landed in L.A. earlier this month, the reception was not very warm. The customs authorities gave me the why-are-you-here looks.

Other Indians in the queue rushed to my rescue. But at Toronto I was alone. There were no fans around. One can understand the country's anxiety after September 11.

But is it fair to harass any brown skinned person they come across? The name and lack of beard made me an easy target," Kamal concluded.

SUBHASH K. JHA

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