Here's my favorite celebrity encounter story. As residents of LA, on average we see one or two recognizable celebrities a week, most often in the Whole Foods down the street or the Starbucks a few blocks from our house. There are certain A-listers who if you time it right, you can catch them dropping their kids off at the school down the street or picking up their dry-cleaning at the same place we go.
As I also work in the "industry," I also collaborate or have worked/met with some of the biggest of the big. I mean the guys who draw $20 million a film. My wife and I get invited to big movie premieres and the occasional after-party where we talk shop with the aforementioned movie star. But here's the truth, my wife and I don't really get starstruck. Not sure if we're just used to it, or know some of these people too well to idolize them, or are immune to it because of the way so many people go gaga over my dad. Whatever.
Still there was one time I'll never forget when my wife absolutely swooned in the presence of a movie star. I mean knees buckling, voice stammering, eyes-batting, could not hold her @#$% together starstruck. Not Brad Pitt, not George Clooney, not Tom Cruise, Denzel, Bruce Wayne, Gladiator, or any of the other usual suspects. No we're talking the BIGGEST movie star in the world ladies and gents, Bollywood sensation SHAH RUKH KHAN.
Yeah, the same guy Newark New Jersey Customs officials detained yesterday for several hours on account of Shah Rukh having the same last name as some dude on a terror watchlist somewhere.
Quickly, first the story. My wife Candice is not Indian but has watched countless Shah Rukh Bollywood movies with my two nieces. Shah Rukh is a singing and dancing sensation, often the forlorn lover in his films, bridging tragedy and triumph to make love work. The man knows how to work it and has for the last decade been a maverick in the hysteria of Bollywood. He is a sun among stars in the bright Bollwyood Galaxy. Anyway, so Candice and I are in Mumbai to attend a good friend's wedding. Shah Rukh -- who I had met casually a few times before -- was in attendance at the party, drawing a huge crowd of admirers as expected. Still, at one point, Candice, myself, and Shah Rukh find ourselves face to face. I shook his hand and reminded him that we had met before once or twice.
"Of course," he nodded and smiled, "it's nice to see you again." He turned to Candice. "But madam," he bowed to her and took her hand, "it's a true privilege to meet you." He bent down on his knee and kissed her palm.
Like I said, her knees buckled and her cheeks flushed red. She giggled like a school girl and sheepishly looked away. The moment passed as another admirer pulled Shah Rukh's attention away. Candice would gush over it for weeks....
Back to New Jersey. This is no joke, people. Shah Rukh Khan is the biggest movie star in India, a country of 1.3 billion people, thereby making him the biggest movie star in the world. I'm struggling to find a comparable here in the U.S. No offense to Will Smith or Matt Damon or Pitt, Cruise, Clooney, Angelina or whomever else you can think of, but they all pale in comparison. Maybe Michael Jackson, God rest his soul, or Madonna are vaguely comparable. Maybe.
But here's the thing. It's not just American customs agents being provincial, it's the fact that I would guess that in India alone, there are several million Khans. I'm not joking. Khan is one of the most common Muslim names and India is not even an Islamic country. "Ghengis Khan," anyone? Khan is like Jones or Smith. This is how our security works in the U.S.? This is how we are catching terrorists? Are you kidding me?
A few weeks ago, a big to-do was made about African American Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. getting arrested outside of his own house in Suburban, Massachusetts. Now this. Racial profiling in America, either subtly, as it appears to have happened with Gates in Massachusetts (my hometown), or by the book, as it appears to have happened in N.J., is shameful. It's based on ignorance and it actually perpetuates the same sort of hostility it aims to undo.
I'm not going to get all crazy about this and blow it out of proportion, though I do think it's a big deal and could see it blowing up if Indians in India get galvanized. The point is that despite all of our social networking and our flattening of the world and our East-West fusion culture and the fact that people in Milwaukee do yoga , we're still pretty provincial here in the good ol' US of A and there is an implicit danger to it. Trust me on this one, Shah Rukh Khan is no terrorist. That's not my wife's type.
Gotham Chopra blogs regularly at Intent.com