The US Customs and Border Protection’s extra scrutiny of megastar Shah Rukh Khan was triggered by Bollywood’s showbiz having come under the scanner of law enforcement authorities and intelligence agencies for dodgy financial transactions and alleged underworld links.
Khan was questioned closely by CBP agents on his arrival at Newark’s Liberty International Airport last week with emphasis on ascertaining his local US contacts and engagements, an episode that caused an uproar in India, mainly in elite circles. It transpires that Khan was visiting the US primarily for Bollywood shows in Chicago and Houston promoted by brothers Farhath Hussain and Altaf Hussain, with few other local promoters, some of whom are on the radar of authorities in UK, US and India.
Although there was no red flag against Shah Rukh Khan’s name itself, it was his local contacts which triggered off the alert, accorded to sources who asked not to be identified. The situation was compounded by the non-arrival of his baggage from London, a particularly sensitive station in American eyes.
US intelligence agencies have long been leery of a possible terrorist attack by Islamist extremists from a city dubbed Londonistan, particularly since British passport holders do not need a visa to enter the United States.
Farhath Hussain is a London-based businessman who modestly describes himself as the “world’s Number One promoter of Bollywood shows, a showbiz impresario extraordinaire.” His brother Altaf Hussain is a Chicago-based businessman in the gas station industry who founded the Lake County South Asian Entertainment Inc. to tap into the Bollywood showbiz market in US after the eclipse of Vijay Taneja, a former Indian partner whose founded a company called Elite Entertainment.
According to an industry insider, Farhath Hussain and Vijay Taneja had divvied up Bollywood shows in Europe and the US between then for many years. Both had promoted shows featuring Shah Rukh Khan and a number of other Bollywood stars. But Taneja was convicted in a massive mortgage fraud in the Washington DC area last year and sentence to seven years in the clink, allowing brothers Hussain to capture US territory.
Incidentally, the Chicago-based Altaf Hussain bears the same name as the London-based leader of Pakistan’s Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) party, another possible trigger for the CBP red flag. That Altaf Hussain, a key player in Pakistani politics who is frequently accused of sectarian violence (most notably by Imran Khan) was a cab-driver in Chicago before he eventually returned to Pakistan to found MQM to represent Mohajir interests.
Taneja invested some of his ill-gotten wealth in Bollywood extravaganzas, including producing a movie starring Himmesh Reshammiya titled “Aap ka Suroor.” He was $ 77 million in debt when he declared bankruptcy, a step which led to an investigation into his financial shenanigans which destroyed the lives of many home-owners in suburban Washington.
Taneja is currently in prison outside Philadelphia, serving out his sentence even as the Hussain brothers are taking over Bollywood tours in US. Farhath Hussain was till recently managed Shilpa Shetty’s engagements in UK but they are now said to have fallen out, but showbiz insiders credit him with widespread connections in the industry, including with many financiers, which enable him to attract top stars for his US road shows. They said Shah Rukh Khan himself was above board, being a mere pawn in the game, even though he was an acknowledged top draw commanding high fees.
US officials declined to go into the specifics of the Shah Rukh Khan episode citing law enforcement sensitivities. “A lot of stuff we discuss with passenger we can’t reveal because of privacy rules,” CBP spokesman Elmer Camacho told ToI, while maintaining that the actor was treated with due professional courtesy and the process had not taken two hours as claimed.
Comacho also pointed out the actor himself had reeled back from some of the initial comments and acknowledged that the CBP was following a laid-down procedure. Phone numbers listed for brothers Hussain and other promoters of the “South Asia Carnival” went to mailboxes which were full. Messages left to their associate Monty Syed were not returned.
Meanwhile, sources who spoke to ToI described a complex web of financial transactions around Bollywood shows in the west, involving layers of players. At the top of the rung are promoters in Mumbai, who sold shows to overseas players such as Farhath Hussain and Vijay Taneja. These guys in turn sold the shows to local promoters in European and US cities, who banked on ticket sales and retail advertisers to recoup the money they spent to bid for the shows.
Bollywood-starved NRIs pony up anywhere from $ 25 to $ 500 (for the priciest tickets) to see their favorite stars. Top stars, especially a crowd puller like SRK, could command as much as $ 50,000 per show. One source spoke of an actor who was paid $ 900,000 for an 18-city tour that went from Fort Lauderdale in Florida to Los Angeles, California couple of years back.
“Many of these transactions are unreported…you can understand why the business is on the scanner of authorities especially because of the shadow of the underworld on the Bollywood showbiz,” he said.