July 18, 2002
0315 IST

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They were only doing their duty: actress Samyuktha

George Joseph in New Jersey

It was scary. And Samyuktha Varma, while being questioned by police officers, had decided never to come to America again.

"But now, when I reflect on it, I realise they were only doing their duty," she says. "I don't blame them or hold any grudges."

So is the United States off her blacklist now? Yes, smiles the actress.

To begin at the beginning, Samyuktha and five others travelling with her on American Trans Air Flight 204 were questioned on Tuesday night at New York's LaGuardia airport after a fellow passenger found their behaviour 'suspicious' and reported them to the cabin crew.

The police detained seven passengers. Besides Samyuktha, her father Ravi Varma, younger sister Sangamitra, mother Uma, singer Biju Narayanan, comedian Jayaraj Warrier, and an unidentified Indian not part of their group were held.

After being questioned by officers of the New York police, Federal Bureau of Investigation and New York Port Authority, they were released on Wednesday before dawn.

"The police and the FBI officer behaved well," says Samyuktha. "They were friendly and polite. In fact, they even offered us food, but we were not in a frame of mind to have anything."

Contrary to initial reports that said the trouble began because Warrier had started miming on the flight, Ravi Varma said it was just their excitement -- his family was coming to the US for the first time -- that the co-passenger founded suspicious.

"We were generally talking... and I guess, in our excitement, we must have waved our hands and pointed at each other," he said. "Our group was seated in rows 23 and 24. The other Indian, and this lady of around 40, who found us suspicious, were in the same rows."

"But," adds Varma, "it is untrue to say we exchanged notes [initial reports had said so]... We could have just spoken in Malayalam and nobody would have understood us."

When the plane, escorted by American military aircraft, landed, Ravi Varma said "six or seven" policemen came in.

"Everyone was asking what was wrong," he said. "We didn't know about the military aircraft or anything."

The police asked Warrier, Narayanan and the unidentified Indian to accompany them. Later, the rest were asked to join them.

Ravi Varma said the questions asked included where they were coming from, what religion they belonged to, which countries they had visited before, and whether they had ever visited Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Samyuktha is in New York to perform at Show 2002 on July 20, in Queens. Organisers said the drama had not affected the group's plan, and that the show would go on as per schedule.

"But the truth is, anyone can point fingers at anyone," said a miffed C Vijayan, one of the organisers of the show. "The Indians here will face a lot of difficulties because of such unwarranted suspicion."

After Queens, Samyuktha and colleagues are scheduled to visit Washington, DC, Orlando and Philadelphia. They are to return home on July 28.

The incident has attracted a lot of media attention, including from mainstream newspapers, and Samyuktha and the organisers of Show 2002 appeared at an impromptu press conference in New Jersey on Wednesday.

Top Malayalam actress held, let off in New York

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