Kabir Bedi on his latest memoir: 'My life has had more drama than a soap opera’
Pandemic-induced lockdown restrictions made actor Kabir Bedi pen the bestselling memoir, Stories I Must Tell: The Emotional Journey of An Actor, which captures a ‘turbulent professional and emotional life’
Indian actor Kabir Bedi’s “unputdownable memoir” Stories I Must Tell: The Emotional Life of An Actor is both cathartic and revelatory, as he has “poured his heart into the book about his turbulent professional and emotional life”. Few actors, especially from the Indian subcontinent, have shown the courage and disarming candour to make their lives an open book and allowed to be put under media scrutiny. wknd. caught up with Bedi, 75, to get a sneak peek into his exciting life. Edited excerpts from the interview:
What was the trigger to write Stories I Must Tell: The Emotional Life of An Actor?
I’ve lived an extraordinary life across the world with more drama than a soap opera. I knew I had to tell my story. I pulled the trigger many times in the last 10 years but kept firing blanks. I wanted my book to be unputdownable. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic gave me time to think more deeply, and I found the perfect way to tell it.
Pick the most prominent incident that changed the course of your tumultuous life.
Many incidents changed my life. The first was my breakthrough interview with the Beatles as a reporter for the All India Radio (AIR), beating the entire Delhi press corps. The disaster that followed it made me set off for Bombay (now called Mumbai) with INR700 (Dh35) in my pocket. I’ve vividly recounted that life-changing turning point in my book.
What was the most volatile relationship and, in hindsight, why do you think so?
I’ve had many volatile relationships. Two of the most dramatic were with my first wife Protima Bedi and then actor Parveen Babi. I have written about my relationships with great honesty, not even sparing myself, like scenes out of a movie. Both affected my life very deeply.
What was the most breathtaking success?
The Italian series, Sandokan, was certainly my most breathtaking success. It made me a star in Europe and South America. It broke every record of TV viewership in Europe, a record which lasted for decades. I’ve written about the joys and dangers of that euphoric time. Italy knighted me with their highest civilian honour, Cavaliere, for my lifetime achievements.
What was the most wrenching setback and why was it so?
The most heart-wrenching tragedy was the suicide of my brilliant 25-year-old son, Siddharth, which I wrote with great pain. I was also wrecked by bad investments I made in America which forced me to file for bankruptcy, a deeply humiliating setback for a celebrity.
How did you reinvent your acting career?
Brick by cinematic brick. Each time I hit a dead-end I rose like the proverbial Phoenix from the ashes, whether it was in Bollywood, Europe or Hollywood. It takes a lot of mental energy to pull yourself out of the dark space, which you fall into when faced with terrible setbacks. But worrying doesn’t solve problems, decisions and actions do. Positivity is the only answer to negative situations. It’s a strength that serves me well and has stood the test of time.
Did your biracial roots help you find success in the West and Hollywood?
I have never thought of myself as biracial. My mother, Freda Bedi, was English by birth but Indian in spirit. She fought for India’s independence alongside my father. She was even a handpicked satyagrahi (an exponent of non-violent resistance) of Mahatma Gandhi. But, yes, the looks that I inherited from my parents gave me the ability to play more than Indian roles. In the American television series The Bold and the Beautiful, I played a Moroccan Prince; in Ashanti, I was a Tuareg tribesman; in The Beast of War, I played an Afghan Pashtun. Only as the villain in the James Bond film Octopussy was I cast correctly as a Punjabi Sikh.
Why didn’t your career blossom in Bollywood as compared to many of your contemporaries?
Truth be told, I was out of India for 30 of my best acting years. Before I left, my early hits, such as Raj Khosla’s Kuchhe Dhaage and Raj Kumar Kohli’s Nagin made me famous in India. That’s what led to the Italians finding me. So, Bollywood gave me much to be grateful for, I harbour no resentments. Even in the middle of my Hollywood years, Rakesh Roshan called me back for Khoon Bhari Maang, where I starred alongside Rekha, which became my biggest hit in Bollywood. Since returning to India, I’ve done two films with Hrithik Roshan, two with Shah Rukh Khan, and one with Akshay Kumar. Akbar Khan’s Taj Mahal: An Eternal Love Story, where I played Shah Jahan, got outstanding reviews at the Dubai Film Festival. I’m still working in Bollywood.
How profound have been the influence of your parents Freda Bedi and Baba Pyare Lal Bedi on your life, as they were freedom fighters, who had fought against British colonial rule?
My parents shaped me by the example of their lives. They were Oxford graduates, who gave up everything for the causes they believed in, such as India’s independence, the rehabilitation of Kashmiri and Tibetan refugees, and their religious beliefs. Their lives gave me the courage to take the path less trodden, blaze new trails, take unthinkable risks to pursue my dreams. They gave me the guts to reinvent myself: from radio broadcasting to advertising, from acting in theatres to films, from Bollywood to Europe and Hollywood. They gave me the inner strength to overcome great adversity. They taught me the importance of kindness, compassion, and caring for others. As Mark Twain said, “Kindness is the language the blind can see, and the deaf can hear.” It doesn’t take much to be kind to others, but it means everything to those who receive it. I got my strengths and learnt my values from my parents.
How do you think Hollywood has evolved and no longer stereotypes Asian or Arab actors like they did with you, Art Malik, Saeed Jaffrey or Omar Sharif?
Stereotyping is still the norm in Hollywood. The biggest challenge I faced in Hollywood was that hardly any roles were being written for Indian and South Asian actors. Even when such roles came up, it often went to a white actor who was painted brown. Diversity in casting wasn’t an issue then. I protested about it in trade journals like Screen International. Today, roles are being written for diverse ethnicities. So, things are easier for us, but nothing is ever easy in this business for foreign actors. That’s why I salute the Hollywood success of Priyanka Chopra, who launched my book. She’s shown how it can be done today. Omar Sharif was the first actor from the East to become a big star in Hollywood. I did three films with him, and we had some great times together. He had some idiosyncrasies too, which I talk about in my book. Omar Sharif has always been an inspirational figure for me.
Your life can be summed up in two parts – Bohemian and spiritual. What’s the most outrageous thing you did as an inveterate Bohemian? Would you reset it given a choice?
Let me speak of the spiritual first. My father was a descendant of Guru Nanak. My mother went on to become the highest ranked Buddhist nun in the world. I was also ordained as a Buddhist monk for three months in my youth. I’ve always had a great spiritual curiosity about the truths of our beliefs and existence. A chapter in my book chronicles my lifelong search for answers, and what I’ve come to believe.
We were the original Bohemians of Bollywood. I was a creation of the 1960s, the most exciting decade of the 20th century. Social, cultural, and sexual revolutions were sweeping the West. Psychedelic sounds of The Beatles, the radical music of Bob Dylan, hordes of hippies screaming at Woodstock were symbols of those times. The Pill liberated people sexually. The most outrageous thing I did? As the Americans say, “I plead the Fifth”, meaning I have the right not to incriminate myself. I don’t regret any of it. As I said in my book, it was a terrific time to be young.
What are the three causes closest to your heart?
First, the cause of the blind and visually challenged. I represent SightSavers India, a charity that has performed over five million eye operations for free. Second, life-changing opportunities for the poorest. I’m also honorary brand ambassador for Care and Share Italia, which raises money in Italy for children in the slums of India. It picks them, looks after them and educates them from kindergarten to university. Last, but not least, the betterment of India in all the ways I can help. It’s the legacy of my parents who fought for India’s freedom.
And finally, is a 2.0 ofStories I Must Tell: The Emotional Life of An Actor on the anvil?
I’ve been blown away by the reviews I’ve received. And I certainly have more stories to tell. But first, please read the ones I’m telling you now. My book is a thrilling, enlightening and entertaining read. Let me know if you want more. I’ll make your wish come true.