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Sunday, September 26, 2021

When actor Kabir Bedi took the West by storm

The actor's autobiography 'Stories I Must Tell' is replete with stories of incredible encounters, international success and great personal losses

Written by Alaka Sahani |
Updated: August 1, 2021 9:33:34 am
Bedi, who lives in Mumbai with wife Parveen Dusanj, and is now prepping for a south Indian film, says his story is also about hope and regeneration.

Kabir Bedi wanted his readers to feel like “a fly-on-the-wall” as scenes from his life unfolded on the pages of his autobiography, Stories I Must Tell: The Emotional Life of an Actor (Westland, Rs 699). To that end, he even stuck a note on his computer that said: “Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable”. “Going over some of my experiences was extremely painful and difficult,” recalls the 75-year-old in a video interview, “Yet, writing it was also an opportunity to relive the euphoria of being a very popular TV star in Europe after the success of Sandokan (1976), working in a James Bond film, Octopussy (1983), and being watched by millions across the world.”

One of three children born to Baba Pyare Lal Singh Bedi, a freedom fighter, author and philosopher and Freda Bedi (née Freda Marie Houlston), an English woman who later became a Buddhist nun, Bedi had an itinerant childhood and youth in different parts of India, including Jammu and Kashmir, Nainital, Shantiniketan and Delhi.

The book opens with his life’s biggest “oh-my-god” encounter — meeting The Beatles, when the rockstars made an unscheduled stop in Delhi. As a 21-year-old freelance All India Radio (AIR) reporter, the then St Stephen’s College student managed to get an exclusive interview on July 7, 1966. “Being in the same room with The Beatles meant being with the greatest symbols of the ’60s, the most exciting decade. It was a time of hippies, social changes, the counterculture movement, psychedelia and street protests,” he says. The AIR aired the interview a week later without any promotion. It was lost soon after as they recorded some other programme over it. Disillusioned, Bedi left AIR for Mumbai, with Rs 700 in his wallet and a dream of becoming “a film director”.

In a still from the film Khoon Bhari Maang opposite Rekha;

In his initial heady days in Mumbai, he met the free-spirited model Protima Bedi (née Gupta), who later became an Odissi dancer. In the book, Bedi opens up about the complexities of his “open marriage” with Protima and the joy of becoming a father to daughter Pooja and son Siddharth. At the time, he worked in advertising and was foraying into theatre, where he made heads turn with his near-naked (save a loincloth) appearance in the opening scene of Alyque Padamsee’s Tughlaq in the early ’70s.

By the mid-’70s, he shot to international stardom after being cast in the Sergio Sollima-directed Italian TV show Sandokan as its titular lead — a fictional Asian pirate who fought the British for his people’s freedom. “The success of Sandokan is extraordinary. It gave me the kind of fan following that actors dream of. It put me on the cover of magazines, built a life-long relationship with the Italians and brought me the highest civilian honour of Italy, ‘Cavaliere’, in 2010,” says Bedi, who also acted in a Sandokan spin-off (1977) and was one of the first actors to have had a successful international crossover. Despite that, in Hollywood, his success was far more modest, given that few interesting roles were written for Indian actors. “But I ended up working in a number of significant shows and HBO series. Apart from Octopussy, I was in The Bold and The Beautiful (1987-),” says the actor, who also appeared in The Thief of Baghdad (1978), Highlander (1995) and Murder, She Wrote (1988), among others.

His career abroad set the stage for some incredible encounters. “(Actor) Omar Sharif became a friend. He had an idiosyncratic and brilliant mind. Every night, he got bored and fought with guests over dinner. Meeting ‘the James Bond’ Sean Connery is another significant experience. Michael Caine (co-actor in Ashanti, 1979) was nicest of the lot,” he says, adding how his meeting with the “beautiful elf-like personality” Audrey Hepburn, whose films he’d “admired since college days”, was “absolutely magical”.

With Roger Moore in Octopussy.

At home, the Rekha-starrer Khoon Bhari Maang (1988) would bring in a special fan following and be his “most well-known work in India”. “I was shooting the TV series Magnum P.I. (1980-88) with Tom Selleck (Richard from Friends) in Honolulu, when Rakesh Roshan called. He wanted me to play the lead in his next movie in which the hero turns out to be a villain. No actor wanted to do it and if he cast an actor known for negative roles, the surprise would be lost,” says Bedi.

While his international career was on a roll, at home, he met and had an intense romance with actor Parveen Babi. The stories of Protima and Parveen stand out amid the several women Bedi was associated with. He says: “They (Protima and Parveen) had great qualities as well as weaknesses. I think of the enormous love and great times I shared with them. In a sense, I grew up with both.”

The actor is equally candid about other aspects of his life. The heartbreaking chapter “Saving My Son” begins with his son Siddharth talking to him about suicide, on a walk along the Santa Monica beach, close to his then residence in California, the US. There’s a moving meticulousness as he recounts Siddharth’s last days in detail, especially, his funeral when he died by suicide aged 25, in 1997. “I kept a logbook about Siddharth. It was also to let his mother (Protima) know everything about him and his treatment. I hoped, prayed and did everything possible for a happy ending,” he says.

Bedi, who lives in Mumbai with wife Parveen Dusanj, and is now prepping for a south Indian film, says his story is also about hope and regeneration. “Today, I have the wisdom to look at all the incredible achievements and tragedies with a different perspective, give them more meaning, understand people and the emotions (much better),” he says.

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