Free thought. Free spirit. Free love. Kabir Bedi was associated with the cultural counterpart of the flower power movement that seduced the West in the late ’60s. Embracing its social and sexual liberation, Kabir and wife Protima Gauri were among the early converts in India. Though their open marriage eventually pulled down the curtains on their relationship, life for Kabir since then has been a travelogue of emotions and experiences.
A Greek God air, bourbon eyes and a baritone that could shush all chatter… Kabir Bedi’s exotism took him to the global stage. While his heroic pirate in Sandokan is part of Italian folklore, his Gobinda in James Bond’s Octopussy and his turn in the American soap The Bold And The Beautiful remain prominent among many such outings.
A tempestuous affair with Parveen Babi, transient marriages with Susan Humphreys and Nikki Bedi and finally the vows with a way younger Parveen Dusanj… just a day before he turned 70… only underline that Kabir is a life enthusiast, someone who’s wisely turned the setbacks into souvenirs… Excerpts:
Your book, Stories I Must Tell: The Emotional Journey Of An Actor, has won Amazon India’s most Popular Book of 2021 in the biographies section…
My book talks of my strengths and frailties, my milestones and my mistakes with great candour. Obviously, it touched a chord. It’s the story of my journey, including my interview with Beatles as a cub reporter, joining Bollywood, doing the blockbuster Sandokan in Italy, moving to Hollywood… It also reveals the enormous setbacks in the middle years of my life, my bankruptcy in Hollywood, and how I resurrected myself again.
Coming to the memoir, I had formidable competition because there was Priyanka Chopra (Unfinished: A Memoir) and Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra’s (The Stranger In The Mirror co-authored by Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta) books in the biography category as well. I thank them for their generous support. Priyanka, in fact, graciously launched my book.
Can we expect more books from you?
In this book, I just focussed on the transformational experiences, the turning points, the crucial relationships. There were other remarkable stories that I had to leave out. Now that I have received such wonderful recognition, I’d like to tell other stories from my life.
Was it cathartic putting pen to paper?
I healed in a way, I mourned in a way, I found closure about many things. Writing the book was an emotional experience. In fact, the subtitle of the book is: The emotional journey of an actor. I have expressed everything through the prism of emotion.
You will be celebrating your 76th birthday… How young do you feel?
In my mind, I’ve never crossed never 50. (Laughs) In spirit, I’m still 25. Spiritually, I am 5000 years old. So, you can calculate my age anyway you want. Every year, I celebrate my ‘50th birthday’. I’m perpetually living the golden age of my life. I believe my best is yet to come.
You’re amongst the few actors, who have worked across three continents…
I was the first Bollywood actor to have made a career in Europe with the Italian television series Sandokan (1976). Italy has given me such immense honour. In Hollywood, I did the American series The Bold And The Beautiful (1994) and the James Bond film, Octopussy (1983), all of which got me recognition around the world. It’s immensely gratifying. The biggest challenge was the fact that roles for South Asian actors were not written those days. I’m glad that’s changed. Today, actors like Priyanka Chopra are scaling new heights. It’s a matter of great pride.
Did your gorgeous looks work as an impediment in Bollywood as initially people refused to look beyond that?
Actually, it was me, who decided to move beyond Bollywood. After my initial films Hulchal, Rakhi Aur Hathkadi, Sazaa, Kuchhe Dhaage, Manzilein Aur Bhi Hain, Nagin… in the ’70s, it was my decision to go international. When the Italians came to Mumbai to look for the iconic Sandokan, I did everything in my power to win that audition. It made me a huge star in Europe.
Having said that, I’m eternally grateful to Bollywood for giving me opportunities through the years. My most successful film, Khoon Bhari Maang (1988), happened in the middle of my Hollywood years. Director Rakesh Roshan called me back from Honolulu (Hawaii), where I was shooting the TV series, Magnum P.I. with Tom Selleck. Yalgaar (1992) was a great tribute to my friend Feroz Khan. Ashutosh Gowariker gave me the powerful role of an evil emperor in Mohenjo Daro (2016).
Do you attribute your extraordinary trajectory to being a rebel?
I’ve been a rebel of sorts, always pushing the envelope in terms of what I was expected to do. Being a child of the ’60s, we were influenced by the ‘flower power’ movement, the social, sexual and cultural revolutions happening around the globe. We wanted to be symbols of that in India. That led to many interesting situations, including my marriage to Protima (Bedi) in 1969 and my relationship with Parveen Babi. I’ve chronicled it all in my book, with heart and without fuss. I’m a copywriter by nature. I write directly yet evocatively.
Were Protima and you too independent for each other?
Protima was a remarkable woman. She was a force of nature, untameable in many ways. I had my own sense of what I wanted to do. So, we were both strong individuals. We got married at a young age and grew up together. It was a coming of age for both of us. Our normal marriage transformed into an open marriage. We were both headed in different directions. What happens in that situation is mentioned in my book. Nevertheless, it was a huge experience and learning for us. Above all, we had two beautiful children, (actor Pooja Bedi and the late Siddharth Bedi) for whom I’m ever grateful.
What did Parveen Babi bring to your life?
Parveen was an extremely sensitive and intelligent woman. She had a great capacity to love. What happened with her was extremely tragic. She gave me enormous love, a sense of togetherness and yet the cloud of her deteriorating mental condition hung over us. The tragedy of her mental illness was unfolding when I was going through my greatest success in Europe, Sandokan. It was a difficult period for me. But at the same time, I thank her for the many things she gave me, including love.
Usually, when someone suffers from a mental breakdown, it’s Easy to blame the partner. Doesn’t such a partner also need compassion?
Of course, the suffering need compassion just as the caregiver, the person living with him or her. In a sense, the caregivers suffer much more as they’re dealing with a changed reality and trying to adjust to it. They give up much of their life in a bid to make life better for the afflicted.
Danny Denzongpa, Mahesh Bhatt and you, all the three men with whom Parveen was involved, joined her quiet funeral…
Parveen deserved that respect. Well, we shared her life and she shared ours. At the heart of it, we deeply cared for her though we couldn’t prevent her breakdown.
Despite your bohemian image, were your subsequent marriages to fashion designer Susan Humphreys and actor/anchor Nikki Bedi, a bid to find emotional permanence?
I was seeking a love that resonated with me. I found it in various forms. But not until I married Parveen Dusanj, did I find the love that I was looking for. My search for love has ended with Parveen Dusanj.
Your marriage to Parveen Dusanj (January 2016), your fourth, a day before your 70th birthday speaks of your optimism…
(Laughs) I try to be positive about everything in life. You can choose to live your life lamenting what you don’t have and all that went wrong. Or you can be grateful for what you have and enjoy the moment.
How has the meaning of love changed for you through time?
Love, like God, is the most used and abused word. Everyone has their own concept of it. But at the heart of it, love is companionship and mutual respect. That’s what endures. My parents, Baba Pyare Lal Singh Bedi and Freda Bedi, moved on from being revolutionaries to religious figures. Even as spiritual figures, they went their different ways. My mother became a Buddhist nun and my father a philosopher in Italy. Yet there was always deep love and respect between them, even when they were divided by continents and beliefs. That’s the definition of love in its highest and purest form.
The most painful experience you wrote was losing your 25-year-old son Siddharth to schizophrenia in 1997. How did it change your perspective towards life?
Buddhism talks about the impermanence of everything in life. That’s only a concept until you actually experience it in the death of a brilliant son with technical acumen. Siddharth was an alumnus of the Carnegie Mellon University and had the world before him. You realise that life comes in different forms and impermanence is central to it. It makes you realise the value of relationships, health and life itself. You begin to value the things you so far took for granted.
Would you say you’re a pilgrim in progress – much like your parents?
I’ve always been a pilgrim. All religions give us wonderful human values to live by. But philosophically, they underline different things. Some talk about reincarnation, some about a single life, some about destiny, some of free will… What is the truth about our existence? This question has remained with me all my life. I’ve sought answers from gurus, from books, from religions… What I have come to believe, I have put in my book.
Does your granddaughter, Alaya F, make you proud?
Parenthood comes with responsibility. Children have to be brought up with values and taught what’s right and wrong. But grandchildren (Alaya F and Omar Furniturewala) are to be enjoyed. I’m immensely proud of both, particularly Alaya. Presenting her the Filmfare Award for Best Debut (Jawaani Jaaneman 2020) was an emotional point in my life. I’m sure she’s destined to be a fine actor.
What’s up next?
Apart from being part of the Grande Fratello, the Italian version of the reality TV show Big Brother, I’ve shot for a few projects in India including Gunasekhar’s Telugu epic Shaakuntalam, Debaditya Bandopadhyay’s The Jangipur Trial with Bengali actor Shatabadi Roy and Baa with Neena Gupta.