Actor Kabir Bedi in his own words has had an ‘interesting’ life. From the first Indian actor to star in a James Bond film — Octopussy — to unfathomable success playing ‘Sandokan’ in Italy for which he was knighted by the country and attending parties where the likes of Audrey Hepburn come up to him, he has seen the pinnacle of success up close. And yet, his new book Stories I Must Tell: The Emotional Life of an Actor makes one wonder if we have been chasing the wrong persona.
He speaks to Jyotsna Mohan on a journey of love, hope, pain and resurrection but most of all, he shares the story of a father trying to save his son suffering from schizophrenia. As he tells her, “Men are meant to be strong and protect, they are not meant to break down and cry. It is a huge burden that we carry.”
Your book is gripping right from the beginning. When you start your first chapter with interviewing the Beatles and that ingenuity to get to the Beatles, I had respect for you, all over again.
That is the grit and determination the young start out with. I was working with All India Radio (AIR) because I had to pay my college fees. My parents lived a very idealistic life but that didn’t put money in the bank so when the Beatles came to town, I persuaded them to give me the tape recorder.
I played on the vulnerability of their manager, being a Beatles fan I knew who he was, and I pressurised him into giving this interview by essentially saying the government of India is demanding it. It got me through that door to the Beatles where I even asked John Lennon about drugs.
The aftermath of the interview was equally dramatic where AIR treated it so badly and taped over the interview. I was so appalled with what they did, and it changed everything. At the end of it, I caught a train to Bombay with Rs700.
One of the reasons you moved from Bollywood is because you said you can’t dance and sing around trees. How tough was it for you?
Being an actor who had done Shakespeare, Tuglaq and serious work in the theatre, I didn’t see myself as a singing, dancing star. I love singing and dancing on screen, I watch it and I enjoy it, I just can’t do it. That made me think beyond Bollywood because if you didn’t do it in those days there was no chance of becoming a leading man.
Even the greats like Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand all sang songs, and it is an art form. No one questions why women and men sing in the opera. I don’t question it, but it wasn’t hard for me to say no, although it meant I had to reinvent myself as an actor.
What was it like working in a James Bond film? Was that the pinnacle of your success?
I was a mega star in Europe but being in a Bond film was something special. I was the first Indian actor to be in a Bond film, I was cast correctly as a Sikh and the biggest thrill was coming back to India to shoot in Udaipur. In that dream like setting, dining with Roger Moore and others, I thought I must have died and gone to heaven. It was absolutely, ethereal.
How did you handle your success? There was a time when you were at a department store in Spain and had to be evacuated because there were fears it would collapse with your screaming fans. Do you think you handled it well or in hindsight you would have done things differently?
I think I handled success quite well, but there was a strange edge to my success. I was enormously successful as Sandokan but despite being on every TV show and every magazine cover I was not inundated with film offers.
Then I realised, my God am I going to be a one success wonder in the country of my greatest success, and I realised that I had to push beyond and prove that I was a multidimensional actor and that is one of the reasons that took me to Hollywood. It has been a complex multilayered life to live. Even success had its problems and as did failures, setbacks and wrenching losses.
There was a time in Hollywood when I was going through a very bad time because of the investments I made and was ruined. How do you rise from that? So, it’s not a question of how do, you handle success but how do you handle failures as well.
One of your most high- profile relationships was with actress Parveen Babi. She was at the height of her career as well. The public learnt about her mental health issues much later, unlike you. How was it to have a relationship with a person who is struggling mentally in such a deep way?
The relationship that we had was very intense, it was a very passionate love, but it was overshadowed by the mental issues that she had. It certainly created problems and if you love someone you want to see them heal and this was one of my dilemmas with her.
She had a mortal fear of her mental state being discovered by the industry because there was so much stigma attached to it and she feared the industry would drop her. She even doubted doctors, paranoia sets in. So, I think one of the reasons our relationship ended was because I wanted her healed and she didn’t see it like that.
How tough was it to write about your son Siddharth?
It was very tough, but I wanted people to know what it was like to be in that situation and to know what kind of a person he was and yet, I had to re-live a lot of what I went through. This was about a father preventing his son from committing suicide and what he has, to do to try and prevent that.
In a situation like this it is not just the afflicted that is involved but the care givers are equally sufferers because the person they love is not the same person they knew. There are physical maladies and mental maladies and there is no reason why mental issues should have the stigma that it does because to lose someone in that situation is not just the sorrow of loss but also the guilt of loss.
One of my favourite quotes from your book is “shine the torch on what matters the most, leave the rest in darkness.” Do you think you have lived life on your own terms?
I have lived a very interesting life, a very unusual life. I wouldn’t say my terms because my terms would mean that I get when I want. There were times in my life when I have really struggled with events, setbacks etc.
I had a very fulfilling life and I have been blessed in so many ways, but it doesn’t take away the pain that I suffered in relationships that went wrong or losses that I suffered or terrible financial humiliation I faced along the way. But that is part of being human- the wondrous journey of life.
We all share that, mine was a little different because it was across 3 different continents but in the end, it is the same emotion.