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I was the first Bollywood actor to make a career in Hollywood

Kabir Bedi revisits the ups and downs of life as an actor, lover and family man, in his candid new memoir

Kabir in London in 1990s.
Kabir in London in 1990s. (Kabir Bedi's archives)

Actor Kabir Bedi’s forthcoming memoir Stories I Must Tell moves from Oxford, where his English mother and Sikh father fell in love and married, to Bedi’s years in the industry, his big breaks and love stories. Bedi doesn't hold back—be it his reaction to his mother becoming a Buddhist nun, to falling in love with flower girl Protima Bedi, to his relationship with the volatile Parveen Babi. He talks about the suicide of his young son, and the disintegration of his marriages. Lounge met him in his Juhu home over socially distanced green tea to talk about the book, which releases on 19 April. Edited excerpts:

How long did it take you to write the book?

This book has haunted me for a long time—almost 20 years. I knew what I wanted to say but I didn’t know how to say it. Over the last 10 years, whether I was walking on the beach, at a party in the middle of having cocktails with other people, or travelling in my car to do a recording and I was supposed to be reading my script, I’d think, how am I going to tell this story?

Then, a few months before the lockdown, I had this insight that I should structure it as a series of stories which may overlap but taken together form the story of my life. I started to write. I would rise at 5 AM, make myself a cup of tea, sit on the balcony, look at the dark of the palm trees, think about what I wanted to write that day—and just let the thoughts come to me in a random manner, let them swirl around. Then I would write for several hours, all through the lockdown months.

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You write about your childhood years in Delhi, being friends with Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi.

My friendship with Rajiv and Sanjay began when I was seven, because we went to the same Montessori school, and it continued till I was in Delhi. I had no idea then that the pals I played around with toy trains would affect India’s destiny so profoundly, each in their own time. But I just want to make clear that for all my friendship with Rajiv and Sanjay, I am not on the same page as the Congress party today.

Did you meet them afterwards or interact with Sonia Gandhi?

I don’t want to get into that. In my book I’ve not entered into politics. Although it is of great interest to me as a subject—I am a news junkie—but this is not that book. So let me not answer that question right now.

Stories I Must Tell—The Emotional Life Of An Actor: By Kabir Bedi, Westland Books, 328 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699.
Stories I Must Tell—The Emotional Life Of An Actor: By Kabir Bedi, Westland Books, 328 pages, 699.

You had friends like the Gandhis and yet you grew up with very little money. Was it hard to reconcile both worlds?

Money was a constant insecurity that coloured my growing-up years. My parents were people that gave up everything to be in the freedom struggle. They really had no money.

My earliest memories are of Kashmir, where we had a nice house because my father was advisor to Sheikh Abdullah. But then he fell out with him over Sheikh Abdullah’s talk of Kashmiri independence, and we were forced to come down to Delhi to a really grotty flat in Karol Bagh with no money in the till. Even when I went to St. Stephens college, I had to ask for money from a benefactor—the king of Sikkim who supported my mother’s work with Tibetan refugees. Later, I had to freelance with All India Radio and the Doordarshan to pay my way through college.

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What were the hardest chapters to write?

The chapter on Protima, the chapter on Parveen (Babi), and the chapter on my son. Because each of them involved going back and reliving all the tumultuous emotions…. The chapter on my son was extremely difficult. You are talking about a son who suffered from schizophrenia and had to be pulled back from the brink of suicide—that was my attempt. But I hope through these chapters, people are able to understand who these wonderful people were and what I experienced with them.

Kabir and Protima Bedi in the 1970s.
Kabir and Protima Bedi in the 1970s. (Kabir Bedi's archives)

You say Protima was writing her memoirs and you dissuaded her. The book was later published by your daughter Pooja as Timepass. What upset you about Protima’s book?

I don’t want to dwell on her book; she’s told her story. I am telling my story, each has their own vision of reality, they are not totally in conflict, but there are some areas we are different on. Protima, for all her wonderful qualities, had the great gift of embroidering stories and embellishing them in ways that suited her.

She omitted talking about our open marriage. She said she knew about Parveen’s affair with me even before she left for Orissa to study Odissi, which was not true—those things upset me because the fact was my relationship with Parveen started later, at a time when our open marriage was breaking down, it had lost its thrill for me. I was really wanting a monogamous relationship and Parveen was promising fidelity, which I found extremely attractive.

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And then you became a major star in Europe. But that also led to the break-up of your relationship with Parveen Babi.

It’s always difficult when there are two divas living under one roof. Each has their egos their sensibilities, enormous demands on their time pulling them in different direction. In India, Parveen was more famous than me, but in Italy, I found myself in a peculiar situation, where she didn’t like being seen as a pretty doll on my arm. There were instances when she was slighted. Particularly the story of our dinner with Gina Lollobrigida (which I tell in the book). But there were far deeper problems running through Parveen’s life, which I had to deal with. Some of our greatest tensions were caused were my desire to have her treated (for her mental illness).

Poster of Kabir Bedi's iconic 'Sandokan' series, which was sensation in Italy.
Poster of Kabir Bedi's iconic 'Sandokan' series, which was sensation in Italy. (Kabir Bedi's archives )

You say Hollywood devastated you.

For all the success I had in Hollywood, including Ashanti with Michael Caine, the James Bond film which gave me fans worldwide, including The Bold and the Beautiful, at the end of the day, Hollywood wasn’t writing roles for Indians. They wouldn’t dare paint a white actor black, but brown is okay, diversity wasn’t an issue then. At the end of a certain period, I ran out of money, made some bad investments, had personal tragedies and it came to a point where I was absolutely devastated. Those years when I was not able to get roles, they robbed me of everything. But I came back to Italy and was given work. I came back to India and got work. I was able to rebuild myself from the ruins.

What are the big stories you left out?

The breakdown of my relationship with my second wife Ixchel (Susan Leigh) in America.

You haven’t spoken about the conflict with your daughter Pooja over your Beach House flat, a controversy that was covered in the press. Wasn’t this the chance for you to tell your version?

That fight is long over. Pooja and I have a great relationship today. So I’d rather not discuss what went wrong.

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What is your advice to actors to get international roles?

Most actors that make it internationally have done some great roles in their own country that somehow catch the fancy of people in America or Europe. My big break came when Alyque Padamsee cast me in Girish Karnad’s play on Tughlaq, the mad king of the 14th century. The play opened with me, standing in the middle of the stage with the top light on me, completely nude. The fact was I was wearing a langote, but the audience didn’t see that. They were gobsmacked; everyone couldn’t stop talking about my butt. This reached the ears of the Italians when they came to Bombay looking for a tall athletic actor, preferably bearded, who could play the lead role of the pirate in the Sandokan series. They tracked me down and the rest as they say is history.

I was the first actor from Bollywood that made a career in Hollywood. I didn’t become a star, but I was a respectable actor who did lot of roles, which got me fans worldwide.

Stories I Must Tell is out on 19 April.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is the author of Career Rules & the founder of Sonya's Book Box, a book subscription service.

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