âSociety loves conformism. Those who deviate from the norm are seen as threats. But it is our individuality that makes us unique. You have to be different to make a difference, âsays Kabir Bedi.
Kabir Bedi has lived a life juggling multiple film industries, continents and families. In his new memoirs, the actor dwells on the people who shaped him, more than on the events that transformed him. Edited excerpts from an exclusive interview:
The title of your book, Stories that I must tell, has an air of constraint. Why did you have to tell your stories? Was it more a personal outing or an attempt to set the record straight?
Both. So it was now or never. The tumultuous roller coaster of my life is a great story to tell. Terrific triumphs, heartbreaking tragedies, milestones that made India proud, and mistakes you would do well to avoid. Huge emotional dramas. Everything exploded to get out. I had to say it.
What I personally found immeasurably fascinating was how your growth and maturity paralleled that of India. Your personal life is inextricably linked to the country’s socio-political milestones, from your parents’ involvement in the struggle for freedom to your association with the Gandhi. Is your current state of being also consistent with that of the nation?
At this time, I mourn all those who bear the brunt of this ruthless pandemic. No health care system in the world can cope with two million new cases per week. It is the worst human tragedy I have experienced in my life. Before I was born, my mother saw even worse when she reported on the Bengal famine of 1943. Three million people died.
My parents knew many historical figures of the struggle for freedom: Gandhi, Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, Sheikh Abdullah, Giani Zail Singh, Harkrishan Singh Surjeet. As a child, the uprising in Tibet, which forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India, deeply affected me and my family. It’s all in my book. I was friends with Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi during my years growing up in Delhi. Indira Gandhi was “Aunt Indu”. We have lost touch with each other over the years. But this is another story.
The flow of writing you chose for your autobiography is characteristic of the way you have lived your life – without conforming to linearity. Instead of dividing your story into years, as is the norm, you fragment it between the people who shaped you, from the first wife Protima Bedi and the ex Parveen Babi to your parents and your son Siddharth. Why was this approach crucial?
I find linearity boring. For 10 years I tried to write it this way, and ended up throwing away the manuscripts. I like the form of the short story. My chapters are a series of stories, each one complete in itself. I told my stories through the prism of the people and places that I have known and loved. It gave me the freedom to jump back in time and make my book more interesting. This is what makes my writing so compelling.
You talk at length about your previous relationships, especially with Protima Bedi and Parveen Babi. But there are relatively far fewer details about your current marriage. Is the intention behind this to protect your privacy or because you need distance or a point of view to assess a relationship?
The truth is, I had to make a lot of tough choices while writing my book. It was already over 300 pages long and many stories had to be sacrificed. Protima and Parveen which I had to talk about in depth because they were turning points in my life. They are also my most turbulent relationships.
But looking back, I should have spoken more in depth about my relationship with my wife, Parveen Dusanj. It is the perfect culmination of my story. I explained in detail why I fell in love with her, but I did not show it in emotional scenes, as I had done earlier. I regret it now.
But you are right. I am protective of this relationship. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me. At 16, it’s my longest relationship. She was the driving force behind my book and protected me from all distractions. I am deeply grateful to him for making my book a reality and me a happy man.
The most moving chapter was about your struggle to keep your son Siddharth alive and the grief that followed his passing. Priyanka Chopra Jonas, who launched your book, says of the grief he becomes her constant companion while also addressing her father’s death and its ripple effects on his sanity, in her memoir. Unfinished. How have you experienced grief over the years?
I’m sure Priyanka suffered a lot when her father died. For me, the death of my son was the deepest sorrow I have ever experienced. Losing a sensitive 25-year-old son, ready for a brilliant career in tech, was an unspeakable tragedy. The pain of his sudden death diminished over time, but the grief remained forever. You learn to live with it.
In a short, deeply felt story that is quoted in the book, you write about how you didn’t want your young children to be tarnished by social conditioning. Do you think your children have managed to retain their individuality because they had in the footsteps of an instinctive (and often impulsive) father to follow?
Society loves conformism. Those who deviate from the norm are seen as threats. But it is our individuality that makes us unique. You have to be different to make a difference.
I am a born rebel, a child of uncompromising idealists, and a child of the 60s, who were a social revolution. My daughter is much more conservative than I am, my son is much more laid back. Each of us traces our own path, depending on our mind, influences and temperament.
From your four marriages, you have a family that lives across continents. Did the jump reach you? How do you make sure you stay invested in everyone in the family as well?
It was much harder before. Make my children travel across continents to be with me, and vice versa. Now I miss my son Adam the most. He flies the Bedi flag in distant Hollywood, making special effects for films. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made air travel dangerous. So I virtually stay in touch with all of my family members. This is the new standard.
You write in the book when Bollywood could have written better roles for you, you have your due in Italy. Were you able to decode what Italians saw in you that made you feel overnight and lasting?
Sandokan’s role was iconic. Emilglio Salgari’s books were read by all Italians, but no one had personified Sandokan as well as I did. The previous films on Sandokan had not made waves. I have captured the nation’s imagination through a captivating series. This created a tsunami of fan frenzy, like with The Beatles. The power of its history has enabled it to become a huge success across Europe. This has been repeated on their televisions ever since. Then, sequels and other television series in Italy ensured the sustainability of my fame. To top it off, Italy awarded me its highest civilian honor, Cavaliere, a knight.
Your granddaughter Alaya F made her debut at a time when Bollywood didn’t dictate its stars to song and dance, which you would consider your Waterloo. What are the chances that you would have been very successful today?
Who knows? Maybe my best role here is yet to come. But I thank Bollywood for launching me as a professional actor and making a name for me all over India. This has led to all of my success overseas. Alaya will forge her own path. She just won the Filmfare Award for Best First Feature (for Jawaani Jaaneman), which I presented to him during the ceremony. I think she’s about to be a big star.
You have been a player across industries and platforms. How liberating was it to let go of all those myriad characters and tell a story that’s exclusively personal to you?
Writing my book was magic. I wrote it in a passionate frenzy when the lockdowns started last year. It flowed like a river once I understood its structure. I like the clean, uncluttered writing. I guess my training as a copywriter at Lintas and O&M makes me weigh every word. But it must be an evocative experience.
Kabir Bedi’s memoir, Stories I Must Tell, was published by Westland Books.
– All images are courtesy of the Kabir Bedi Archives