Kabir Bedi talks new memoir, and what makes him a rebel: I'm a child of the '60s, decade of social revolution
'Society likes conformity. Those who deviate from the norm are seen as threats. But it's our individuality that makes us unique. You have to be different to make a difference,' says Kabir Bedi.
Kabir Bedi has lived a life juggling multiple film industries, continents, and families. In his new memoir, the actor dwells on the people who have shaped him, more than the events that transformed him. Edited excerpts from an exclusive interview:
The title of your book, Stories I Must Tell, has an air of compulsion to it. Why were you compelled to tell your stories? Was it more a personal release or an attempt to set the record straight?
Both. Also, it was now or never. The tumultuous roller coaster of my life is a terrific story to tell. Tremendous triumphs, heart-wrenching tragedies, milestones that made India proud, and mistakes you’d do well to avoid. Enormous emotional dramas. It was all bursting to come out. I had to tell it.
What I personally found endlessly fascinating was how your growth and coming of age ran parallel to that of India. Your personal life is inextricably linked to the socio-political milestones of the country, from your parents' involvement in the freedom struggle to your association with the Gandhis. Does your current state of being also fall in accordance with that of the nation?
Right now, I am grieving for all those who are suffering the brunt of this merciless pandemic. No health system in the world can cope with two million new cases a week. It’s the worst human tragedy I’ve experienced in my lifetime. 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 historic figures of the freedom struggle: 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, affected me and my family deeply. It’s all in my book. I was friends with Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi during the years I grew up in Delhi. Indira Gandhi was “Aunty Indu". We lost touch over the years. But that’s another story.
The flow of writing you have chosen for your autobiography is characteristic of the way you have lived your life — without conforming to linearity. Instead of dividing your story according to years, as is the norm, you fragment it into the people who have shaped you, from first wife Protima Bedi and ex Parveen Babi to your parents, and son Siddharth. Why was this approach crucial?
I find linearity boring. For 10 years, I tried to write it that way, and ended up throwing away the manuscripts. I enjoy the short story form. My chapters are a series of stories, each complete within itself. I’ve told my stories through the prism of people and places that I have known and loved. It gave me the freedom to jump back-and-forth in time, and make my book more interesting. That’s what makes my writing so compelling.
You talk at length about your previous relationships, particularly with Protima Bedi and Parveen Babi. But there is relatively a lot less detailing of your current marriage. Is the intent behind that to guard your privacy or because you need distance or a vantage point to evaluate a relationship?
Truth is that I had to make many hard choices in writing my book. It was already over 300 pages, and many stories had to be sacrificed. Protima and Parveen I had to speak of in depth because they were turning points in my life. They were also my most turbulent relationships.
But in retrospect, I should have spoken in greater depth about my relationship with my wife, Parveen Dusanj. She’s the perfect culmination of my story. I talked in detail of why I fell in love with her but didn’t show it in emotional scenes, as I’d done earlier. I regret that now.
But you are right. I am protective over this relationship. She’s the best thing that happened to me. At 16 years, it’s my longest relationship. She was the driving force behind my book, and protected me from all distractions. I’m deeply grateful to her 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 demise. Priyanka Chopra Jonas, who launched your book, says of grief that it becomes one's constant companion while addressing her father's death and its ripple effects on her mental health, in her memoir Unfinished. How have you dealt with the grief over the years?
I’m sure Priyanka suffered greatly when her father died. For me, the death of my son was the deepest grief I experienced. To lose a sensitive 25-year-old son, poised for a brilliant career in technology, was unspeakably tragic. The pain of his sudden death diminished with time, but the grief has remained forever. You learn to live with it.
In a deeply felt short story that is quoted in the book, you write about how you did not want your young children to be tarnished by social conditioning. Do you think your children managed to retain their individuality because they had an instinctive (and often impulsive) father's footsteps to follow?
Society likes conformity. Those who deviate from the norm are seen as threats. But it's our individuality that makes us unique. You have to be different to make a difference.
I’m a born rebel, a child of uncompromising idealists, and a child of the 1960s, which was a social revolution. My daughter is far more conservative than me, my son far more laid back. All of us make our own paths, depending on our minds, influences, and temperaments.
From your four marriages, you have a family that lives across continents. Does the hopping get to you? How do you ensure you remain equally invested in all family members?
It was much harder earlier. Flying my kids across continents to be with me, and vice-versa. Now, I miss my son Adam the most. He’s flying the Bedi flag in faraway Hollywood, doing special effects for films. Sadly, the pandemic has made air travel hazardous. So I keep in touch with everyone in my family virtually. It’s the new norm.
You write in the book while Bollywood could have written better roles for you, you got your due in Italy. Have you been able to decode what the Italians saw in you that made you an overnight and lasting sensation there?
The role of Sandokan was iconic. The books of Emilglio Salgari were read by every Italian, but no one had personified Sandokan as well as me. Earlier films on Sandokan had made no waves. I captured the imagination of the nation through a riveting series. It created a tsunami of fan frenzy, like with The Beatles. The power of its story ensured it became a massive hit across the whole of Europe. It’s been repeated on their television sets ever since. Then sequels, and other TV series in Italy, ensured that my fame lasted. Topping it all, Italy bestowed on me its highest civilian honour, Cavaliere, a Knight.
Your granddaughter Alaya F has made her debut at a time when Bollywood does not dictate its stars to song-and-dance, which you considered your Waterloo. What are the chances you would have been a far 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 me an all-India name. It led to all my successes abroad. Alaya will blaze her own path. She just won the Filmfare Award for Best Debut (for Jawaani Jaaneman), which I presented her at the ceremony. I believe she’s on her way to major stardom.
You have been an actor across industries and platforms. How liberating was it to shed all those myriad characters, and tell a story that is exclusively your own?
Writing my book was magical. I wrote it in a passionate frenzy when the lockdowns began last year. It flowed like a river once I’d figured out its structure. I like clean, uncluttered writing. I guess my training as a copywriter at Lintas and O&M makes me weigh each word. But it has to be an evocative experience.
Kabir Bedi's memoir Stories I Must Tell has been published by Westland Books.
— All images courtesy Kabir Bedi Archives
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