Kabir Bedi has an unhurried gait, a contended demeanour as he strolls through London’s Hyde Park; the languidness perhaps shaped by a lifetime of extraordinary experiences and fame that extends from his native Punjab to Latin America. When he happens upon Speaker’s Corner he stops, contemplating for a moment before getting up on to a platform and making an impassioned plea. His magnificent baritone voice carries across the park, people gather, rapt, as Bedi decries the atrocities taking place in Tibet and Burma while the world mourns oil-splattered wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico. The crowd mill around, drawn to his magnetic personality. The entire world seems to be his stage.
Later the same evening we meet at the cold, minimalist Cumberland Hotel for an extended chat, a few days before the London premier of his new movie ‘Kites’. The frosty, unwelcoming design of the setting is at odds with the old world charm and grace that Bedi exudes. The first thing that’s apparent is his imposing stature; tall, barrel-chested with shoulders like the famed Murcielago. Age has not been unkind and those famous eyes are as captivating as ever. And as he orders drinks in that measured baritone, the ladies swoon and the men grind their teeth to dust. There’s no entourage, no complaints at the fold of the napkin or the weather; he is exceedingly polite, warm and eager to chat.
It’s been a busy month for perhaps the most prolific actor in Bollywood. He has just visited Scotland, accompanying the Dalai Lama to a conference and is back in London – a city he calls the most perfect in the world. In London he is promoting ‘Kites’, the $30m Rakesh Roshan blockbuster in which Bedi puts in a devilish turn as a rich and domineering casino owner trying to scupper the romance between the improbable character played by Hrithik Roshan and his lover. It’s fitting that Bedi – one of a handful of actors who has successfully bridged East and West – has been cast in a production aimed at globalizing Indian Cinema.
While ‘Kites’ is impressive as a showcase of what Bollywood is capable of, as a cinematic experience, it is distinctly average. In fact, Kabir Bedi is one of two highlights (the other being the fantastically flexible Hrithik Roshan) of the film and reaffirms Bedi’s status as the most underappreciated Bollywood actor of his generation.
A vast array of influences…
Born on 16th January 1946 in pre-Partition Lahore, Bedi grew up in an invigorating environment with a colourful array of influences. His father Baba Pyare Lal Bedi – a direct descendent of the Sikh spiritual leader Guru Nanak – was an Oxford graduate, author and Marxist who was forced, as a student, to flee Germany as Hitler swept to power. Kabir’s mother Freda was from Derbyshire who first met Lal Bedi at Oxford. After marriage, Pyare Lal and Freda moved to India in the 1930’s, when Freda became a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and was arrested several times along with her children for agitating against the British. Later in life she converted to Buddhism, dedicating herself to social welfare activities. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Freda was entrusted by Prime Minister Nehru with ensuring the welfare of Tibetan refugees fleeing to Dharamsala following the Dalai Lama. His parent’s pursuits meant the Kabir household was forever frequented by activists, artists, writers, poets, thinkers, revolutionaries and spiritualists of every hue.
After attending the Christian Sherwood College in Nainital, Kabir Bedi travelled to Delhi to study History at St Stephen’s College, a satellite of the University of Delhi. After university, Bedi travelled to Bombay to learn film-making spending 5 years producing and directing commercials for Lintas and Ogilvy and Mather, among others. He also found work performing in the city’s thriving theatre industry. In 1971, at the age of 25, he made his first impact with the play ‘Tughlaq’, playing a madcap, visionary pre-Mughal king. The drama was a huge hit in Bombay and led to producers falling over themselves to cast the young star in their productions. That same year also saw Bedi play a minor role in ‘Hulchul’ before embarking on a 5-year period in which he made no less than 12 movies whilst also performing on stage.
The Malayan Tiger
In 1976 came his big break, when an Italian production company came to Bombay looking for an actor to cast in Sandokan, a TV series based on a fictional 19th century pirate. “I was very young and probably impressionable and when I look back now I can appreciate that I signed up a lot of bad films during that initial phase in Bollywood. Another problem was while I could speak Punjabi, my Hindi was terrible. So when Sandokan came along I jumped at the opportunity. It seemed like an interesting story and an epic love story. It was definitely one of those fortunate accidents of history.”
While the series only spanned 6 episodes, Bedi’s turn as the strapping, smouldering Malayan brigand fighting Dutch and British rule in the Far East won him acclaim and an almost religious following. The show was not widely shown in the English speaking world primarily due the fact Sandokan spent his days kicking British colonial posteriors. However, in continental Europe, Africa, South America and the Far East, the series became a phenomenon. Repeats are shown to this day and in Italy, Bedi’s fame endures to this day, with the actor making guest appearances in soaps and featuring in chat shows and newspaper columns.
Paving the Way…
Sandokan also opened doors in the West for the tall and handsome actor with the green eyes, turning him into one of the world’s first travelling performers. There followed roles in such notable productions as The Thief of Baghdad and the villain Gobinda in the Roger Moore bond romp “Octupussy”. Bedi also found work with unprecedented regularity – unprecedented at least for an Indian actor – during a period in the 1980’s and 1990’s when he amassed an unmatched body of work, appearing in General Hospital, Dynasty, Highlander, Magnum P.I., and The Bold and the Beautiful among others. In between he also returned to Bollywood working in everything from the twisted Khoon Bhari Maang to the soppy The Maharaja’s Daughter. Perhaps most significantly, Bedi enabled Indian actors enter Hollywood’s conscience, paving the way for the likes of Naveen Andrews, Kal Penn and Sendhil Ramamurthy. “I think Anil Kapoor’s recent role in 24 was significant”, Bedi says. “Things have changed over the past decades for Indian actors. There are more possibilities today. It sure took a lot of lobbying from the time I was there; to tell producers that you cannot write roles for Indians and then give them to lily-white Americans. They wouldn’t dare do that to black actors. That’s what I fought against for years. In spite of the regular work, I was left constantly asking, ‘why is it when I audition for a role the room is filled with white actors and brown actors. But the minute you audition for a black role there are only black actors in the room?’”
The diverse body of work is also testament to Bedi’s creative appetite and versatility as an actor – whether it is switching from Hindi to English to Italian (which he speaks fluently), or whether he’s playing a Moroccan prince in the Bold and the Beautiful or an Eastern bloc spy in Magnum PI. That versatility also made him into a successful travelling actor. “In spite of finding regular work, I could never find a role that would define me because so little was written for Indian actors. I realized that there’ll be work for as long as you in LA but there won’t be any truly significant roles written for you. That’s why I left Hollywood and made my way back to Europe.”
His success as Sandokan stood Bedi in good stead however, with Italian producers casting him in such hit TV shows as “Vivere” and “Un medico in Famiglia”. In London Bedi also returned to his first love as an actor, appearing in the West End production of “The Far Pavilions”. The jump to Bombay was also made easier with Bedi cast in such major productions as “Main Hoo Naa” and “Bewafaa”.
His prolific acting career apart, Bedi is also well known for his personal life, one replete with drama, hedonism, unbridled love and tragedy. His first wife Protima was a model, dancer and fearless feminist who regularly rustled feathers in supposedly conservative Bombay society. She was renowned for her insatiable love of life, once famously streaking along Bombay’s Juhu beach in broad daylight. Bedi and Protima eloped in 1969 much to the chagrin of her family, enjoying a famously open marriage which bore two children – Pooja, who went on to forge a successful career in Bollywood, and Siddarth. In the 1970’s, as the marriage began failing, Kabir began seeing Parveen Babi, another sultry actress and sex symbol. Bedi and Parveen however never married. It was an extraordinarily bohemian and artistic time for the young and successful actor.
After the short lived affair with Babi, Kabir married British fashion designer Susan Humphreys in 1979, bearing a son – Adam Bedi – a ravenously striking product of East and West who became a successful, international model. After his second marriage ended in divorce, Bedi married Nikki Moolgaoker, the fresh-faced Anglo Indian TV and radio presenter better known as Nikki Bedi. That marriage too ended in divorce in 2002. “They were all incredible people”, Bedi says with a hint of melancholy. Whilst the strait-laced society in which Bedi found himself may see his personal life as a series of failures, in his mind, it is anything but. “I am aware that people think I’ve been various things in love, unlucky, unfortunate and a general failure, but I wouldn’t replace the time I’ve had with all of these fantastic women. They were so different from each other and they enriched my life and made me what I am today. Regrets? Absolutely none.”
Whilst he has had his fair share of desirable females and mind-enhancing experiences, Bedi’s also had his share of tragedy; his son Siddarth committed suicide in Los Angeles in 1997 after being diagnosed with Schizophrenia. “He had made attempts on his life and we had alerted the suicide squads in LA. He was suffering. He was such a handsome boy but had lost a lot of weight. I think he was very brave, he chose to go because he couldn't handle the pain and agony of living life in a fog. When Siddharth's friends came to his funeral, I felt it could have been any one of them. God chose my son. Really, there's no explanation for schizophrenia.” Two years after Siddarth’s death, a devastated Protima passed away as well.
Outwardly at least, the sanguinity on display at the Cumberland Hotel in London suggests that he finally feels a deep contentment with his life and his achievements. Bedi confesses that it is partly due to the new love in his life; Praveen Dusanj, a vivacious, London-based Social Researcher who seems to combine an irresistible nonchalance with a steadiness that seems to have disarmed and grounded Kabir Bedi. Whilst the two have been together for several years, there’s no rush – particularly on Praveen’s part – to plunge headlong into anything. “I think we have a very wonderful relationship”, Bedi says with a sparkle. “I hope it lasts forever; what form it will take we will have to wait and see”, he adds laughing. “I’ve asked her to marry me but she’s asked me to make absolutely sure because I’ve made the decision before.”
His passionate campaigning for Tibet and Burma has also given added meaning to his life. “For many years of my life I never took up any causes because I looked at my family who had given so much to society but had nothing to show for it in the end. I found that a bit futile. I think I needed to set my life in order first! It’s only in the last 10 years or so that I have taken up campaigning.”
Burma in particular has profound resonance for Bedi. “I spent a lot of time in Burma as a child, because of my mother’s Buddhist connections. I was actually ordained as a young monk in Burma so I know the country very well; when it was a democratic country, a happy country. There is a certain serenity that I recall about Burma, a beauty that has disappeared since the military took over and the country became one large repressed society.”
Bedi had similar experiences with Tibet, working with the emotionally and physically broken refugees streaming into India in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The young Bedi followed his mother around Dharamsala as she set up schools and taught English to Lamas who would then go on to travel to the West to campaign against Chinese rule in Tibet. “Today we are so conditioned by TV that if cameras are not in a particular place, a particular situation would not enter people’s conscience. Because TV crews are not there in Tibet and Burma we tend to forget the enormous injustices that happen in those countries. In the case of Tibet a whole culture is being annihilated.”
But while the failure of Western media to highlight the plight of the Burmese and Tibetan people certainly irks, he concedes the failure of the Indian media to shed light on what is happening on its doorstep is even more tragic. “In the first instance, I think the media in India are performing an extraordinary job in that in the absence of a quick moving judiciary the media are the only point of accountability. However they have failed when it comes to dealing with issues that affect us intimately in our neighbourhood. The coverage of these countries, even Pakistan, is highly limited. We get more news on what happens on Obama’s travels than China even. In that sense, the Indian media have failed.”
As ambassador for the Burma campaign UK, Bedi has injected new life into a dogged and movement which calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi; the only Nobel Peace Prize winner to remain imprisoned. Bedi’s passion suggests a new phase has begun; a new incarnation of a man renowned for reinventing himself again and again. While his campaigning continues there is also talk of writing and directing for the theatre and the big screen.
Whatever form his creations will take, one thing is for certain; he certainly won’t be found wanting for inspiration.
- Poonam Joshi and Vijitha Alles