Kabir Bedi loves telling a good story and fortunately, his life is full of invigorating experiences. Nowadays, he also loves to stress about his philanthropic ventures, like his work with an organisation that helps restore the vision and aims to achieve vaccine equity in India. But ETimes manages to direct the conversation towards his adventure-filled journey, snippets of which are part of his memoir, too. The actor gets candid about the choices that defined his life, leading the protest for more ethnic roles in Hollywood, and the superstardom he experienced in Europe. Excerpts:
You wrote your book when you were alone during the pandemic. Was it a cathartic experience and did it, at any point, get to you?
I was not alone; I had my wonderful wife, Parveen (Dusanj), who was the one who protected me and made sure that I wasn't distracted; everything that I needed to write the book was around me. So, I have to express my deepest thanks to her. Your questions are very valid. Of course, everyone has regrets. And I think it's important to acknowledge those regrets, to mourn having made those mistakes, but, like the pandemic, to move on, and look in hope at the future. What was the hardest thing for me was when I went back into tumultuous relationships, and to write about them in depth, with honesty, and frankness, not sparing myself either. I made those mistakes; I can only be frank, about others, if I'm frank about myself, and that's what I did.
It's hard because you have to relive that. When I talk about my son's mental health issues and his problem, it's hard because I have to go back and relive it. Talking about my great successes as a superstar in Europe is the easy part, but sharing about the time when I faced financial upheavals in Hollywood 20 years later, because of the bad investments I made, and because of which I almost came to the point of bankruptcy, is hard. But it's just part of what I set out to do--tell the truth. I have lived an extraordinary life and the only way I can tell it is by telling it warts and all. It is of the great loves, but also the great heartbreaks, of euphoric moments of success, but also of absolute devastation, and also how I rose from that devastation to be decorated by the Italians with the highest civilian honor.
What does it mean to write a tell-all memoir at a time when celebs refrain from taking a stand on almost everything fearing a backlash from trolls? Didn't you at any point in time feel the same kind of pressure of being judged when sharing details of your personal life?
Ek kashmakash chalti rehti hai (There’s a constant dilemma) between the public's desire to know about a celebrity's life, and his desire to keep his life private. But the fact of the matter is, if you work so hard to become a celebrity, there's a natural curiosity about your life and you can't deny that. So these are not rights on either side; these are competing desires. You have to draw a line in the sand somewhere because you can't tell everything about your life, but you can't hide everything either. So, the trolls, which you face when you talk about your life or take a stand on any issue, come with the territory. You have to accept the fact that if you're a person of any significance, doing anything significant, there will be trolls, and you’ll deal with them. That shouldn't stop you from taking a stand, writing a book, talking about your life, supporting causes that you believe in. You can't stop being a vibrant, concerned human because of the fear of what people might say.
But sometimes your personal life shadows your professional one. Does that bother you how we put our celebs on a pedestal and expect them to be superhumans who can't make mistakes?
You have a very valid point. I don't blame the media for picking out the juiciest bits, because ultimately, people want readership. I don't mind them looking for a headline because they want to create a relatable headline, I understand that. But the minute they do that, it gives me the freedom to talk about the other things in my book. So, I have to thank them for the attention (smiles).
Do you ever get tired of being scrutinised all the time? Don't you sometimes want to take a break from being in the public eye?
People who work very hard to be known and become celebrities have no right to complain when they are recognised, or when people invade their privacy when they're out in public. Yes, there are certain things you lose--you can't just go to the beach and watch the sunset all alone and admire the people walking by you, and think about life the way you might have. But the fact of the matter is, it is so much better to be recognised by people, and be admired for what you've done. When people say please take a selfie with me, take it as a compliment, not an intrusion on your privacy.
We spoke to Sonu Walia a few weeks ago, who confessed she was comfortable shooting for the pool song in ‘Khoon Bhari Maang’ wearing a swimsuit, only after she saw you wearing swimming trunks. Was it a conscious choice or was it to make her comfortable?
For me, if you are going to a swimming pool, you wear swimming trunks not ganjees and chaddis. I had a body that I was not ashamed of, so I was quite happy to show it. ‘Main Teri Hoon Jaanam’ was a sexy song in the middle of a pool between a good-looking man and a good-looking woman; it became a huge hit at the time. In fact, ‘Khoon Bhari Maang’ became one of my biggest Bollywood hits.
I was shooting in Honolulu with Tom Selleck for ‘Magnum PI’ when Rakesh Roshan called me back to shoot the film. It happened during the middle of my Hollywood years and then I stayed back to shoot ‘Yalgaar’ and a few other films.
Why did you mostly play antagonist roles in films?
I played all kinds of roles in films--heroes, villains, supporting characters, fathers, uncles, bosses, gangsters--you name them. And I've played this in film industries across the world. The reason I got ‘Khoon Bhari Maang’ was that I was so versatile. When Rakesh called me to offer me the role, I wondered why wasn’t someone in Bollywood doing it and he told me that in that film, the hero turns into a villain, so heroes didn't want to do it and if he cast a villain, there would be no surprise. He told me I was the only one who could convincingly play a hero and a villain. I played all kinds of roles and still do. You can't play a hero all your life; you have to diversify as an actor.
Does it bother you that despite being such a huge star in Europe, Millennials and Gen Z might not know about your work? Are you doing something to change that?
That is one of the reasons I wrote my book. I dedicate this book to young professionals like my son, Siddharth, who want to make the world a better place. It's very important for young people today to know not just what happened to me and the success I had as an actor internationally, but what's also important is for them to know the times we lived in. What was it like to live in that age of social ferment when everything was changing? What was it like to be in Bollywood in the '70s, with the three great acting greats-- Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, and Dev Anand--rubbing shoulders with you at different events. What was it like to be in Hollywood of the ’80s and ’90s? What was it like to meet Audrey Hepburn and have a life-changing conversation with Sean Connery? You know, Omar Sharif was the first actor of Asian origin, who became a star in Hollywood, so he was a role model for me.
What’s the one craziest fan moment you encountered?
In Spain, the crowds were going mad, and there was one girl that screamed out loud, ‘I want to have your baby’ (laughs). That phrase became a mantra for the media in Spain for decades and defined my stardom there.
Bollywood actors who have worked in Hollywood films often complain about being typecast. Do you think that happened to you with ‘Octopussy’ or since?
My problem was the fact that in those days, they were not writing roles for Indians. What do you do? So I adapted by playing all foreign roles. And I played many foreign roles, like in ‘Bold and Beautiful’ which was the world's second most-watched show; I played a Moroccan prince in it for a year. It got me a worldwide fan following. In fact, in the James Bond film that I did, I was cast correctly. I was cast as an Indian citizen, which is what I am. I played an ethnically correct character. But nothing brings greater joy than watching the success of actors like Priyanka Chopra today. And yes, it is a little easier for them because roles are being written for people of different ethnicities but it's never easy in the film business; it is one of the hardest businesses to be part of. So, it's important that we acknowledge her... she had her own struggles and problems to overcome. But I've always said that anyone who survives 50 years in the film business, deserves an Oscar.
Why was your Hollywood career cut short? Didn’t you ever think of insisting on roles being written for you?
I protested and wrote articles to raise the issue of lack of diversity in Hollywood, but then, you know, one swallow does not make a summer. In time, enough people continue that process and protest. Diversity has today become an issue. You know, casting and writing for different ethnicities is part of Hollywood's agenda today. So I can say that I started the ball rolling by protesting. And that protest has continued and resulted in that diversity; that gives me great joy. But I wasn't entirely ever dependent on Hollywood; I did enough work in Europe. At this stage of my career, I've been given Italy's highest civilian honour. I've been knighted by the Italian Republic. So, let's not just be Hollywood-centric; it's not the only film industry in the world. Europe is the same size as America. It's no less. So to be recognised and to have that level of success in Europe doesn't diminish the level of my success internationally. But Hollywood gave me a worldwide base of fans. And yes, I didn't become the megastar that I could have in Hollywood. But it gave me a lot. It also gave me some of my hardest times. That's life.
Did you ever reject Bollywood projects that went on to emerge as hits for Hollywood films?
I'm not going to live on regrets because I don't believe in regrets. I just believe that the best is yet to come. And I still do.
Like you pointed out, roles are now being written for different ethnicities in Hollywood. But what about Bollywood? Are we writing roles for every age group, and ethnicity?
Bollywood has changed. It's making films of a very different type now; it's pushing the envelope. With OTT platforms, people are able to see films from around the world, and they're going to expect more from Bollywood. And Bollywood has always adapted as well. There are some things in commercial Bollywood cinema that remain the same--song and dance routines, which Bollywood does better than anybody in the world and is respected for it. Nobody asks why are people singing opera; it's an art form. The song-and-dance is part of our values, an art form; I don't think it is anything to be ashamed of.
At the same time, we have a generation of directors making very realistic, hard-hitting, yet entertaining films. We are real quick learners; we were no slouches. We may not have the budgets of Hollywood, and we may not be able to get into the super expensive genres, but there's no limit to our imagination. And when you take a look beyond Bollywood, into the regional industries, do you realise that together, there's an extraordinary variety of films being made today. And we are still the world's biggest film producers. So, we're doing something right.
Did you ever think of settling down abroad?
Never. I lived abroad for almost 30 years of my life, but I always came back because I felt that I had to be among my people, who have problems that I care about, and values I share, whose problems I want to make my own, and whose destiny I wish to be part of. So, I always knew I would come back to India no matter how many years I spent abroad, and when the time was right, I came back. I still work abroad; they know me, and I have agents abroad. After returning, I have done several films here too. It could be possible I'd do my best role ever in any of the film industries, even now. I'm an eternal optimist. Everything can happen; I believe the best is yet to come.