Born to freedom fighter parents, Kabir Bedi didn’t grow up with political or financial aspirations. He just wanted to do ‘something creative’, which landed him in the All India Radio, for whom he snagged an interview with The Beatles. But when they failed to celebrate him or his work, he packed his bags and landed in Mumbai with dreams in his eyes and only a little money to get by. That was all he needed to woo not just Bollywood but also the Italians and eventually, even Hollywood. When the pandemic struck, the actor looked inwards and wrote a book titled ‘Stories I Must Tell’, on his experiences, that he has dedicated to the youth of the nation. In conversation with author Meghna Pant at Times LitFest, the actor recounts his journey and why he feels young even at 75. Here’s a transcript of the chat…
I want to start by saying thank you for writing such a beautiful, uplifting book. You have been such an extraordinary person who has had such an extraordinary life…
I have slaved so hard on this book to get it right…it’s written deceptively simply. It is difficult to write simply; writing flowery is rather easy. But I have enjoyed the process of writing; my parents were writers, speakers, thinkers–I got the love of writing from them. I was trained in advertising for five years–in copywriting and filmmaking–so, I understood the value of each word. I like writers like Graham Greene, who were sparse with their words and yet told stories very evocatively. I wanted to tell the story from an emotional perspective of an actor going through all that he is going through. My intention was to write simply but evocatively. Given reactions like yours, I feel I have succeeded to some measure; it makes me very happy.
You have mentioned in the book that heroes are ordinary people who do extraordinary things. When you look back at films like ‘Khoon Bhari Maang’, the James Bond film, ‘Octopussy’ or the series ‘Sandokan’, do you consider yourself as a hero in your career or your real life?
You know, at one level, every man is a hero to himself. But I don’t think of myself as a hero. I am somebody who wants to express himself through creativity and touch people through my work. Creativity comes from dissatisfaction and our desire to express something. As long as that is there, there will always be things to do. But more importantly, you will never see yourself as a hero as you will keep feeling the desire to prove yourself in some way. I know that I am seen as a hero by many people that have seen my films, especially in Europe, but I don’t see myself that way. But I’m glad they do (smiles).
What do you think has been the best role you’ve played in your real life?
I’m not sure I have thought about that; I have moved into various roles that I found myself in. I tried to be a good husband many times over (laughs). But despite four marriages and three divorces, the very fact that I’m still friends with my ex-wives, says something about the quality of the relationships I have. The very fact that my children still love me and relate to me–even though I couldn’t give them the kind of quality and quantity time that a parent should give children because of divorces or living on different continents–means that somewhere as a father also I’ve succeeded. But quite honestly, I don’t see myself in the roles of husband, lover, father, grandfather. I still see myself as the boy from Delhi who came with Rs 700 in his pocket, wanting to change the world. That desire still burns within me.
You mentioned that you’re friends with your exes. But how does one end a relationship with dignity? It’s something like conscious uncoupling that Gwyneth Paltrow addresses. What would your advice be to people on how to fall out of love in an elegant, respectful way?
Firstly, following love is a very beautiful thing. I am in a sense in love with love. So, I continue to seek that in my life–giving and receiving. Nobody gets married with the idea of getting divorced; you hope it lasts forever. But some things are not destined to go the whole way or arrive at a conclusion. That story that cannot be brought to a conclusion, is better ended on a beautiful bend in the road. I always tried to do that, while fulfilling all my responsibilities. But there will always be pain at the time of parting, there’s no question there. That’s when the real test of a relationship begins and it depends on what kind of an equation you have with the other person at that point in time. The way to do that is to remember all the good things that brought you together in the first place. Maybe things changed and you couldn’t fulfill that journey, but that doesn’t mean you lose respect for the other person, or badmouth them.
You have dedicated the book to the youth. But having experienced the importance of both social and financial capital, what would you tell them to focus on more?
Even though my family knew the Gandhis, we were a very idealistic family. We didn’t have a lot of money in the bank; we were very economically lower middle class and had a government flat. My parents were people who had sacrificed their lives for India’s independence. They were Oxford graduates who got married there, came back to India, and got the best jobs. But then they gave it all up to join the freedom struggle. They were both even arrested by the British. Even after independence, they took up social causes. So, there was never any money in the bank. They knew the Gandhis but wouldn’t even ask them for a telephone in the house, because they felt they didn’t want to ask favours from the high and mighty. I thought it was too much. There was a seven-year waiting list for landlines, and we had to go to a Commodore living upstairs to make telephone calls.
But the drive never was to cash in financially, or to become famous like my friends Rajiv and Sanjay (Gandhi) became. I had a creative bug in me. I used to work in the All India Radio because I had to work my way through college. I just wanted a good creative life where I could do something interesting, which was not just a regular desk job. And that drove me. It wasn’t a social drive or financial drive, I just wanted to do things that were interesting, and be known for what I did.
Can you narrate the way in which you managed to score an interview with The Beatles?
It was during my time at the All India Radio that I managed to snag an interview with The Beatles. I was the biggest Beatles fan in the world. Not only did I love their music, but they represented a whole world that was changing; there were social, cultural, and sexual revolutions happening. I was desperate to see them but so was the entire media.
I told the radio to give me tapes and they were sceptical about it. Even when they were giving me the tapes, they told me I wouldn’t get an interview with them. But while other members of the press were trying to figure out whether the team members went through the kitchen or lobby, I was with the manager, whose vulnerability I knew. I pursued him from the lift to the entrance area and kept asking for an interview. He kept ignoring me. Then I told him I was with the government’s All India Radio and that the government had scheduled an interview with The Beatles that night at 10. He exploded and told me that the boys won’t give an interview; I kept stressing the fact that it was a government matter.
You see, just before they came to Delhi, they had got into trouble with the government in the Philippines, when they had turned down an invite from the wife of the dictator Bob Ross, to come and sing at a children’s birthday party. They were badmouthed, told to leave the country, and manhandled at the airport. I had read all these reports and knew that they wouldn’t want to mess with the government again, just after Manila. Seeing my persistence, the manager gave up and told me he himself will do the interview, which, too, would have been good enough for me.
At the decided time, when I went to actually meet him in his room, he was absolutely unwell. He then himself took me to a suite on the other side of the floor and told his boys, as he called the members of the band, to do him a favour, and give me an interview. That was it! I was in with the Beatles.
But the fallout of that interview was even more interesting because when I gave it to the radio, the backroom boy didn’t have an idea as to whose interview it was. So they put it on without any announcement or fanfare. I got an interview with The Beatles but I didn’t get the glory or publicity. I was mortified; a few weeks later, when I went to ask for the tape, they told me something else had been taken over it. This was such a blow to my conscience and consciousness. That interview was broadcasting gold and I could have made a fortune selling it to any network. It forced me to rethink my life and what my options were. I wrote them all down–my aptitude and the correct job for it. That’s how I decided to come down to Mumbai–to be a filmmaker, not an actor. With just Rs 700 in my pocket and completely pissed off with the way I’d been treated by All India Radio. But in retrospect, I must thank God and AIR… if they hadn’t done that, all the things that happened, may not have happened.
Your book is also quite cinematic. Any plans to make it into a movie?
Well, I’m sure to find a home somewhere, someday, in India, or abroad, because there are all kinds of people that might be interested in my life. But, being an actor, being in cinema, seeing lots of scripts all the time, one gets used to thinking of things in cinematic terms and understands how to write the scene with all the drama. So, yes, a lot of sections in my book are very cinematic. I wanted my book, above all, to be interesting. And the fact that people find it useful, unputdownable and compelling, is the greatest tribute I could get.
One issue that you have addressed in the book is mental health because you saw two people up close suffering from it, people who you knew closely, including actress Parveen Babi. Mental health has been something that’s finally come to the forefront, especially during the pandemic when we’ve all had such emotional upheavals. What would your advice be for people who are suffering from mental health problems, especially currently, and also their primary caregivers, friends, and family?
People with mental health problems, firstly, are people, not objects; their perception might have changed but they are living, breathing people. Unlike physical problems, there’s a stigma, secrecy, and shame to it. Families don’t want to talk about it because of all the dangers involved. And this is tragic because mental health issues can be addressed in the same way physical health issues are addressed. And I must say, unlike in the late 90s, during my son’s great crisis, today, medicines are much better. Mental health problems can be treated or managed much better than they could be 20 years ago. So, it’s not a story without hope; it’s not a dead end.
And the other thing that people must realise is that when someone is suffering from a mental health problem, the caregiver deserves as much sympathy as the patient afflicted, because the caregiver is, in essence, suffering the most. The caregiver suffers the most because they want the best for the other person. Two things are important–for the caregiver to never give up, always keep give me love, because there is a soul there that’s receiving that. For the afflicted, the biggest problem is convincing them that they have a condition. They don’t want to admit they have schizophrenia, depression, or any other mental health issue.
Now, Parveen was a beautiful, sensitive, ambitious girl, who had come from the royal family of Junagadh that had fallen on bad times, made her way to Bombay, became a film star and the object of fantasy of millions. That’s not an easy achievement. She was determined and talented. My relationship with her overlapped with my greatest professional success in Europe, with ‘Sandokan’. So, there’s a strange jugalbandi between extraordinary euphoria and this cloud of emotional problems that we’re facing at the same time, with the person that you love most in the world, who you want to help, but who doesn’t want to be helped. All I’m saying is to take away the stigma from the afflicted and give the caregivers the support and sympathy they deserve.
I hope people who are listening take a lot away from this…
I hope so, because having seen it so closely in my life–both in the case of the woman I love and my son, who I love. But you have to face it, you have to deal with it, do the best you can. And then if things don’t work out, at least you tried to do the best you could do. You can’t hold the guilt of that for the rest of your life, you shouldn’t. You should do the best you can.
The pandemic bankrupted so many people, right? And you had filed for bankruptcy in the US. Since your book is dedicated to the young, what advice would you give them to navigate their finances, especially if they’re not going to have a regular monthly paycheck?
My bankruptcy towards the end of my years in the US was because of bad investments. Because we make a certain amount of money, we want even more money, and we take the riskiest investments, and they don’t work out, and suddenly you are left without anything. When you come from a family that doesn’t have a lot of money, where month-to-month survival is a problem, and suddenly you come into a lot of money, you think it’s going to be there forever. You can’t imagine the amount of money being spent. And then you go to California, see the price of houses that are beyond anybody’s reach, and yet you want to get a good house that you’ve always wanted since you were a child, you think, you’ll double your money, and buy the house you want. Now doubling or tripling your money sounds like a great idea but it can go wrong, and it did go wrong in my case.
It is very humiliating for anyone to go through bankruptcy but when you’re a celebrity, have alimonies to pay, and children to put through school, a certain lifestyle that you must maintain in some way, the pressure becomes unbelievable and you hit the worst emotional depths that you can. But again, how you raise yourself from that is the finale of my book. To young people, I’ll say: firstly, be very careful about money because money is not something to be taken lightly. It’s not to be turned over seriously as well; don’t let it ruin your life. But if you have made some money, be very careful with it. If you get over-ambitious, it can disappear in a flash and it did with me.
In a bull market, everyone’s a genius. I’m such a hellraiser and nonconformist, that I don’t like saying words like ‘balancing’ or ‘prudence’ because it’s not my style. But I would say that be careful financially guys because there are a lot of pitfalls. And also, if you’re making money in this fashion, there are going to be very difficult times ahead in the years to come. Whether it’s due to climate, or other factors beyond our control. I foresee a lot of turbulence in the years ahead, especially beginning at the end of the 20s. So if you have cash, stash it, prepare for a rainy day and then have fun.
What would 75-year-old Kabir Bedi advise 25-year-old and 50-year-old Kabir?
To the 25-year-old me, I’d say: be very careful of any relationship that you enter into because relationships that you think will be short-term can become long-term when emotions get involved. Be very careful who you get into a relationship with. Second, be very careful with your money. But I’ll also salute the 25-year-old me for taking the risk of going to Bombay, finding a job in advertising, and having the courage to leave great advertising agencies at a time when all my contemporaries Frank Simoes, Justin D’Cunha, Alyque Padamsee, Suresh Malik became heads of agencies. Leaving all that security to try for Bollywood, leaving the place of a rising star in Hindi films to test unknown waters in Italy, leaving even that to go to Hollywood.
At 50, I realised I wasn’t a teenager. I have always had a rebellious teenager inside me, but when I turned 50, I realised it was time to get serious, things to build, and get on with life. Age is such a strange thing because, within myself, I am still 25, physically I am 50, and spiritually, I feel I am 5000-years-old. So, what is my age? Yes, the knees start creaking after a while but if the spirit that drove you is alive, you are still young.
How did you select which stories to select and which ones to dump while writing your book?
My decision was to tell the totality of my life. I was aiming to tell the true story of my life. In fiction, you don’t know much and have to invent a lot of stuff, but since this book is about my life, I knew too much–all that would have made for a 1000 page book, and no one reads such a tome today. So, I picked stories that were seminal to my life and spun my life in different directions each time. That shaped my book into the 320-pager that it is. If enough people like my book, I’ll write more stories for the joy of telling them.
You speak so knowledgeably about mental health issues…
In the chapter on my son, I went into the issue of mental health in depth. But it is actually the story of a father trying to prevent his son from committing suicide. It moves people to tears but I had to remain unmoved while writing it, as I relieved the things I had made peace with. I had to reopen those scars to write about how things panned out. My book is not written as a series of lessons–that could be another book–it is the reality of what happened. I wanted my readers to be thrilled while reading it. The effort wasn’t to have any heavy debates on the issue but it is a microscope on a problem that is seldom spoken or discussed because I was willing to share my vulnerability, pain, and experience. That’s how those chapters came about.
What do you have to say about Bollywood being plagued with accusations of nepotism and groupism?
Bollywood made me a star, gave me a name, which is why the Italians noticed me. Also, I was outside India for 30 years and returned to do Rakesh Roshan’s ‘Khoon Bhari Maang’ which became my biggest hit. Since then, I have done two films with Hrithik Roshan, Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar. Bollywood has given me a lot of respect and films. Could they have been better films? Who knows? The fact is I’ll never speak badly of Bollywood because it gave me the recognition that brought me all my international success.
Tune in to watch Kabir Bedi’s full interaction with author Meghna Pant at the Times LitFest here. (hyperlink: https://timestream.in/litfest/)