MUMBAI — He’s really happy to be speaking to India-West. “India-West reaches old friends and also my fans. Through you, I can tell them I am well and happy and that great things are happening in my career. I have the fondest memories of California, where I have spent 15 of the 25 years that I have spent outside India as virtually an NRI,” Kabir Bedi declares before we even start the interview.
The 69-year-old global star, who has worked in theater, movies and television across three continents and in several languages, looks like someone in his late forties, which is actually his approximate tenure as an actor! At his lavish and tasteful apartment in Juhu, Mumbai, Bedi opens up candidly about his life and career.
For example, he received a tumultuous welcome recently in Italy, where he has became a cult figure because of the 1976 TV series “Sandokan,” in which he stars as the title character. Bedi entered Hindi films in 1971 with O.P. Ralhan’s “Hulchul” and is best known for “Kucche Dhaage” and “Khoon Bhari Maang” in India.
“I have a wonderful relationship with Italy, where I was even knighted as a ‘Cavaliere,’ which is their highest civilian honor. I was invited to the Verona Amphitheater by Romina Power, daughter of the iconic Tyrone Power, for her professional reunion concert with her ex-husband, Al Bano. I went onstage with her (we have been old friends since we worked on ‘Sandokan’), and I interacted and danced with her. It was such a warm welcome with all the fans wildly cheering!”
Bedi declares that day as one that will remain in his memory for life: “The amphitheater accommodates 13,000 people and is one of the finest in the world! And it was “Sandokan” that made me a star abroad. I am also happy to say that we are launching its Collector’s Edition soon for India and abroad. Finally, after four decades, India will be able to watch the series.”
After this, Bedi went to London for the 200th celebration of the Battle of Waterloo at the Royal Albert Hall. Back home, Bedi is currently shooting for Ashutosh Gowariker’s “Mohenjo-Daro,” starring Hrithik Roshan, as well as Rohit Shetty’s “Dilwale,” both in important roles. In the latter, he is Kajol’s father and has a conflict with Vinod Khanna.
“It’s a wonderfully entertaining film,” he says about “Dilwale,” which is Shah Rukh Khan’s home production.
“It was great resuming ties with Hrithik after ‘Kites’ and Shah Rukh after ‘Main Hoon Na.’ As for Vinod, he’s an old friend from our times of ‘Kucche Dhaage’ in 1973. We have co-starred in many films and have always been in touch since.”
The third big film Bedi is working on is in Malayalam. He plays a naval officer who speaks only in Hindi and opposes the union of his daughter and the hero, played by Prithviraj.
“The people of Kerala do understand Hindi,” he explains.
In Canada, he recently did eight performances of a play named “Taj,” in which he plays Shah Jahan, who is imprisoned in the Agra Fort.
“Lisa Ray plays Shah Jahan’s daughter, who is also a prisoner. The play is operatic in concept, and I, as a broken, bitter emperor, have a flashback to the past, where I dance as a young man and narrate how I met Mumtaz.”
Bedi is hopeful that sponsors will soon be secured, so the play can be performed in the U.S. and later, India.
With so many films and series done overseas, does he think he got a raw deal back home? Or did he voluntarily work less?
“I was doing okay but decided that song and dance and the heroes I was doing then were not really me,” he replies. “Since the Italians got a hold of me, I decided on an international career. But I must also say that I have the greatest respect for all those who do song and dance. I adore the form, and it makes our cinema unique. We do it better than anyone else in the world, and it is enormously enjoyed by millions of people.”
Having done stage, small screen and big screen, how does he approach acting in these diverse mediums? His answer is remarkably pragmatic.
“Theater needs much longer preparation. I spoke non-stop on stage for 90 minutes for my play ‘Taj.’ The joy you receive is fantastic; it’s like oxygen for any actor. Films are a slower process, more fragmented, where you may shoot one scene over two or three months, depending on the schedules or dates. Or we may shoot the last scene of the film first. We have to piece everything together like a jigsaw and be very conscious of continuity in thought, word and emotion to do it well technically.”
He goes on, “Television is like theater without preparation, where you get to do whole sequences with multiple cameras and with just one night for prep. But just think of the reach TV has! Because of that, an actor is instantly known, whereas a film has to be a hit. As for theater, the audience is even more limited!”
Modest about his acting achievements, which include playing the mad king Tughlaq, Shah Jahan in both the play, as well as the Hindi film “Taj Mahal,” Sandokan and even doing “Othello” onstage, Bedi says, “I am an actor who has learned along the way, beginning with my childhood inclination for drama in school.”
Multilingual as an actor (he even spoke the Afghan language Pashtu in “The Beast”), Bedi has been honored with high awards in France, Germany, the UK and Italy but has not yet received any honors from his home country.
“I haven’t lobbied for it, because I do not hanker after awards and am not dependent upon them. If it comes, fine!” is his take on the subject.
But Bedi is very vocal about the progress of Indian actors and cinema abroad.
“I am really very happy, because this is what I fought for; this is what I wanted. Dev Patel, Mindy and others — a whole generation of them is part of mainstream American films and television. Some call me the trailblazer, for I was the first Indian to make a whole career abroad. But even Indian actors from India are now getting apt roles and are not just painted brown. Brand Bollywood is being talked and known about and is becoming bigger by the day. I recently went to a Bollywood festival in Prague where 90 percent of the audience was Czech. We have the capacity and talent, and it’s only a matter of time before some of our films become as big as Hollywood!”