Review: Kabir Bedi’s Candid Autobiography Takes the Reader from Delhi to Hollywood

'Stories I Must Tell: The Emotional Life of an Actor' brings to the fore Bedi's recollections of his work, acquaintance with famous names, his relationships, among others.

The biographies and autobiographies of actors are very often hagiographically boring: lists of filmic, stage and TV triumphs one couldn’t care less about. Kabir Bedi’s compelling autobiography, while sporting at times the names of literally hundreds of films, plays and series he has been in, in Bollywood, Hollywood and Italy, is not remotely that.

Kabir was born the child of two remarkable parents who deserve and are the subjects of various biographies of their own – his father as a descendant of Guru Nanak and spiritual mystic with a practice and institutions around the world, and his mother, the English beauty Freda Bedi who was the first Buddhist nun of extraordinary distinction, a life-long social redeemer and a spiritual leader in her own right.

Kabir’s parents met when they were undergraduates at Oxford with leanings towards communism and, having married, came to India to become fierce activists in the independence struggle against the British Raj. This very heritage bequeathed on the young Kabir a unique childhood.

Actors spend significant periods of their lives trying to be someone else and revel in the fact that they are recognised not as the portrayer of that someone else, but as the characters they play. Through the evidence of these ‘stories’ – the accounts of his several relationships, the heart-breaking descriptions of the tragedies of his partner Parveen Babi’s psychotic illnesses and that of the suicide of his brilliant young son – a very distinct and even strong personality emerges through the crisp prose.

Yes, there are chapters devoted to the triumphs of playing popular characters, the main one being the pirate in his Italian films and series Sandokan in the 1970s, which made him a star in Europe. Though this recollection should perhaps not be in a book review, I had evidence of this insatiable popularity when, after Kabir had starred in an English film that I had written, called Take Three Girls, I was on a literary tour in Italy. College students of English were required to study some of my stories and I was invited in Ravenna to speak to them and answer questions. The chairwoman introduced me to those 150 students and mentioned that apart from the books they were studying, I also wrote Bollywood film scripts. A hand shot up. Did I know Kabir Bedi? I said he was a friend and we had recently worked together. A hundred hands were in the air.

“What was he like, what did he eat, who was he with……?” Despite the Chair’s efforts, the session was absolutely not about my writing, it was about the real Kabir whom they knew as Sandokan.

There are, inevitably, passing recollections of his work and acquaintance with famous names – from Michael Caine, Audrey Hepburn, Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Omar Sharif and others too numerous to mention. Kabir also had the good or bad fortune to have been a childhood companion and later a friend of Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi. He recalls meetings with hundreds of people who are historical figures, including the Dalai Lama, Pope John Paul II and, in the opening chapter, as a young reporter for All India Radio, with the Beatles. On that occasion, he summons the audacity to ask John Lennon what an LSD trip is like. Lennon avoids the question. As does Elizabeth Taylor when Kabir asks a pertinent but possibly indiscreet one about the men she has had sex with.

A fascinating aspect of this biography is what one can only describe as modest honesty, though as an actor Bedi has a lot to not be modest about. His several relationships, their ups and downs, the unconventionality of an ‘open marriage’ with his first love and wife Protima, are remarkable for their candour.

What most actor-biographers won’t have the advantage of, is parents and lovers who are highly literate, articulate and even philosophical chroniclers. Bedi peppers his stories with cogent quotes from their letters and works, quotes which enlighten, explain, expose, expand on and emotionally impact on the reader: the suicide note of his son Siddharth, letters from Parveen Babi and, most prolifically, quotes from his mother about life, times and the triumphs and sacrifices of the spiritual life.

Kabir with Michael Caine in ‘Ashanti’. Photo: Kabir Bedi archive

Brought up in a family that considered spirituality, in one form or the other, the key to existence, and having been brought up with meditative disciplines and discourses about meaning and spirit, the actor who plays very earthly roles devotes a chapter to his constant spiritual quest and questioning of what religion might mean and what several religions might contribute to such a quest. He relates experiences that have beguiled him but are bewildering or written off by the sceptical (me!) as wondrously coincidental, hallucinatory or, if one allows oneself to be severe and mean, self-deceptive. Kabir admits that his son Siddharth was in a sense a sceptic, regarding organised religion as “mumbo-jumbo.”

Another chapter is devoted to the essence he derives from the teachings of Nanak, the Sufi poet Kabir, the Gita, the Buddha and Jesus. A strict philosophical discourse could prove that there are conflicting doctrines in the wisdom of even these, but the inclination to extract meaning from each of them is Kabir’s quest. He also says he has followed the teachings of Bhagwan Rajneesh, later known as Osho, and of the gentleman Deepak Chopra about both of whom, for fear of American lawyers, I shall say nothing.

May I also add that the pages of photographs that adorn the book are a biography in themselves.

Farrukh Dhondy is a novelist and script writer.