Actor Kabir Bedi on Sandokan, type-casting and 'inner joy' of living in India

Kabir Bedi, photo: Štěpánka Budková

Rob Cameron’s guest on One on One this week is Kabir Bedi, one of India’s best known actors and one of the few to make that difficult transition from Bollywood to Europe to Hollywood. Kabir already had dozens of films under his belt before he won the lead role in the 1970s TV series Sandokan, a role that won him a legion of fans throughout Europe and especially in communist Czechoslovakia. Kabir Bedi was in Prague recently as a special guest of the Bollywood film festival, and Radio Prague asked the actor what explained the huge success of Sandokan.

Kabir Bedi,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
“Well Sandokan came at the right time, and it was the right story for its times, and of course the success of its music helped greatly. But it was a story of struggle against oppression at one level. It was also about the individual, and the individual’s desire to live life the way he or she wants to. It was also an epic love story, with that kind of Romeo and Juliet angle – Sandokan fell in love with an English girl, the daughter of his enemies, and all he had to sacrifice to get that love. And if you saw the series, it was shot in beautiful jungles, wonderful seas, an unpolluted, clean world, and of course the art direction by Nino Novarese, who was an Oscar-winning art director, made it a visual delight. So I think like when you bake a cake, all the ingredients have to match perfectly for it to rise perfectly – that’s what happened with Sandokan. All the elements conspired to make it successful.”

The Sandokan books were about this struggle against imperialism in the South China Sea. Your own family fought against real British oppression and imperialism in the Punjab. Was that something that attracted you to the role, the fact that it had echoes in India’s real struggle for independence against the British?

“I’ve always said that my father was perhaps the real Sandokan. He met my mother, who was English by birth, at Oxford. He promised her nothing but struggle and trouble, because he planned to go back to India to fight the British. She went back to India with him and was a follower of Gandhi and led non-violent demonstrations in our home town of Dera Baba Nanak in Punjab. He was a trade union leader and a communist, and believed in a more agitational approach. Both were imprisoned for their role in the Indian freedom struggle. So yes, in that sense, it was a great inspiration to me. But the reason I took on the role was because it was an opportunity for me to move beyond Bollywood, and I was looking for that opportunity. When they came to Bombay as part of their tour to find a Sandokan to play this role, I was the first actor they met. They asked me to come - at my expense – to Rome to do the audition, which I did. And no-one could possibly imagine the kind of success that it had, but it was certainly a doorway into the west for me, and I took it with great joy the minute I won the audition and got the role.”

As you say it brought you that great success, but were you worried about being typecast? Were there times when you wished that Sandokan would lose his battle with that tiger?

“Well, it is true that the success of Sandokan was a bit of a double-edged sword for me as an actor. Because I was so identified with this role, that it was difficult for directors to cast me in a social film. I mean, you’re doing a film about normal life and in walks Sandokan, it kind of disrupts the proceedings. So I realised that and therefore decided to move on, to England and Hollywood, to pursue my career. And it took some time before people started casting me again in Europe.”

Kabir Bedi,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
There seems to have been a great influx of British stars to Hollywood in recent years, yet it’s much tougher for Indian stars to make it in the U.S. Why do you think that is, as someone who has successfully made that transition, who has ‘made it’?

“I would put the words ‘made it’ in qualified terms. I made it in terms of making it in the roles that were available. The business of casting abroad, especially in Hollywood, is the business of type-casting. If I say I can play Othello, which I have in the theatre, they say – no no, we can get a black actor. If I say I can play Hamlet, they say – no no, we can get a white actor. It’s not what you can do, it’s who you are that decides your casting.”

Is that why you were cast in Octopussy, as the villain?

“Absolutely, that was one of the reasons they cast me in the Bond film. The process is not likely to change, because they’re not writing roles for foreigners. Nor do they have a duty to do so – we’re not writing endless roles for foreigners in Bollywood either. So you have to basically look at what’s there and work with it, or you have to go out there and create projects which have these roles, and then make the most of it. It also depends how you brand yourself. Take, say, Ben Kingsley, who played the role of Gandhi. His real name is Krishna Bhanji. Now, if he’d remained Krishna Bhanji, Gandhi might have been the only role he’d ever played. But because he branded himself as Ben Kingsley, very deliberately, he’s seen as a British actor capable of playing a number of different roles. He says so himself. He says – the day I changed my name, instead of saying ‘we’ll get back to you’, it was ‘when can you start?’ I never changed my name because I didn’t think I wanted to. Yet I have managed to sustain a thirty-year career on three continents, including the West End in London, including sixty Bollywood films, work in Europe and Hollywood, in a sort of patchwork way which has worked for me.”

Kabir Bedi with his girlfriend Parvin,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
You’ve been called the ‘Indian Sean Connery’. Sean Connery is a famous Scottish patriot who doesn’t live in Scotland. Kabir Bedi does live in India. Was that a deliberate decision?

“Yes, I lived in L.A. for a long time, and I loved the city for the kind of people that are there, the ease of living, but it wasn’t giving me truly satisfying roles. There’s always work on a plate in Bollywood, and also I have a sense that I like being connected to India. I like living in India. I like being part of the Indian ethos, if you like. There’s a feeling of being at home. A kind of inner joy from living in India that I don’t find anywhere else.”

Kabir Bedi it’s been a great pleasure to talk to you.

“Thanks very much for coming, and allowing me to share my ideas and feelings on this long journey that I’ve taken in a difficult industry, but one that has rewarded me in many significant ways.”