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