A rookie fan boy, out to score an interview with the legendary Beatles, ended up receiving the same traffic-stopping, unbridled, out-of-control adulation from fans on the streets of Europe, one day, himself. (Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale)
A rookie fan boy, out to score an interview with the legendary Beatles, ended up receiving the same traffic-stopping, unbridled, out-of-control adulation from fans on the streets of Europe, one day, himself. (Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale)

Malavika’s Mumbaistan: Across The Universe

Even before Kabir Bedi had shoe-horned his way into The Beatles’ Delhi hotel suite as a 20-year-old rookie reporter for an interview, it was obvious that he was destined to lead an extraordinary life.
By Malavika Sangghvi
PUBLISHED ON MAY 28, 2021 05:36 PM IST

Even before Kabir Bedi had shoe-horned his way into The Beatles’ Delhi hotel suite as a 20-year-old rookie reporter for an interview, it was obvious that he was destined to lead an extraordinary life, almost like the protagonist of one of Salman Rushdie’s magic realism novels, or Zelig, Woody Allen’s hero, who has an uncanny knack of turning up at history’s most pivotal moments.

Consider his background — born a year before Independence as one of the off-springs of the extraordinary marriage of two Oxford undergrads, both deeply involved in India’s freedom struggle; Kabir‘s mother Freda was an English rose who had fallen in love with Baba Pyare Lal Bedi (BPL), a dashing left-leaning descendant of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.

His parents’ ideological commitment saw Kabir grow up amid some of the founding fathers of new India. From Nehru and Gandhi who co-opted Freda into satyagraha, to Sheikh Abdullah who invited BPL to reside in Srinagar and draft the first constitution of independent Kashmir, to the likes of Teji Bachchan, Inder and Satish Gujral and Khuswant Singh, Kabir’s exposure to the leading minds of his time was remarkable.

And if this was not enough to set him apart, there was his parent’s astonishing spiritual transformations during his teens — first his mother who became the highest-ordained nun in Tibetan Buddhism and a key figure in its introduction to the West, and then his father whose sudden mystical awakening led him to healing, auto-writing and speaking in tongues.

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But as he writes in the very first chapter of Stories I Must Tell: The Emotional Life of An Actor, even with all this as a background, Kabir’s life might have not spun into the stuff of legend had it not been for that fanboy Beatles moment and its subsequent fall-out. Because, shortly after his triumph, came the tragedy — with legendary inefficiency, All India Radio had recorded over his interview, deleting it for posterity. For the Stephen College history major and childhood friend of Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi, with his debating acumen honed among the likes of Kapil Sibal and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, it had been proven to be the last straw.

With 700 in his pocket, he’d caught the first train out of Delhi to seek his fortunes in Mumbai. To begin with, landing a stint at Lintas as an ad filmmaker while attracting acclaim as a model and voice over artist in the Bombay of the Seventies, was not a long stretch for the 6’2” Delhi hunk, said to have the looks of a Greek god. Neither was his subsequent break as the lead in Alyque Padamsee’s production of Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq and subsequent debut in Bollywood, or his marriage to the vivacious Protima Gupta. To be sure, his Bollywood avatar and his life as a member of the famous Juhu Gang, his affair with the industry’s top actress Parveen Babi and his mind boggling, unimaginable stardom following his role as the pirate Sandokan on Italian TV (which saw him land a role in the Bond franchise, and later in iconic TV series such as the Bold and the Beautiful), and his four marriages on three continents have been the stuff of tabloid headlines.

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Kabir says he always knew he had a great story to tell and that he had thought about writing his autobiography for decades. But all his attempts had landed in the bin. The pandemic had afforded him time to think afresh. “My book was bursting to come out of me, an unborn baby pushing with its legs,” he says. One morning, he had an epiphany on how to approach it and cocooned and encouraged by his devoted wife, Parveen Dusanj, he had worked like a maniac, all day, every day, for six months until he had the first draft of a manuscript.

And what a labour of love it’s been, page after page bristling with sparkling stories from the vastness and scope of an extraordinary life. From his experiences as a child monk in Burma, to encounters with Gina Lollobrigida and Fellini, Krishnamurthy, Audrey Hepburn and Lady Diana, Kabir has written with a rare honesty, courage and sensitivity, not usually associated with those in showbiz.

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But for all the jaw-dropping glamour of his tryst with the Bond franchise, beautiful women, and Bollywood’s jet set, what is most captivating in the book, surprisingly, is the chapter in which Kabir ruminates about the deeper questions of his life. Titled Ramblings On A Beach, it begins with a short story he’d penned as an idealistic 29-year-old.

“There are seekers like me. The ones who question everything, who look for deeper answers, who want to know ‘the Truth’,” he writes, before dwelling on the many streams of spirituality that have run through his life — Sikhism, Buddhism, Christianity, West coast movements like EST and new-age philosophers like Osho and Deepak Chopra.

It is here that Kabir shares a hard-earned wisdom: “The honey of material achievement — money, fame, success and beautiful women — didn’t give me the answers,” says the man whose life could be the fantasy of many a young boy.

Because for all his outward material successes of being Knighted, lionised, mobbed and adored by a slew of impossibly glamorous women, Kabir is unafraid to share his downsides. He doesn’t shrink away from writing about his brilliant techie son Siddharth’s suicide, nor the unravelling of his marriages nor his financial tribulations.

And yet, from the chiaroscuro of Kabir’s deeply introspective book, hidden patterns emerge which one hopes will give rise to more of his writing. Such as the poignant coincidence of two of the famous women he had once loved (wife Protima and paramour Persis Khambatta) dying suddenly and inexplicably, on exactly the same day. Such as how two of his most cherished, his son and Parveen Babi, ended up tragically suffering from the same debilitating affliction of schizophrenia. Such as how in spite of all his wild spiritual and personal ramblings across the globe, this descendant of Guru Nanak has finally found happiness and fulfilment in marriage to a fellow Sikh, and what’s more, has set up home with her in his beloved Juhu, not far from where he’d once lived.

And last but not the least, such as how a rookie fan boy, out to score an interview with the legendary Beatles, ended up receiving the same traffic-stopping, unbridled, out-of-control adulation from fans on the streets of Europe, one day, himself.

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