Book Review: Kabir Bedi’s memoir "Stories I Must Tell" is the tale of a star’s self-definition

Print edition : August 27, 2021

Kabir Bedi in 2017. “The best is yet to come.” Photo: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

As in some of the best literary works, the life stories by Kabir Bedi, the well-known actor who has carved out a place for himself in the cinema of the East and the West over many decades, is told here in dramatic terms.

Four competing narratives, closely linked and interwoven, intersect this memoir in memorable terms. Rich and many-layered, like an arabesque, they bring to attention essentially fourfold subtexts: a life in cinema and allied arts, the meaning of man-woman relationship, the gift of parenthood, and the mystery of untimely death.

Agony and Epiphany

This is a narrative lyrically told with empathy and objectivity, punctuated by agony and epiphany. As in some of the best literary works, the life stories by Kabir Bedi, the well-known actor who has carved out a place for himself in the cinema of the East and the West over many decades, is told here in dramatic terms. Kabir would like the readers to learn from his own experience, the ‘mistakes’ he makes in his life as a lover, spouse, son, artist and parent. However, the story overpowers the narrator’s desire to offer ‘cautionary’ tales for the innocent and the unwary. The events and incidents, surcharged as they are with the ebb and flow of life, carry their own meaning, and ‘lessons’ for the readers. Kabir’s journey through life, enacted here in moving and self-reflexive terms, brings to mind the great literary classics in terms of the unfolding of triumphs and tragedies, evoking the Greek sense of ‘hamartia’, the ‘fatal flaw’ in the leading characters, in the modern context.

Stellar Longings

Kabir’s persona in the memoir is often self-deprecatory, rarely condescending. Seldom drawn to the habitual and the commonplace, Kabir sidesteps mediocrity and aspires for nobility in thought and action that he sees in the life of his parents—Baba and Freda Bedi: one a nationalist/communist/spiritualist of great fame, the other a Buddhist of equal eminence, both students from Oxford, and both citizens of the world. Both powerfully overcame the binaries and dichotomies of modernity.

We see Kabir’s affairs, his tempestuous relationships, his ‘open’ marriages and life with gifted and passionate women, chief among whom were Protima and Parveen Babi. We see his ‘dark nights of the soul’ and those of his lady love. For Protima, the classical dance form Odissi becomes a source of catharsis; her dance school Nrityagram, on the outskirts of Bengaluru, and the ultimate pilgrimage to Mount Kailash as a “Hindu sannyasin”’ the source of her deliverance. Parveen Babi, the legendary Bollywood actor who captures the spirit of an entire generation as an archetypical rebel, tragically succumbs to mental illness, forlorn and unsung.

Kabir’s desires, both personal and professional, are always Olympian and larger than life, his longings forbiddingly stellar. Like Dedalus, he aspires to soar to the sun, and must get singed, but like the Phoenix, he rises eternally from his ashes. From great affluence to abject bankruptcy, from supreme stardom to total oblivion, and then back again. All the while, he remains unfazed, his joie de vivre remains infectious, his zest for life undiminished.

On the surface, the memoir chronicles the success and failures in the life of a popular film star in Bollywood, Italy and Hollywood; we see his celluloid adventures in the jungles of Malaysia and Costa Rica, the deserts of Egypt and Israel and other exotic locales, rubbing shoulders with the literati and the glitterati. He sees the works of great directors and is deeply inspired: David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Federico Fellini, Jean Luc Goddard, Luchino Visconti, K. Asif , Bimal Roy and Mehboob Khan. He learns theatre from the legendary ad guru Alyque Padamsee and is inspired by the eminent director Shyam Benegal. It is a life marked by royalty, glamour and flamboyance, marriages and separations, love and loss, affluence and penury, nativism and cosmopolitanism, this worldliness and otherworldliness, a life of hedonism as well as a life of self-abnegation, piety and renunciation. In all this roller-coaster ride, the reader cannot miss the deeper layers of meaning and solemnity that lend significance to the memoir and its dramatic personae including the narrator-protagonist.

Kabir meets a host of luminaries in Bollywood, Italy, the United Kingdom and Hollywood: O.P. Ralhan, Vinod Khanna, Mahesh Bhatt (A Soul Brother), Rekha (Khoon Bhari Maang, that Kabir is best remembered for), Dev Anand, Gina Lollobrigida, Roger Moore, Cubby Broccoli (the producer of James Bond in Octopussy), Sheikh Abdullah, the Dalai Lama, Karmapa, Khushwant Singh, Deepak Chopra, Michael Caine, Kevin Reynolds, Ben Kingsley, Sean Connery, Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowell, Princess Margaret, Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Omar Sheriff and a cavalcade of actors/directors/producers. The meetings shape his mind and art and add to the rich repertoire of his international experience, especially in the field of cinema.

Acts of Remembrance

As an accomplished actor of Shakespeare, and a connoisseur of avant-garde theatre and cinema, Kabir knows that the act of recollection is not a mere act of reminiscence; it is fundamentally an attempt at self-definition. The British Romantic Revivalists1 tell us that when we visit a landscape, we recreate through memory a fresh experience and renew our identities.

As one goes through Kabir’s stories, one gets the unmistakable feeling that he is attempting, through the act of narration, to understand the meaning of his life, to define for himself the fluidity of his many identities, as a son, a spouse, father, comrade, companion, colleague, patron, philanthropist and mentor. This is borne out by the fact that the narrator-protagonist does not project himself as omniscient and all-powerful in terms of self-knowledge and self-awareness. His voice is often marked by ambiguity and ambivalence about his predilections and actions. Was he right in this, and correct in that? Was he just to his wife Protima and fair to his son Siddharth, who tragically ended his life? Could he have done more for Parveen Babi? Did he give enough time to his parents?

Kabir offers speculations and surmises. He explains the situations but does not use his stories as self-justificatory exercises. His acts of atonement for his guilt and regrets for the mistakes made are there for all to see. He does not refrain from showing himself as vulnerable and does not hide behind subterfuges, masks and covers for self-righteous reasons. If he cannot bear his loneliness, he is upfront about it. He is not prurient, nor he is he an exhibitionist. Wisdom from hindsight often gives us the ‘golden mean’ that the wise speak about.

The context for action here is largely Bollywood, a national craze and pastime. The lives of stars like Dev Anand2, Rajendra Kumar, Rajesh Khanna, Sanjay Khan3, Asha Parekh4 never fail to excite us. Their life of struggle, courage and resilience, their fortunes and misfortunes are part of the Bollywood dream machine. Today, in the social media, the biopics of the film stars of yesteryears like Dilip Kumar5, Sunil Dutt and Dharmendra, Wahida Rehman, Meena Kumari, Mala Sinha, Nanda, Sadhana and Helen are familiar to the new generation. Manoj Kumar, Jeetendra and Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya and Rekha are on a comeback trail in the retrospectives.

But Kabir Bedi appears to be a stand-alone case. Perhaps his eclectic class background, education at St. Stephens, exposure to the world of elite culture and society, and his inheritance of the rich Sikh and British traditions through his parents, are responsible, in good measure, for the uniqueness of his journey.

As we go through the eight riveting chapters, we are drawn to the major events aptly titled: Leaving Home with the Beatles; Boldness and Betrayal; Chances and Choices: Kabir and Kishmish (“I was twenty-three, she was just nineteen” … “She enjoyed shocking people and being a ‘go-go-girl’”); Days of Love and Glory: Sandokan and Parveen Babi (“She chose guaranteed success in Bollywood over taking chances abroad in my shadow. I lost a woman who I wanted for life, a woman who I wanted to heal. All that remained was my aching emptiness in an equally empty home”); Revolution to Religion: Baba and Freda, Ramblings on a Beach: Beaches and Beliefs (the short story Kabir wrote when he was 29); Saving My Son: The Wounded Soul; Agony and Ecstasy, Ruin and Resurrection: Hollywood, Italy and India; and finally, Iconic Photographs and Magazine Covers.

The movement in the narrative is not linear. The story often goes back and forth. It is a fascinating mix: the diary notes, biographical accounts such as by Andrew Whitehead, letters written from near and far, reflections and ruminations of the dramatic personae and others, criss-cross the text and add considerably to the richness of the stories. Such additions and interventions make the account nuanced and many-sided; they offer valuable perspectives and allow the readers to make their judgements and form their opinion of men, women and matters. Today, with Parveen Dusanj, Kabir is a happy man. “My journey,” he says at the end, “is not yet done. The best is yet to come.”

But what is life? What does happiness mean really? We may turn to an old letter of Protima:

“The importance of one’s life dawns on one, and with it a sense of purpose and direction and an incredible feeling of awe when one realises what truly is the wisdom of the ancients, and how deep and true the real meaning of religion. I know how destiny works and how the karmic cycle is endless, and I also know that it doesn’t end with death, for it’s just a sheer veil between this and other birth, the other the next life, and we shall meet again” (page 93).

Finally, it is not so much the events and personalities, the relationships and the achievements of Kabir Bedi, important as they are, that one remembers in this incredible memoir. Of the four narratives signalled at the opening of this essay, it is the ‘gift of parenthood’ and ‘the mystery of untimely death’ that perhaps linger the most in our minds. The last two narratives, those of the death of the parents and the passing of a son, converge seamlessly. It is the voice of Kabir’s son Siddharth whose memory will remain etched for ever in our consciousness. Kabir invokes the scene of the immersion of Siddharth’s ‘mortal remains’ in the blue waves of Santa Monica Beach in lyrical terms:

We watched in silence as Adam walked into the swelling sea with his brother’s mortal remains. Siddharth’s ashes disappeared into the waters of a vast comforting ‘oroo’ that stretched beyond the horizon. Was it his spirit in the wind that whirled around us? Who knows? He had gone, he said in the farewell note, ‘to explore the other side’.

Sachidananda Mohanty is former Professor and Head, Department of English, University of Hyderabad, and former Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Odisha.

His latest book is Cosmopolitan Modernity in Early 20th-Century India, Routledge, 2018.

He grew up under the influence of the ‘golden era’ of Hindi cinema.