By Kanika Katyal for Youth Ki Awaaz:
One is never too old for a pirate story. Fans of pirate stories know what it’s like to experience the ‘worlds of wonder’ through these adventures. And if you thought Captain Jack Sparrow was good, you will be blown away by our desi pirate hero, Sandokan!
Starring actor Kabir Bedi as the protagonist, ‘Sandokan’ is an Italian six-part television series, based upon the novels of Emilio Salgari. First aired in the 1970s, it is the story of an Asian pirate, who falls in love with an English princess and fights the British for the freedom of his people. In a population of 50 million, it had a record-breaking viewership of 20 million and went on to become one of the most successful European shows of all time!
As ‘Sandokan’ completes 40 years, it has been dubbed in Hindi as ‘Sher-e-Malaysia’, with a DVD version that you can buy online. The show may soon be broadcast on major television channels.
We got talking to actor Kabir Bedi on his memories of playing Sandokan, the role that brought him Knighthood from Italy, what makes India “a great fruit salad” and more.
Kanika Katyal (KK): Now that ‘Sandokan’ is being brought back for the Indian audiences, what memories does it bring back for you?
Kabir Bedi (KB): ‘Sandokan’ has been absolutely seminal in my life. It was the series that launched me in Europe, launched my international career, led to everything I did in Hollywood, and it really opened the doors of the West to me. So it brings back many wonderful memories from being mobbed on the streets of Europe, to being recognised all over South America. It is an event which brings a warm glow to my heart.
KK: What’s in it for contemporary audiences? Especially in terms of culture, how close are India and Italy?
KB: This is a very good question you’ve asked me. Even though it was a European production, it was the story of an Asian hero, of love in the midst of war, action and adventure, filmed in Malaysia and Chennai. And of course, all those who can relate to my work in Bollywood and abroad will relate to this. I was very keen that today’s audience, the younger generation, sees this because they know very little of what I’ve done abroad, whereas in Europe, it keeps getting replayed on television. From grandmothers to grandchildren, everyone knows me there.
KK: You are famously remembered for your role in the James Bond film, ‘Octopussy’. How did the Western media receive you then and how is it different now?
KB: See, there’s a big difference between how the Anglo-Saxon world views India, or viewed India, and the way Europe views India. At the time, the Anglo-Saxon world saw India as an underdeveloped country. The land of snake charmers, the cows on the street, that “ex-colony-backward-nation” kind of viewpoint, very condescending. Europe on the other hand, saw India in a more romantic, mystical, spiritual way, as a place that’s a fountain of wisdom. So my character, the Asian ruler, ‘Tarantino’, was seen in that light. Today, of course, the world’s perception of India has changed tremendously. People understand its role in world affairs; they understand that India is not some backward nation. In fact, it is the fastest growing free-market democracy in the world today, and that says it all.
KK: Since you’ve lived and worked across continents, you understand the importance of cultural pluralism. Within India itself, we’ve always been a culture of assimilation. How important is a model that integrates heterogeneity, to our national identity?
KB: Different nations have different ways of forming their national identity. In America, for instance, the model was one of homogeneity breaking from different backgrounds, and the whole effort was to blend them all together like a wonderful making of a milkshake! In a country like India, we don’t want to put everyone in one big mixture. We have a different language, culture and cuisine for each region, even though we are united in the larger context. We are more like a fruit salad, where each ingredient has its own specialty, each fruit its distinct flavor, and together, the salad makes a tasty dish, without losing the individuality of each constituent. India can’t be looked at as a country; it’s more of a continent. I think the Indian model of respecting the uniqueness of each religion and, of every state is what makes the country great.
KK: You have always associated yourself with progressive projects, such as ‘Kamagata Maru’. With more films such as ‘The Dirty Picture’ and ‘Margarita With A Straw’ hitting theatres, do you think Indian audiences are better prepared to talk about gender and sexuality today as compared to when you first started working?
KB: Oh absolutely! I think worldwide, the movement has been towards accepting and respecting the individuality and the rights of gay people, lesbians and transgender people. Here, however, age-old cultural mindsets – which also comes from Victorian times, affect the thinking of people. However, I do believe that with more worldwide influences, the coming of the internet age and digital media, the flow of information is far greater, and people’s understanding can expand more easily. It is time that India legally respected the rights of LGBT persons. It is very sad that this is not enshrined in Indian law in India so far, but I do believe that soon, we will come on par with respecting the individuality of people with different sexualities.
KK: We have usually seen you in roles such as the General in ‘Main Hoon Na’ and Emperor Shah Jahan in ‘Taj Mahal: An Eternal Love Story’, largely because of your personality and appearance. But has this ever made you feel limited as an actor?
KB: Everything has its advantages and disadvantages. Obviously, I can’t play Mahatma Gandhi. But on the other hand, there are many roles that I can and have played. So, actors are limited by their appearance and while it has cost me some roles, it has got me some very important roles too. I wouldn’t have got the role in ‘Sandokan’ if I hadn’t looked the way I looked. The same goes for my roles in ‘Kachche Dhaage’, ‘Nagin’, ‘Yalgaar’, or ‘Khoon Bhari Maang’. In fact, when I was called by Rakesh (Roshan) to do ‘Khoon Bhari Maang’, I was shooting in Hawaii for ‘Magnum P.I.’ He said, “I want you to come to India and play this role.” I asked him, “Have all the actors in India gone on strike?” He said, “No, No, the problem in ‘KBM’ is that the hero becomes the villain. Therefore, no hero wants to do it. As a villain in the role, everyone knows he’s a villain from the start. You’re the only one who’s this positive-negative, good-bad image.”
Therefore, I got that role. So you win some, you lose some. On the other hand, the advantage my looks gave me was that I wasn’t limited to just playing Indian roles when I was abroad, and I’ve been abroad for almost twenty-five years. I could play Arab roles, even German roles, Italian roles because I had that look.
KK: I remember you did the Punjabi film ‘Yaara o Dildara’, and I felt it was as if the role was just cut out for you. For an artist who’s been Knighted by Italy, what prompted you to do a regional film?
KB: Director Harbhajan Mann came to me and said, “Paaji, main twade layi ik film le aayaan. Tussi eh karlo mere layi. Tussi Punjabi film ajj tak kitti nai hai. Saari tussi foreign production kittiyaan ne, Punjabi film nai kitti hai. (I’ve brought this film especially to you. You have to do it for me. You’ve done so many foreign productions, but haven’t done even one Punjabi film yet).”
So emotionally, as a Punjabi, I said yes, I must do this film. It was lovely, actually, because I grew up speaking English and Punjabi. Just living and working in Punjab and smelling the early morning air and sitting down and having paranthas and lassi and all that was marvellous.
KK: You’ve said that you came to Bombay to become a filmmaker and acting happened by chance. Why have you not ventured on that front yet? Also, do tell us a little bit about your upcoming projects?
KB: I came to be a filmmaker and therefore, I worked in advertising for five years. Then acting, which was a hobby of mine, became my profession because I did ‘Tughlaq’, Girish Karnad’s first play, and that became a big hit. And then my acting took off enormously, first with ‘Sandokan’ in Europe which led to all my work in Italy and Hollywood. When you are a filmmaker, you need to be rooted, because committing yourself to producing or directing a film is a good three-year process. Being an international actor, I always had to keep moving. Now that I am back in India, it is entirely possible that I will be producing and directing films, hopefully in the near future.