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Kabir Bedi’s Iconic Pirate Show Has Been Revived In India. Here’s What He Has To Say

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By Kanika Katyal for Youth Ki Awaaz: 

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Quickies

If not an actor, you’d be?
An architect

What do you do when you hit a creative block?
Take time out, chill and then come back.

Who would you like to swap lives with?
Oh boy! I’m not sure I could swap lives with anybody. There are people I admire – Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, or Osho, or great thinkers, but nobody whose life I’d swap with because I think I’m too busy living my own that I can’t imagine living someone else’s.

What comes to you mind when someone says, “Oh you’re so good looking!”
I’m flattered.

What other nationality have people confused you with most often?
Italian, European, Russian, South American, Afghan, what else you want?

What does ‘progress’ mean to you? How would you define it?
Progress is evolution and evolution is a great impulse of man, whether personal or national. Progress is moving beyond where you are. It is moving into a better space in the future.

What keeps you going?
The desire to constantly do new and better things and also the need to pay my bills.

What must an actor NOT have?
Pride, because it is one of the few deadly sins. It often gets in the way of doing many things that you could do or should do but feel too proud to do.

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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?

KabirBediKB: 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.

SANDOKAN WITH DAGGERS ON BOATKK: 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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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