At 69, Kabir Bedi shows no signs of ill-health or slowing down. Instead, he is concerned with leaving behind a legacy.
The actor, whose career has spanned three continents over four decades, released a collector's edition DVD set of his little-seen acclaimed international TV debut Sandokan (1976) in Mumbai on Tuesday. Based on a classic work of Italian writer Emilio Salgari, Sandokan is a classic swashbuckler featuring the exploits of a brave young Indian prince-turned-pirate (played by Bedi) facing off against the might of the British Empire during the latter half of the 19th century. An Italian-French-German production, the mini-series was released as a six-part television show in Italy and other parts of Europe in the '70s.
"It [the series] got such enormous success in Europe that some of those records haven't been broken till today," says Bedi, in a chat with HuffPost India soon after the launch. Earlier this year, Bedi was in Bulgaria, shooting for Rohit Shetty's Dilwale (which releases in less than fortnight). "People clicked photos with me and asked for autographs because of Sandokan, because it has been dubbed into Bulgarian and shown there," he said.
As we celebrate Priyanka Chopra's lead role in the American TV drama Quantico, currently in its first season, it is pertinent to remember that Bedi was our first real international star. Bedi's first breakout role in Hindi cinema was with Kuchhe Dhaage (1973), which also starred Vinod Khanna and Nirupa Roy. He later went on to appear in Dev Anand's Ishq Ishq Ishq (1974) and Mahesh Bhatt's controversial directorial debut Manzilein Aur Bhi Hain (1974).
When he first got the role after auditioning for it, Bedi says he was a little hesitant to take it up. "I'd just had a big hit with Kuchhe Dhaage and was getting several lead and co-starrer roles," he said, "so I thought, 'What should I do?' So at first I thought, fine, let me take six months off and do the Italian show, and we'll see."
In hindsight, it turned out to be the best decision he could have made. "I wasn't very good at singing and dancing and I soon realised that that could be a big liability if I wanted to be a leading man in Bollywood," he said, with a booming laugh." After the success of Sandokan, he moved on to English films, memorably starring in The Thief Of Baghdad (1978) and the James Bond film Octopussy (1983) before going on to have a major role in the popular American soap The Bold And The Beautiful.
A still from 'Octopussy', featuring Kabir Bedi as the villainous Gobinda
"In Europe, being identified with Sandokan, strangely enough, limited me — I couldn't do other kinds of roles," he said. "This spurred me to move on. You could say that I developed my entire international career on the strength of Sandokan."
Sandokan has only aired once on Indian television, back in the early '80s ("1981 or '82," says Bedi). However, the State-run Doordarshan — India's only broadcaster at the time — ran it only once at the then-ridiculously-late time slot of 10 pm. "When I met them and asked them to show what I was doing abroad, they said we don't have the money for it, so I gave it to them for free," he says. "Turns out they just didn't value it, so they aired it at a bad slot without any promotion or announcements. As a result, very few people in India have seen it."
Over the past two years, Bedi has spent a lot of money on restoring the original negatives on which the mini-series were shot as well as cleaning up the sound. "The Doordarshan version had a very bad English dub," he said. "This — what we're releasing now — is the real deal."
He hopes that today's youngsters watch the show and appreciate it, calling it a "rattling, good story" that transcends "eras and age groups". "It's the story of an Asian pirate, which we can all relate to, and it has all the action, adventure, and drama you could hope to see, shot in some very glamourous locations."
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