Kabir Bedi’s recently published memoir Stories I Must Tell (Westland Books) has prominent sections on an Italian television show from 1976. That’s hardly surprising: titled Sandokan, the mini-series made the Indian actor a sensation in Italy and the rest of Europe and paved his path to Hollywood.
Sandokan is the dashing pirate hero from nineteenth-century Italian writer Emilio Salgari’s novels. Sandokan’s wealthy parents have been killed by the East India Company, which is seeking to expand its control of South East Asia.
Sandokan leads a group of rebellious sea raiders and frequently torments the British colonialists, earning him the title “Tiger of Malaysia”. Among Sandokan’s chief adversaries is the Rajah of Sarawak, based on the real-life British soldier James Brooke. Sandokan later falls in love with an Englishwoman named Marianna and marries her.
Salgari’s novels had already inspired Italian movies in the 1940s and 1960s, with Italian or American actors playing the pirate. By casting the half-Indian, half-British Kabir Bedi for the television version, director Sergio Sollima brought the character somewhat closer to his Asian roots.
The show was released in Italian, French, German, Dutch and Spanish. More than three decades later, in 2012, Bedi dubbed Sandokan in Hindi and released it in India on DVD.
Sandokan is steered by Bedi’s magnetic screen presence and brawny appeal. The series traces the fierce and fearless Sandokan’s capture by the Rajah of Sarawak (Adolfo Celi), his entanglement with Marianna (Carole Andre), his escape and his campaign to defeat the Rajah. Packed with righteous outlaws and very bad Englishmen, Sandokan blends exotica and action to deliver a rousing anti-colonial adventure on land and water.
The first episode was telecast in Italy on January 6, 1976. Ten days later, Bedi and Parveen Babi, his partner at the time, landed in Rome for a tour.
As Bedi writes in Stories I Must Tell, the mini-series had “exploded across Europe”. Its synth-heavy title track “Sandokaaaan!” was everywhere, as were Sandokan dolls and comic books. Ships were named after the character, Bedi writes, and humans lined up too: “Many people wanting to name their children ‘Kabir’ were rebuffed at the Registry office; the letter ‘K’ doesn’t exist in Italian.”
The couple were thronged by hysterical admirers wherever they went, Bedi recalled. Sandokan devotees landed up at the hotel where Bedi and Babi were staying. Even the concierge wanted Bedi’s autograph: “My wife is crazy about you!” he told the actor.
Bedi had been working in the Hindi film industry with mixed success since 1971. He had moved from Delhi to Mumbai to pursue a career in advertising, and had been modelling on the side. He had been in Alyque Padamsee’s stage production of Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq. Bedi famously played the Delhi sultan in a loincloth that gave audiences the impression that he was unclothed.
Among Bedi’s noteworthy Hindi films before Sandokan were Raj Khosla’s Kucchhe Dhaage in 1973 and Mahesh Bhatt’s Manzilein Aur Bhi Hai in 1974. Bedi’s career hadn’t taken off as expected, so the offer to headline a Italian series, however bizarre it might have sounded, came as a godsend.
The show’s director, Sergio Sollima, was a well-known Italian filmmaker. (His son Stefano Sollima is an equally well-known director, with credits that include the films Sicario: Day of the Soldado and Without Remorse and the series Gomorrah and ZeroZeroZero.)
Sergio Sollima took many risks, Bedi recalled in his memoir: “Sergio’s insistence on Oscar-winning art director Nino Novarese gave the series its spectacular visual elegance. So did Marcello Masciocchi’s photography. Most remarkable of all was Sergio’s choice of musicians. Although he had done five film scores with Ennio Morricone, world-famous even then, he didn’t return to him. He had the courage to pick the exciting new creativity of the young Guido and Maurizio de Angeles for the score.”
As the Rajah of Sarawak, Sollima cast Italian actor Adolfo Celi, who had played the villain Emilio Largo in the 1965 James Bond movie Thunderball. “But Sergio’s boldest choice was casting me, an unknown actor from India, as his hero,” Bedi recalls.
Sollima, his producer Elio Scardamaglia, and Nino Novarese met Bedi in Mumbai in 1974. They were on the lookout for a “tall, athletic, preferably bearded actor”.
“I resembled the sketches that illustrated Salgari’s original books of Sandokan,” Bedi writes. “They watched me closely as I talked before turning to look at each other. I was on tenterhooks. ‘We have found our Sandokan,’ said Nino Novarese, sipping Coke with a slice of orange.” However, before the deal could be sealed, Bedi had to travel to Rome for an audition at his own expense.
The triumphal return to Rome in 1976 was marked by a fair amount of drama. Even as Bedi exulted in his newfound popularity, his travelling companion was volatile.
Parveen Babi appeared to be displaying early signs of a condition that was later diagnosed as schizophrenia. Bedi’s evocative memories of being mobbed by fans and meeting Italian celebrities (including Gina Lollobrigida and Federico Fellini) are laced with anecdotes of sparring with Babi.
Bedi already had an Italian connection of sorts. His father, spiritual healer Baba Bedi, had moved to Italy in 1972. “What were the chances that a Bollywood actor and his Indian philosopher father would be well-known in Italy at the same time?” Bedi recalls asking his father. Baba Bedi replied: “Divine mischief!”
The renewed interest in the Sandokan stories led to a bunch of Italian sequels. Bedi reprised the role for Sandokan Rises Again (1977), The Return of Sandokan (1996) and The Son of Sandokan (1998).
Other swashbuckling roles followed, including in The Black Corsair (1976), based on two of Emilio Salgari’s novels. However, The Black Corsair flopped, which wounded Bedi. His stardom in Italy had been made and marred by the television show’s success. Why wasn’t he being inundated with offers from Italian filmmakers, he asked a director.
The reply, as Bedi writes: “You are Sandokan, Kabir! We cannot think of you as anything else. We make social and political films or typically Italian comedies. We can’t have Sandokan walking into our stories. It would spoil the film.”
Bedi had briefly returned to India in 1977 to complete the Hindi productions to which he had previously committed. Bedi was keen on getting Parveen Babi cast in Sandokan Rises Again, he writes in his memoir. It would have been her first international project.
However, Babi walked out of the film before the shoot began. “The consequences were seismic,” Bedi writes. “No important actresses were free at such short notice. Sergio [Sollima] was forced to settle for a lesser-known lead, Teresa Ann Savoy.”
Bedi continued to pursue roles in Hollywood productions and television shows well into the mid-2000s, including The Thief of Baghdad, Ashanti, Dynasty, Knight Rider, Murder She Wrote and The Bold and the Beautiful.
His international projects included the James Bond movie Octopussy (1983), which was partly shot in Udaipur in Rajasthan. Its Indian cast included tennis champion Vijay Amritraj as Bond’s Indian associate and Bedi as Gobinda, the formidable enforcer of the villain Kamal Khan.
In 2004, Bedi was in Island of the Famous. In the Italian reality television show, modelled on Survivor, 13 celebrities were marooned on an island in the Caribbean and made to forage for food.
Bedi came second in the show. “People got to see Sandokan as a person,” he writes.
Italy continued to remember the actor. In 2007, he had a role in the Italian TV show A Doctor in the Family. The same year, Bedi featured in the radio show Ch@T, playing a sailor who poses as Sandokan to impress an Italian woman who is a fan of the character.
By then, Bedi had travelled all over the world, had worked in Bollywood and Hollywood, and had earned a reputation as a crossover actor. But Sandokan, for better or worse, refused to leave Bedi’s side – a reminder of the enduring appeal of the rugged pirate who was created in the nineteenth century and made an Indian actor an icon in Italy well into the twenty-first century.