“India is like a jealous mistress. She always pulls you back, doesn’t she? Especially Mumbai. It’s my favourite city in the world. The moment you land you go, Ah home. It’s so wonderful.” Nikki Bedi is ecstatic to be back in the motherland after two long years. So what if Kitab Festival 2008, part of the reason why she came, turned out to be a debacle after the organisers of the show alleged they hadn’t been paid for the previous year. And never mind that the “loads and loads of work” Nikki did for her interviews with author M J Hyland and Mahesh Bhatt was a waste with both pulling out of the event. She still ended up doing a full Sunday’s work interviewing writers Indra Sinha, Matthew d’Ancona, Sarfraz Manzoor and Julian West in a back-to-back session.
Nikki is also here to reconnect with her family whom she hasn’t seen since she lost her father three years ago. Slim as a reed in a classic LBD and Louboutin stilettos, the 41-year-old looks fresh as ever. She insists it’s the botox her dermatologist has been giving her in “judicious proportions” for the last 13 years. Close friend and media veteran Jules Fuller — of Channel V and POGO fame — accompanies us as we drive down from Intercontinental to Flamboyante, the new Asian restaurant in Cuffe Parade. The quick-witted banter between the two keeps everyone entertained. Jules recalls an article he had written eons ago for Verve, making fun of television presenters. “He would do that, wouldn’t he,” Nikki chuckles. On the way, she asks the cabbie to stop at a “beedi shop” to pick up a packet of Gudang Garam. It’s like she never left.
Flamboyante’s charming alfresco ambience meets with Nikki’s approval instantly. Between sips of Vodka with nimbu-pani, she remarks on the palpable change in the city. “It seems like there are so many more opportunities. And people’s minds seem open to possibilities and change, whereas earlier there was always an obstacle to everything.” Nikki is confident that the infamous remark by gay rights activist and journalist Ashok Row Kavi about Mahatma Gandhi on her show Nikki Tonight on Star World in 1995 wouldn’t have caused the furore it did back then in today’s liberal times. “We were pushing the envelope and were considered to be the forerunners in what we were doing way back then. Today something like that wouldn’t even scratch the surface.”
The controversy ensured Nikki couldn’t be back in Mumbai for years. Returning to the UK in 2000, she became the face of Universal’s film channel, The Studio. She also hosted two live shows for NOW, Worldwide Screen and Bollywood Now. Currently she does a live radio show for the BBC five times a week besides anchoring a television show called Desi DNA. “If you work at the BBC Asian Network, you get a chance to water your Indian roots by being among Asians all the time. So apart from the British Asian scene in arts and culture and entertainment, whenever artistes or actors come in from India or Pakistan or Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, we cover them, too.” She also does a regular show on Wednesdays called Nikki Meets, where she’s had some “really extraordinary” guests. “I think my only skill in the world is as an interviewer. I’ve found my métier in radio.”
Her most memorable assignment in recent times was meeting Somalia-born Islam critic and former Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The author of The Caged Virgin has been fighting for the rights of women who would otherwise have their genitals mutilated. Nikki recounts with pride the heady excitement of being among the only three broadcast journalists in the UK to get access to the activist after months of trying. “It was more frightening than interviewing even the prime minister because there were so many death threats as we were in the cab going to this part of the BBC that exists but which we never see. We were getting calls from Secret Service. It was so tripping.”
Controversy is part of Nikki’s DNA. But she feels she has matured as a presenter; she has stopped showing off and become less rash. Alluding to her brash, look-at-me hosting style in her younger years, she says she loved the attention. Besides, as she reasons, there was a culture in television at the time that promoted this self-love. “It still does in certain cases and has its place, but it’s not me anymore. I’ve grown up. ” Jules tells her she’s become a “consummate broadcaster”. Nikki yells excitedly, baby-blue eyes rolling theatrically. “Did you hear that? Jules Fuller just called me a consummate broadcaster. Thank you very much. Compliment accepted!”
Growing up doesn’t mean being less cheeky or not asking risqué questions. But lampooning people or taking the mickey out of them doesn’t make for clever radio or television for that matter, Nikki qualifies. The key, she tells me, lies in gaining the trust of her guests by doing all her homework. A painstaking researcher, she won’t interview an author without reading every book written by the person cover to cover. “Once you’ve got people’s trust, even if you ask them a cheeky question or try to get something about them, whether it’s their politics or their sexuality or something they’re sensitive about, they will trust you. Because they know you aren’t going to abuse that situation. The most extraordinary live radio — provided you’ve done your homework and are in control — happens when things go in a completely different direction from how they were planned.”
Herself a control freak, Nikki openly admits to being “incredibly anal” about most things. “People think I’m a lot more spontaneous than I am. Sure, I can do something very last minute, but only if I have nothing to do the next day.” Otherwise she’s extraordinarily disciplined, letting nothing come in the way of her power walks each morning. “But I’m equally likely to do something inappropriately reckless because I feel it’s ok at the time.” Like? “Oh, like having a massive vodka right now before a photoshoot! Now isn’t that inappropriately reckless? To be honest, many times I’ll do something stupid — like make a reference to my knickers — or say really rude things to people just to get a reaction or get them out of their complacency.”
The opposite of airhead, Nikki has an opinion on everything. On the lack of real speech content in Indian radio — “The RJs here do stuff like weather or traffic updates but there’s no personality, no real sense of talking to the listener.” On the booming art scene in India and the “incredible installations she saw at the Kala Ghoda Art fest this time”. On ‘Celebutard Ephemera,’ a term she has lovingly coined to describe Page 3 animals. On the “fat ban” on her show against fatuous celebs likes Britney Spears and Posh Spice — “I mean what do these people contribute to the world?” On the bad botox jobs she sees on women’s faces in Mumbai — “Somebody please tell them they don’t need their eyebrows up in the air!” On how she loves Indian men in spite of their Mamaitis — “They’re all attached to their mothers’ apron strings, aren’t they?”
She has the same sharp take on relationships and romance. “I’m in non-linear relationships. How about that!” Non-linear is right considering she has just spent a day with ex-hubby Kabir Bedi and his current girlfriend Parvin whom she describes as “wonderful and so generous.” Right now there’s some really interesting chemistry between her and Jules but she insists she’s “completely single” and wishes to remain that way for a while. “All my life I’ve been co-dependent. I’ve either been containing for a man, or a man has been containing for me. Being on my own has been a big learning curve for me. It’s frightening and lonely and scary but it’s also such an insight into who you really are when you can be with yourself without resorting to distractions.”
Marriage is virtually ruled out after two divorces. “But I’m open to offers from incredibly artistic millionaire industrialists,” she adds tongue firmly in cheek. Then says on a more pensive note, “I think marriage is an amazing institution. I wish I could have done better at mine. But ultimately you can’t push a river, can you?” When probed on her failed marriage with Kabir, she says it’s “déclassé” to talk about personal relationships in terms of what went wrong. “We just ended up not being right. There was never any hideous upset. I hate that cliché, ‘we grew apart’. Actually, anything I say right now will end up sounding like a moth-eaten cliché.”
With her Maharastrian-British roots and multicultural interests, Nikki is the quintessential ‘glocal’, straddling diverse worlds, living between cultures. For someone who’s returning to India after two years, she’s incredibly clued in on the latest buzz — from the latest potboilers to the hippest ‘it’ restaurants in town. She doesn’t rule out returning to do something on Indian television. A really great show on what’s going on in the city — theatre, film, architecture, authors — would be right up her street, she tells me. Totally impressed by film critic Anupama Chopra, Nikki says given a chance, she’d love to get Anupama and experts of her calibre to cover different fields and put together a really good show for the Indian audience. But right now there are contractual obligations with the BBC.
Looking ahead, she says she’d love to be in a long-term relationship but is done with pretending to be someone she’s not because sooner or later it’ll all come out. “In the next round I’ll just be the dog I really am — nasty and grumpy and deeply intolerant. Then if someone likes me like that — without make-up, power walks and all, then I’ll know it’s true love, wouldn’t I?” She’s categorical she won’t date an actor again. Why? “Because you can’t have two narcissists in a relationship, can you?” Jules has the perfect solution. “Yes, you can. If you have two mirrors!”
It’s one of those rare moments.
Nikki Bedi is speechless.