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The Inimitable Darling of Cinema

Coastweek -- Like most memorable stories, this one too, begins long, long ago. On April 27, 1912, to be precise when a naughty little girl was born, writes SUKANYA VERMA.

She loved to climb trees and engage in all sorts of antics to amuse herself and anyone who’d bother to watch in her hometown of Rampur, Uttar Pradesh.

Although she was one among six other siblings and her parents were fiercely conservative, her vivacity, candour, wit and spark made her both - unique and agreeable.

The one and only Zohra Begum Mumtaz-Ullah Khan.

Over the years, even while India was yet to acquire independence, she evolved into a liberated individual while attending college in Queen Mary’s, Lahore.

Strict purdah was observed there and the few males invited to speak did so from behind a screen.

As a result of seeing her sister’s failed marriage, she decided to pursue a career, rather than get married.

Back then, when girls were single-mindedly conditioned for marriage and motherhood, she decided to have neither and pursue a career in acting.

Coastweek -- Zohra Sehgal was born just a year before Indian cinema came into being. The film, theatre and TV personality she grew to be as colourful and entertaining as the industry itself. Her zest for life, wit and charm have inspired generations in the industry.

She decided to make a trip to England in order to do so but changed her mind enrolling for a course in Modern Dance in Dresden, Germany.

Never having danced before, she got admission and became the first Indian to study at the institution.

She stayed in Dresden for the next three years studying modern dance, while living in the house of Countess Liebenstein.

Following an inspirational viewing of legendary dancer/choreographer Uday Shankar’s ballet, she made up her mind to become a part of the troupe.

On 8 August 1935, she joined his troupe and danced across Japan, Egypt, Europe and the US, as a leading lady, along with French dancer, Simkie.

When Uday Shankar moved back to India in 1940, she became a teacher at the Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre at Almora.

It was here that she met her future husband Kameshwar Segal, a young scientist-cum-dancer from Indore, eight years her junior, belonging to the Radha Soami sect.

Though almost a decade younger, Sehgal could simply not resist her free-spirited personality and zany humour.

She too couldn’t help but give in. And despite all their socially-frowned upon differences - age, religion, the two got married and she became the legendary Zohra Sehgal.

For a while, the couple worked in Uday’s dance institute at Almora.

Both became accomplished dancers and choreographers.

Kameshwar composed a noted ballet for human puppets and choreographed the ballet Lotus Dance.

When it shut down later, they migrated to Lahore in the near western India and set up their own Zohresh Dance Institute.

The growing communal tension preceding the Partition of India made them feel unwelcome.

They returned to Bombay, with one-year-old Kiran. By now, her sister Uzra Butt was already a leading lady with Prithvi Theatre.

Coastweek -- During her stay in UK, Sehgal worked on ITV Network’s adaptation of Paul Scott’s novel. Her portrayal of the proud and poised noble figure, Lady Lili Chaterjee in the series, which gained huge popularity, featuring on BFI’s list of 100 Greatest British Television Programmes, made the actress a recognisable face following it up with an animated delivery as Gran in the restaurant rivalry sitcom, Tandoori Nights co-starring Saeed Jaffrey.

Ultimately, she too joined Prithvi Theatre in 1945, as an actress with a monthly salary of Rs 400, and toured every city across India with the group, for the next 14 years.

Under Kapoor’s (whom she fondly refers to as Papaji) keen guidance and inspiring professionalism, she learned some valuable lessons about art and life.

She also choreographed stars like Dev Anand in hits like CID and Nau Do Gyarah.

Kameshwar, on the other hand, became an art director in Hindi films and later tried his hand at film direction.

Zohra Sehgal had been acting on the stage in different parts of India and putting up plays for inmates, including at Ferozepore jail.

After staging a play, she stayed on to watch an execution.

Her husband’s tragic demise (he committed suicide unable to deal with a disappointing career) marked a grim chapter in the ever blithe actress’ existence.

But the journey had to continue even in the face of lowest lows as the determined Pathan single-handedly raised her two children - Kiran and Pavan.

Sehgal moved base to England after she received a drama scholarship in England but things looked bleak in the hand-to-mouth existence in London until she got her first role for British television which was in a BBC adaptation of a Kipling story The Rescue of Pluffles, in 1964.

She also appeared in four episodes of Doctor Who during 1964-65, all of them, however, are currently lost.

She also anchored 26 episodes of BBC TV series, Padosi (Neighbours; 1976–77).

Her career in the next almost two decades remained sporadic, despite several small appearances in many films.

In London, Zohra got her first break in films and was signed by Merchant Ivory Productions.

Coastweek -- From Prithviraj Kapoor to Raj Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor, she has worked with four generations of Bollywood’s famous Kapoor family. Seen Zohra Sehgal, Kiran and Pavan with Prithviraj Kapoor, London, 1960s.

She appeared in The Courtesans of Bombay, directed by James Ivory in 1982.

This paved the way for an important role as Lady Chatterjee in the television adaptation The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984).

Thus started the second phase of her career, as she went on to appear in The Raj Quartet, Tandoori Nights, My Beautiful Laundrette and independent features like Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach.

After living in the UK for nearly 25 years, the 80-something veteran decided it was time to return to India for good.

And good, it undoubtedly, turned out to be.

Her silver-haired wisdom, twinkling eyes, delightfully crinkly smile and a warmth that permeates the screen made her an ideal candidate to play a picture-perfect grandmother or frothy ingredient in a variety of films.

Besides which she continued her love for the stage through plays like Ek Thi Naani (staged in Lahore for the first time) in 1993 and The Spirit of Anne Frank.

A performance in its English version A Granny for All Seasons was held at UCLA in 2001.

She became very active in Hindi films in grandmotherly roles in from 1996, with frequent appearances in high budget movies such as Dil Se, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Veer Zara, Saawariya and Cheeni Kum.

Coastweek -- Yash Chopra’s cross border romance starring Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta has Sehgal essaying the latter’s, why of course, grandmother. But if that translates to watching her slurping down a stick of malai kulfi with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old, why not? Zohra Sehgal (centre) in Veer Zaara.

She was 90, when she did the film Chalo Ishq Ladaye in 2002, where she was the main central character of the film and Govinda played her grandson.

The film …Ishq Ladaye had her riding a bike and fighting the villains as well.

Shaheen Khan and Sehgal collaborated with Chadha again on the international hit; Bend it like Beckham, about a British teenage girl of Indian origin, struggling to convince her family that it’s football and not aloo gobhi that makes her world go round. 

Sehgal graces a few reels as the affectionate Beeji in a short but sweet role.

In 2008, at the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF)-Laadli Media Awards in New Delhi, she was named Laadli of the century and the award ceremony was presided by the Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit.

In her career she has acted with heroes across generations - Prithviraj Kapoor, Ashok Kumar, Dev Anand, Govinda, Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Ranbir Kapoor.

In 2012, she became the longest-living actor to have appeared on Doctor Who, as well as the first centenarian associated with the show.

When it comes to awards, in 1998 Zohra Sehgal was honoured with the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honours, following which she received the Kalidas Samman in 2001.

She also won the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2004.

Coastweek -- After years of playing granny, Sehgal lapped up the opportunity to play a reprimanding mommy to a bad-tempered, aloof, 60-something chef played by Amitabh Bachchan in R Balki’s rom-com about celebrating age differences in the 2007 Cheeni Kum.

In 2010, she was bestowed with the Padma Vibhushan.

Zohra Sehgal penned her fascinating journey in befittingly titled memoirs, Stages: The Art and Adventures of Zohra Sehgal.

On 9 July 2014 she was admitted to the Max Hospital in South Delhi after being diagnosed with pneumonia.

She died on 10 July 2014, aged 102, after suffering cardiac arrest.

Her eternal joie de vivre and uncompromised stance of living life on her own terms made her a celebration of life itself and an incredibly inspiring centenarian.

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