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
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,
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
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.
inspirational viewing of legendary dancer/choreographer Uday
Shankar’s ballet, she made up her mind to become a part of the
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.
accomplished dancers and choreographers.
Kameshwar composed a
noted ballet for human puppets and choreographed the ballet
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
They returned to
Bombay, with one-year-old Kiran. By now, her sister Uzra Butt
was already a leading lady with Prithvi Theatre.
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
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
choreographed stars like Dev Anand in hits like CID and Nau Do
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’
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
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
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.
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
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
A performance in its
English version A Granny for All Seasons was held at UCLA in
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.
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
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
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.
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