Zohra Sehgal was probably the first and undoubtedly the brightest crossover international star of India to have equally excelled in films, television and stage. She passed away in 2014 having scaled the royal 100 two years prior and has left a body of work to wonder at and ponder on. The effervescence of zesty Zohra turns 105 today!
A testament of east meeting west, Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan, or later known as Zohra Sehgal, is almost as vintage as the age of Indian cinema. Changing identities and addresses all her life, she won it all with her enigmatic smile and her customary squint. From Lahore to Europe and back to India and again to London before her final return to India – the grand old lady fought her way to glory keeping her feet grounded and the windows to her forever young heart open.
Whether her mesmerising screen presence or her off-screen chemistry with her co-stars and acquaintances, she is still remembered for her witty sense of humour and an indomitable urge to compliment life with poise and flamboyance. She was rightly addressed as the ‘Laadli of Bollywood’ back home, while her international admirers would call her a real ‘Jewel in the Crown’!
She tasted success quite early in her career. The first film to win a Cannes award from India was Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar, in which she was the leading lady. She was handpicked by Uday Shankar during a European tour while she was in Germany. Her passion for modern dance took her to Europe just after her college years in Lahore. She got into Mary Wigman’s ballet school in Dresden, Germany, where she met the legendary dancer. She started travelling with Uday Shankar’s troupe soon after that.
It was way back in 1942 when Zohra Sehgal married Kameshwar Sehgal going against her family. They both were working with legendary Shankar in an institute in Almora (now in Uttarakhand). The couple then decided to open a secular dance academy in Lahore and moved their base. Zoharesh Dance Institute was a beginning that could not sustain on the face of the increasing communal tension in the pre-partition Lahore and they moved to Mumbai. After a brief conjugal life, Kameshwar ended his life.
Struggle followed by global recognition
It took her a few years to gather herself; she set sail to London and joined the British Drama League with a scholarship; she earned with her dedication and conviction.
A new string of events in her career awaited her in London. Projects such as Tandoori Nights, My Beautiful Laundrette and The Jewel in the Crown followed subsequently. In her unapologetic demeanour, that remained customary till she lived, she said in one of her last interviews, “When I came to London, even Asian roles were done by white people. It was such that if we were sitting on the bus, the British did not sit next to us. Unconsciously in the minds of white people, there was still a hesitation.”
The most memorable role that gave Sehgal recognition around the world (and upped her pay scale) came her way in 1981. She played Lady Lili Chatterjee in Granada Television’s The Jewel in the Crown, a 14-episode TV series of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. In it, she played a sophisticated, wealthy matron who resides in the palatial MacGregor house.
She was more than 70 back then, however, the poise with which she mocked as well as aped the British club culture as Aunt Lili is still cited as an example in the history of English television.
Her appetite for life was perhaps the most engaging feature that got people hooked on whatever character she played post The Jewel in the Crown. She imbibed the nuances that the characters demanded from her own life and was comfortable in comedy and tragedy with equal panache.
Bollywood and more…
Bollywood got Sehgal back in the 1990s. She was diagnosed with cancer in the 80s, although she fought and won the battle convincingly, her career in London was supposed to end following that. However, her full-fledged acting in Bollywood gave us films such as Bend it Like Beckham, Dil Se, Dillagi, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Cheeni Kum and much more. Her last Hindi film was Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saanwariya (2007), which also happens to be the debut film of Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor.
While every 90’s kid would remember her dancing in the song of ‘Jiya Jaale’ from Dil Se, her presence in Cheeni Kum (2007) was adequately justified as an elderly fun-loving mother to Amitabh Bachchan. On her demise, the megastar tweeted, “Zohra Sehgal passes away at 102 yrs… What a journey and what an immensely lovable co-star! Prayers for her blessed soul!”
She would often laugh stating that it was ‘sex and humour’ that kept her alive and jolly for so long. She wanted more! Evident from her quote that followed in the same interview, even in her last years, she would not fall short of naughty jokes and would keep one consumed in giggles. Describing her journey to Europe during the 1930s when she reportedly travelled by road – crossing Iran, Syria, Palestine and Egypt – Zohra was equally mischievous. “Oh, my burqa was of lovely silk and I was so glad I made petticoats out of it! I pooh-poohed girls in bare nothings, taking bath in water fountains, thinking they are girls from economically-challenged families. Alas, I realised that those teeny-weeny things were actually called bikinis and were hot fashion items. I immediately discarded my Victorian bloomers (which I thought were quite aristocratic), and got into my first bikini.”
That was Zohra Sehgal for you!
We, at India&You, are glad to feature a profile on Zohra Sehgal in our upcoming issue dedicated to Cannes Film Festival 2017. Look forward to more riveting anecdotes.