Zohra Sehgal Was a Firebrand, on and off the Screen
That aura is unmistakable in the Sehgal home in Delhi’s Alaknanda locality, as you’re welcomed by a young Zohra Sehgal, beaming in her danseuse finery through a framed picture kept on the dining table. “We sometimes forget she’s not with us anymore, it’s as if she’s still in her room upstairs,” says her granddaughter Sujata Sehgal, a renowned TV actor, pointing at the upper floor of their duplex.
The grand old dame of theatre and films, Zohra Sehgal, lived her last days in this house before she passed away at the age of 102 in July 2014.
What would you hear her say most often? A better question is what would you hear her scream, says her daughter Kiran Sehgal, famous Odissi danseuse who has the same expressive eyes as her mother.
“Tum toh gavaaron ki tarah kapde pehenti ho (you dress up in an uncultured manner), look at me I dress up in a sufiana way” is what she would tell her daughter Kiran who fondly claims her mother to be “full of herself”. Zohra was a firebrand not only on screen, she was a quick-witted, sharp-tongued diva at home too.
“She would weigh herself every day, and if she gained even a pound she’d order our maid to cut her toast in half and not smear butter on it. I used to tell her that Maa you’re not the next Kareena Kapoor,” says Kiran, while recounting Zohra’s obsession with looking thin.
Zohra, the Danseuse
Zohra started her career as a dancer in Uday Shankar’s (Pt Ravi Shankar’s brother) troupe. She danced her way across the world as one of his principal dancers for eight years before becoming a teacher at his dance institute in Almora in 1940. It is here that she met her husband Kameshwar Sehgal.
After starting their own cultural centre in Lahore in 1942, they moved to Bombay with her husband and one-year-old Kiran in the run-up to the partition. She joined the Prithvi Theatre in 1945, touring with them for the next 14 years.
62 years later she would act with Prithviraj Kapoor’s great grandson Ranbir Kapoor in his debut film Saawariya.
“I remember seeing her in one of the Prithvi Theatre productions playing a maid-servant when I was very young. I kept crying throughout the performance because I thought Maa had actually become a maid,” recalls Kiran pointing out how hard it was for her to grow up with an actress mother.
Zohra made her debut into the film industry with Dharti ke Laal (1946). Her second film Neecha Nagar released the same year, went on to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Her lesser known contribution to the industry, though, is her stint as a choreographer for films like Baazi, C.I.D. and the avant-garde dream sequence in Awara.
Tragedy struck in 1959 when Kameshwar Sehgal committed suicide. Three years later, Zohra left India to take up the British Drama League Scholarship. “She left her life in India and moved to London to chase her dreams, even becoming a seamstress to fend for herself,” recounts Kiran who moved along with her mother.
Soon, Zohra would become the face of multiculturalism for Asian immigrants in the UK appearing in famous TV shows like Jewel in the Crown (1984) and Tandoori Nights (1985-87).
“I remember going to London as a teenager to meet Nani. She was working so much, but you wouldn’t see the struggle on her face”, Sujata adds.
Return to Bollywood
When she was in her 80s, she returned to India, and soon became the go-to actor for any director looking for a sharp-tongued, savvy old lady. She was seen in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1997), Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) and Cheeni Kum (2007).
The Last Struggle
“The only regret we have is that Maa (Zohra) had to live like a prisoner in her last few days”, says Kiran with anger quickly surfacing as she talks about how Zohra had become confined to the walls of her room in her duplex. She asked for a ground floor accommodation for her mother but it was denied by the urban development ministry.
She wrote to the Delhi Chief Minister’s office as well as the President’s office but to no avail. Apparently Zohra was too old and too rich to apply for the accommodation request meant only for artists under 60 years.
“A few months after her death we received a letter saying our request in now being processed. I was furious. Is this a joke?” says Kiran, adding how the government ought to have helped the internationally renowned Padma Vibhushan winning actress.
How Would They Want to Remember Her?
Kiran wants it to be a symbol of strength, for all the struggles she has seen her mother live through. Sujata, who has seen the brighter side of her grandmother’s career wants to remember her as the lady whose lap was there for her to lay her head on when the things were rough.
Or perhaps as the lady who would strike the same pose of stabbing the cake on her birthday every year, waiting for someone to click a photo.
However it may be, the world remembers her as the doyenne of Indian theatre and the Bollywood diva older than Bollywood itself.
(This article was first published on 27 April 2016. It is being reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Zohra Seghal’s birth anniversary.)