She was born a year before Indian cinema. Film, theatre and TV personality Zohra Sehgal, who turns 100 , has grown to be as colourful and entertaining as the industry itself.
Her zest for life, wit and charm, which have continued to inspire generations, remain unmatched, say entertainment industry veterans.
“She is the most incredible woman I have ever met and one of the finest actresses I have ever seen,” said filmmaker R. Balki, who roped her to play Amitabh Bachchan’s bindaas mom in his 2007 film Cheeni Kum.
“During the shooting of Cheeni Kum, we celebrated her birthday on the sets. She shot with us even in 42 degrees at Qutub Minar (in Delhi). She was full of life and didn’t care about the heat and went on dancing. She is awesome,” he added.
In 2008, she was named the Laadli of the Century by the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF)-Laadli Media Awards. And she continues to prove how apt the title is for her!
The tireless performer resides in New Delhi with her daughter, renowned Odissi danseuse Kiran Sehgal. In 1994, she was diagnosed with cancer, but she has fought this off too.
She plans to celebrate her birthday at home with her daughter and a few close friends from the artistic fraternity, said a member of her family.
“She is in fine health barring a few age-related complications, which are not serious, Her spirit is still high, along with her enthusiastic, articulate persona,” said the source.
As a youngster, Zohra was passionate about dance. Her tryst with showbiz began with dance when she joined Uday Shankar in 1935 and worked with him for a few years.
She went on to teach dance in Almora later, and that’s where she met painter and dancer Kameshwar Sehgal and married him. She later took to dramatics with the Prithvi Theatre in 1945. She worked with them for 14 years, travelling to various cities, and even joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).
From Prithviraj Kapoor to Raj Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor, she has worked with four generations of Bollywood’s famous Kapoor family – and she hasn’t let age dampen her spirit at all.
Zohra, considered a doyen of Indian theatre, has appeared in over 20 films. She is best remembered for her appearances in Bhaji on the Beach(1992), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Bend It Like Beckham (2002), Dil Se… (1998) and Cheeni Kum (2007).
Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who directed her in two of his films — Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Saawariya, had once said: “To call her a livewire is an understatement.”
He couldn’t think of a second name for a particular role in Saawariya other than her.
“It had to be Zohraji and no one else. There was a kind of hesitation within me – after all Zohraji is 94. But all our doubts were dispelled once she came on the sets,” Bhansali had said during the shooting of Saawariya.
“Her enthusiasm gets to all of us,” he added.
She was perhaps one of the first Indians to have a taste of international entertainment. In the mid-1960s, she featured in an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Rescue of Pluffles, and then also anchored a few episodes of television series Padosi.
While she was in London, she featured in a film called The Courtesans of Bombay, directed by James Ivory in 1982. There was no looking back in international showbiz thereafter.
She went on to feature in TV series like The Jewel in the Crown, My Beautiful Launderette, Tandoori Nights and Never Say Die.
Zohra came back to India in the 1990s. She was around 80 years old then. While many would have thought she would quit the entertainment world, she was not ready to call it quits.
On the small screen, she featured in Amma and Family, and bagged roles in big banner movies.
When it comes to awards, in 1998 she was honoured with the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honours, following which she received the Kalidas Samman in 2001, and the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 2004. In 2010, she was bestowed with the Padma Vibhushan.
Small parts or big, Zohra continues to spread smiles.