The Youthful Dame of Indian Cinema – Zohra Sehgal (27 April 1912 – 10 July 2014)


“I don’t understand the hullabaloo about inner beauty. What actually brings out your beauty is the radiance of being content and you can only be content when you are employed in something you love”

(Zohra Sehgal)

Aishwariya Rai? Madhuri Dixit? You must be joking – I’m talking about the REAL dame of Indian cinema. Someone, who had more melodrama in her life than a 50’s tragedy queen. And if that’s not enough, she also was the owner of the cheekiest, yet sweetest smile to have graced the silver screen.

The one and only, Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan, better known by her screen name, Zohra Sehgal.I woke up today, shocked to discover that she had passed away. However, surprisingly I didn’t feel any substantial amount of sadness.  Not because she was 102 years old (older than Indian cinema itself), but because I immediately remembered the zest for life she always possessed, had displayed in public, and  I’m sure that she must have died content, with little regret when looking back at the exciting and inspirational life she had lived.

I remember falling in love with her the first time I saw her on screen in Gurinder Chadha’s great film – Bhaji on the Beach. She was to reprise similar character roles later on as the loveable granny with a charming wit. Many of the modern generation audiences probably remember her in relatively recent films such as Hum Dil De Chukhe Saanam, Dil Se, Bend it like Beckham, Kal Ho Na Ho, Veer Zaara, Cheeni Kum etc. usually stealing the scenes and the limelight from her modern Bollywood co-actors such as Salman Khan, Shahrukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan,

The reason I also loved Zohra Sehgal, was because she was a woman of strength. She emerged from temporarily losing vision in her left eye, when she was a mere toddler, and losing her mother at a young age, to doggedly pursue a university education whilst in purdah (veil of segregation) at a time in pre-partition Lahore, India when it was uncommon for women to study alongside men at university.

But I also applaud her sense of adventure and passion, which puts most of us to shame. For upon graduating, she made her way to ballet school in Germany (the first Indian woman to have learned ballet at the prestigious dance school of Mary Wigman) trekking by CAR – through Palestine, Syria and Egypt to finally reach Europe. Unsurprisingly, Zohra excelled at ballet and secured many admirers, not least a man called Uday Shankar who promised her a job. She was then to tour Japan, Egypt, Europe and USA during the 1930’s. This was probably the big break to her career in the performing arts which followed in the later years.

I admire her courage in the face of adversities. After marrying the man she loved, she experienced his death – yet still carried on to spread dance as an art form. About twenty years ago, she herself overcame an onslaught of cancer, unfazed.

Her multi-talented life is filled with so many diverse experiences and memories that I cannot do justice to them in a page. However, she was not only an excellent dancer, but also an actress who worked in London in crossover cinema for Merchant Ivory – in memorable films such as The Courtesans of Bombay and My Beautiful Launderette as well as being known for her poetry recitals on stage, back in India.

To me, and many other audiences, Zohra Sehgal will forever be the soft-hearted, wise and jovial onscreen grandmother we yearned for in our lives.

But she will also be remembered for so much more than that.

Her priceless career, which had spanned generations alongside acting greats the likes of the Ashok Kumar, Dev Anand and rubbed shoulders with the glitterati of yesteryears and today, is a golden legacy that is deserving of utter respect for its nostalgia and history.

But most importantly of all, I’ll smile whenever I remember the hint of mischief in her wrinkled animated smile. Not only was her persona, probably the secret to her longevity, but behind it also lay the illuminating history of a brimming young woman, who, had overcome adversity in life, traversed the seven seas and zestfully entertained the world.  Quite simply, throughout the 102 golden years of youth, she had run with the wind with unmatchable energy and never stopped – while most of us unable to keep up, had been left staring, bewildered and plain embarrassed.

For a woman that once said, she tried to sleep while smiling so that if something happens to her, she leaves smiling – Zohra Sehgal will be fondly remembered with a smile, as the name that defined happiness, passion and life itself.