There are not many who have the privilege of Amitabh Bachchan pulling a chair for them. Zohra Sehgal is one of those few," filmmaker R Balki says with a laugh. "Each time Zohraji came on the sets of 'Cheeni Kum', Mr Bachchan would stand up, first greet her and then pull a chair for her to sit," says the adman-turned-director and adds that Sehgal's mesmerising inner beauty makes her his most favourite woman.
This grand old lady – famous for her vivaciousness and enthusiasm – will turn 100 on April 27. Sehgal currently resides in Delhi with her daughter, Kiran Sehgal, and, as her friends say, the sprightly actor's zest for life is still intact.
Though the present generation is familiar with Sehgal, mainly through her sporadic movie appearances, the older generation will vouch for her powerful performances on stage. She started her career in 1935 as a leading dancer with the Uday Shankar Ballet Company and travelled the world over. In 1945, she joined Prithviraj Kapoor's Prithvi Theatre group as an actor on a monthly salary of Rs 400.
"Prithviraj used to then run his company at the Opera House. She worked with him for almost 14 years. She is indeed one of the best stage actresses we have," says theatre veteran MS Sathyu. Her sister Uzra Butt too was a popular actor.
During this period, she married a fellow dancer, Kameshwar Sehgal. After having acted in several plays, she made her film debut in Indian People's Theatre Association’s (IPTA) first film, Dharti Ke Lal (1946), which was directed by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. She followed it up with another IPTA film, Neecha Nagar.
After Kapoor shut down Prithvi for a while, and Sehgal lost her husband, she moved to Delhi. Sathyu recalls that it was then that she taught dance to a Hindustani theatre group in the '60s. "I got to know her during that period and realised her passion for theatre and dance," says Sathyu. Her passion for the art won her a drama scholarship in Great Britain in 1962. Her memoir titled Stages: The Art & Adventures of Zohra Sehgal talks about how after her scholarship ended, she was broke and jobless, and made a living as a dresser in London's green rooms for almost 10 years and even educated her children there.
Sehgal bounced back in the late '70s when she was rediscovered by the makers of British TV shows and films. Following serials such as Jewel in the Crown, My Beautiful Launderette and Tandoori Nights, her sense of humour and candour became very popular. Movies such as Bhaji on the Beach and Merchant Ivory Productions' The Courtesans of Bombay enhanced her popularity in the West.
In the '90s, she returned to India. She was in her 80s and many thought that she would quit acting. Sehgal proved everyone wrong. She acted in TV shows as well as films. In Amma and Family on Home TV, she played the central character. Sadia Dehlvi, who wrote and produced the show, says, "I will always remember Zohra aapa for her energy and professionalism. She always arrived on the sets on time, knew her lines by heart and regaled us with stories from her eventful life." Her co-actor Himani Dehlvi echoes that there was never a dull day on the sets, thanks to Sehgal. The centenarian also did several big banner movies in Bollywood – Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Dil Se, Tera Jaadu Chal Gaya and Saawariya.
The secret of her long career lies in her energy. "We were shooting at Qutub Minar with Mr Bachchan, and Zohraji was 94 then. The temperature was 43 degree celsius, yet she stood there through takes and gave an excellent performance," he recalls. Tales of her passion for acting make us hope that the centenarian will continue to enthrall the audience in the years to come.