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Birthday Special: Zohra Sehgal turns 100!

Last updated on: April 27, 2012 12:59 IST

Birthday Special: Zohra Sehgal turns 100!

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Sukanya Verma in Mumbai

Like most memorable stories, this one too, begins long, long ago.

On April 27, 1912, to be precise when a naughty little girl was born. She loved to climb trees and engage in all sorts of antics to amuse herself and anyone who'd bother to watch in her hometown of Rampur, Uttar Pradesh. Although she was one among six other siblings and her parents were fiercely conservative, her vivacity, candour, wit and spark made her both -- unique and agreeable.

The one and only Zohra Begum Mumtaz-Ullah Khan.

Over the years, even while India was yet to acquire independence, she evolved into a liberated individual while attending college in Queen Mary's, Lahore. Back then, when girls were single-mindedly conditioned for marriage and motherhood, she decided to have neither and pursue a career in acting. She decided to make a trip to England in order to do so but changed her mind enrolling for a course in Modern Dance in Dresden, Germany.

Following an inspirational viewing of legendary dancer/choreographer Uday Shankar's ballet, she made up her mind to become a part of the troupe. During this stint, she met her future husband, Kameshwar Sehgal, a scientist-cum-dancer and later art director.

Though almost a decade younger, Sehgal could simply not resist her free-spirited personality and zany humour. She too couldn't help but give in. And despite all their socially-frowned upon differences -- age, religion, the two got married and she became the legendary Zohra Sehgal.

Meanwhile, her original plan to act was realised after she joined Prithviraj Kapoor's theatre group (Prithvi Theatres), where her sister Uzra Butt was already a recognized face. Under Kapoor's (whom she fondly refers to as Papaji) keen guidance and inspiring professionalism, she learned some valuable lessons about art and life.

Around the same time, she took the opportunity to portray secondary roles in acclaimed endeavours by Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) as well as choreograph stars like Dev Anand in hits like CID, Baazi and Nau Do Gyarah.

Her husband's tragic demise (he committed suicide unable to deal with a disappointing career) marked a grim chapter in the ever blithe actress' existence.

But the journey had to continue even in the face of lowest lows as the determined Pathan single-handedly raised her two children -- Kiran and Pavan. Sehgal shifted base to England after she received a drama scholarship in England but things looked bleak in the hand-to-mouth existence in London until a break in the Merchant-Ivory docudrama, A Courtesan in Bombay happened.

It was followed by important appearances in British television series like A Jewel in the Crown, Tandoori Nights and independent features like Gurinder Chadha's Bhaji on the Beach.

After living in the UK for nearly 25 years, the 80-something veteran decided it was time to return to India for good. And good, it undoubtedly, turned out to be. Her silver-haired wisdom, twinkling eyes, delightfully crinkly smile and a warmth that permeates the screen made her an ideal candidate to play a picture-perfect grandmother or frothy ingredient in a variety of films.

Besides which she continued her love for the stage through plays like Ek Thi Naani and The Spirit of Anne Frank. A recipient of prestigious honours like the Sangeet Natak Akademi and Padma Vibhushan, Zohra Sehgal penned her fascinating journey in befittingly titled  memoirs, Stages: The Art and Adventures of Zohra Sehgal.

Today, she turns 100 years old but it is her eternal joie de vivre and uncompromised stance of living life on her own terms that makes her a celebration of life itself. 

Here's wishing the inimitable darling of cinema and an incredibly inspiring centenarian a fantastic birthday along with another hundred years of happiness and health as we glance through some of her most memorable onscreen avatars.


Image: Zohra Sehgal


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Dharti Ke Lal, 1946

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Set against the famine in Bengal during 1943 and its dreadful repercussions on farmers, writer-filmmaker Khwaja Ahmed Abbas wove a gritty, unrelenting drama to direct his first film for IPTA.

Noted for its powerful content and realistic filmmaking, Dharti Ke Lal acquainted moviegoers to the distinguished talents of Balraj Sahni as well as introduce Zohra Sehgal, in a brief role, to the silver screen.


Image: Movie poster of Dharti Ke Lal


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Neecha Nagar, 1946

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Sehgal's second outing, yet again produced by IPTA, featured her in a bit role as Bhabhi in Chetan Anand's Neecha Nagar.

Although the role wasn't the focal point of the story observing the glaring disparity between the social classes, it proved to be a landmark nevertheless winning the prestigious Grand Prix du Festival International du Film, now known as the Palm d'Or, at the Cannes Film Festival in 1946.


Image: Zohra Sehgal in Neecha Nagar


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Baazi, 1951

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Her credentials as an established dancer resulted in choreographing Dev Anand starrers like Baazi, CID and Nau Do Gyarah.
Especially notable are her glitzy steps for Geeta Bali in the songs Taqdeer se bigdi hua and Suno gajar kya.


Image: Movie poster of Baazi


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The Jewel in the Crown and Tandoori Nights, 1984-85

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During her stay in UK, Sehgal worked on ITV Network's adaptation of Paul Scott's novel.

Her portrayal of the proud and poised noble figure, Lady Lili Chaterjee in the series, which gained huge popularity, featuring on BFI's list of 100 Greatest British Television Programmes, made the actress a recognisable face following it up with an animated delivery as Gran in the restaurant rivalry sitcom, Tandoori Nights co-starring Saeed Jaffrey.


Image: Zohra Sehgal with the cast of A Jewel In The Crown


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Bhaji on the Beach, 1993

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UK-based Gurinder Chadha's promising debut as director is a light-hearted take on different generations of British women of South Asian origin with the identity issues and social/domestic troubles that plague them.

Sehgal plays the eldest member of this motley bunch with highly prudent and conservative views that often provide comical relief to its sweet-sour story.


Image: Zohra Sehgal (far left) in a scene from Bhaji On The Beach


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Dil Se, 1998

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As Shah Rukh Khan's adorable granny enjoying the upcoming wedding preparations in the family, Sehgal is a picture of tenderness and charm in Mani Ratnam's otherwise intense Dil Se...

During the Jiya jale sequence, she even breaks into an impromptu jig lest you forget what a gifted dancer she is. 


Image: Zohra Sehgal in Dil Se


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Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, 1999

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She endears herself as the doting Dadi yet again in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's eye-catching love triangle, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.

As the romantic elderly figure who enjoys narrating her love story to the younger members of the family, Sehgal exudes effortless verve.

She's also responsible for bestowing the title of 'Hawa ka jhonka' on Salman Khan's Sameer leading to a funny moment in the film.


Image: Salman Khan and Zohra Sehgal in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam


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Dillagi, 1999

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Trust Zohra Sehgal to make ever cliche characters like Dillagi's Beeji rank among one of the most appealing aspects of a film.

In Sunny Deol's directorial debut, she plays the quintessential grandmom in a typical Punjabi household over eager to welcome a 'Bahu' in the family but her fun-loving impulses, effervescence and emotionality in even the most banal scenes makes it much more precious than it is designed to be.


Image: Zohra Sehgal in Dillagi


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The Mystic Masseur, 2001

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Having worked with Merchant-Ivory productions on The Courtesans of Bombay, Sehgal united with filmmaker Ismail Merchant again over the film adaptation of V S Naipaul's novel, The Mystic Masseur.

Playing The Great Belch and aunt to the leading protagonist, Ganesh Ramseyor (played by Aasif Mandvi) the actress didn't have any qualms about portraying a silly character and evoked the mandatory laughs.


Image: Zohra Sehgal (right) in The Mystic Masseur


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Bend it like Beckham, 2002

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Shaheen Khan and Sehgal collaborated with Chadha again on the international hit; Bend it like Beckham, about a British teenage girl of Indian origin, struggling to convince her family that it's football and not aloo gobhi that makes her world go round. 

Sehgal graces a few reels as the affectionate Beeji in a short but sweet role.


Image: Zohra Sehgal (far left) in Bend it like Beckham


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Chalo Ishq Ladaye, 2002

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While some of you may dismiss this as a mindless comedy squandering away the talents of Govinda and Rani Mukerji, Sehgal has another theory to offer.

In a television interview, she reveals it is her role as the perennially slapping grandmother of Chi Chi in this loosely inspired version of Hollywood's Throw Momma From Train that truly made her a household name.


Image: Govinda andZohra Sehgal in Chalo Ishq Ladaye


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Veer Zaara, 2004

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Yash Chopra's cross border romance starring Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta has Sehgal essaying the latter's, why of course, grandmother.

But if that translates to watching her slurping down a stick of malai kulfi with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old, why not?


Image: Zohra Sehgal (centre) in Veer Zaara


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Cheeni Kum, 2007

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After years of playing granny, Sehgal lapped up the opportunity to play a reprimanding mommy to a bad-tempered, aloof, 60-something chef played by Amitabh Bachchan in R Balki's rom-com about celebrating age differences. 

But it's her addiction to wrestling shows that is quite easily one Cheeni Kum's drollest aspects.


Image: Zohra Sehgal and Amitabh Bachchan in Cheeni Kum


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Saawariya, 2007

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Even though Saawariya is impossible to savour what with its pompous show of pretentious artistry, it does bring together Sehgal with her beloved Papaji's great grandson Ranbir Kapoor in the latter's debut as actor.

Although their track is clearly inspired by Raj Kapoor and Lalita Pawar's camaraderie in Anari and doesn't do our lady any favours, it is significant by virtue of being her most recent appearance on screen.


Image: Zohra Sehgal and Ranbir Kapoor in Saawariya


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