Zohra Sehgal (27 April 1912 – 10 July 2014) was an Indian actress and choreographer. Sehgal started her career as a dancer in Uday Shankar’s troupe, performing in countries like the United States and Japan. She went on to appear in numerous Bollywood films as a character actress with a career-span of over 60 years.
The famous films she was part of, include Neecha Nagar, Afsar (1946), Bhaji on the Beach (1992), The Mystic Masseur (2001), Bend It Like Beckham (2002), Dil Se.. (1998), Saawariya and Cheeni Kum (2007); and the TV series, The Jewel in the Crown (1984), Tandoori Nights (1985–87), Amma and Family (1996). At the age of 90, she got the lead character around whom the story revolved in 2002 film Chalo Ishq Ladaaye, where she had stunt sequences and emotional scenes. Considered the doyenne of Indian theatre, she acted with Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and Prithviraj Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatre for 14 years. She has also acted in English-speaking films such as Bend It Like Beckham.
She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1998, Kalidas Samman in 2001, and in 2004, the Sangeet Natak Akademi. India’s National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama presented her with its highest award, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship for lifetime achievement. She received the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian honor, in 2010. She died in a New Delhi hospital on 10 July 2014 due to cardiac arrest.
She was born as Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan on 27 April 1912 into a traditional Muslim family in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India, to Mumtazullah Khan and Natiqua Begum, belonging to a Rohilla Pathan family of Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, India. She was third of seven children – Zakullah, Hajrah, Ikramullah, Uzra (Uzra Butt), Anna and Sabira – and grew up in Chakrata, now in Uttarakhand (near Dehradun). She was a tomboy fond of climbing trees and playing games. Zohra lost vision in her left eye as she contracted glaucoma at the age of one year. She was referred to a hospital in Birmingham where she was treated at a cost of £300.
She lost her mother while still young. As per their mother’s wishes, she and her sister were sent to Queen Mary College, Lahore. Strict purdah was observed there and the few males invited to speak did so from behind a screen. As a result of seeing her sister’s failed marriage, she decided to pursue a career, rather than get married.
Upon graduating, her maternal uncle, Sahebzada Saeeduzzafar Khan, who was based in Edinburgh,arranged for her to apprentice under a British actor. They started from Lahore by car and, en route, crossed Iran, Palestine, before reaching Damascus, Syria, where she met her cousin. Then they traveled into Egypt and caught a boat to Europe in Alexandria.
In Europe, her aunt Dicta took her to try in the Mary Wigman’s ballet school in Dresden, Germany, but she had not ever danced, having lived in purdah for so long. Nevertheless, she got admission and became the first Indian to study at the institution. She stayed in Dresden for the next three years studying modern dance, while living in the house of Countess Liebenstein. She happened to watch the Shiv-Parvati ballet by Uday Shankar who was touring Europe. This was to change her life forever as, impressed by the performance, she went back stage to meet Uday Shankar, who promised her a job on her return to India, at the completion of her course.
While still in Europe, she received a telegram from Uday Shankar: “Leaving for Japan tour. Can you join immediately?” On 8 August 1935, she joined his troupe and danced across Japan, Egypt, Europe and the US, as a leading lady, along with French dancer, Simkie. When Uday Shankar moved back to India in 1940, she became a teacher at the Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre at Almora. It was here that she met her future husband Kameshwar Segal, a young scientist, painter and dancer from Indore, eight years her junior, belonging to the Radha Soami sect.
For a while the couple worked in Uday’s dance institute at Almora. Both became accomplished dancers and choreographers. Kameshwar composed a noted ballet for human puppets and choreographed the ballet Lotus Dance. When it shut down later, they migrated to Lahore in the near western India and set up their own Zohresh Dance Institute. The growing communal tension preceding the Partition of India made them feel unwelcome. They returned to Bombay, with one-year-old Kiran. By now, her sister Uzra Butt was already a leading lady with Prithvi Theatre. Ultimately, she too joined Prithvi Theatre in 1945, as an actress with a monthly salary of Rs 400, and toured every city across India with the group, for the next 14 years.
Also in 1945, soon after her arrival, she joined the leftist theatre group, IPTA, acted in several plays, and made her film debut in IPTA’s first film production, directed by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Dharti Ke Lal in 1946; she followed it up with another IPTA-supported film, Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar. In the same year, it became the first Indian film to gain critical international recognition and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Her involvement remained mostly with the theatre, though she did do a few films in between. During their stay in Bombay, the couple came to know many celebrities, including Ebrahim Alkazi, in whose play, Din Ke Andhere, she played “Begum Qudsia”; K.A. Abbas, in whose plays she acted at the IPTA; Chetan and Uma Anand in whose house the couple stayed when they first moved to Bombay, and his brother, Dev Anand his brother. She did the choreography for several Hindi films, including Guru Dutt’s Baazi (1951) and the dream sequence song in Raj Kapoor’s film Awaara. Kameshwar, on the other hand, became art director in Hindi films and later tried his hand at film direction.
Zohra Sehgal had been acting on the stage in different parts of India and putting up plays for inmates, including at Ferozepore jail. After staging a play, she stayed on to watch an execution.
After her husband’s death in 1959, Zohra first moved to Delhi and became director of the newly founded Natya Academy. She then moved London on a drama scholarship in 1962. Here she met Ram Gopal, a India-born Bharatnatyam dancer, and starting 1963, worked as a teacher in the “Uday Shankar style” of dance at his school in Chelsea, during the short period of its existence. Her first role for British television was in a BBC adaptation of a Kipling story, The Rescue of Pluffles, in 1964. She also appeared in four episodes of Doctor Who during 1964-65, all of them, however, are currently lost. She also anchored 26 episodes of BBC TV series, Padosi (Neighbours; 1976–77). Her career in the next almost two decades remained sporadic, despite several small appearances in many films.
In London, Zohra got her first break in the films and was signed by Merchant Ivory Productions. She appeared in The Courtesans of Bombay directed by James Ivory in 1982. This paved way for an important role as Lady Chatterjee in the television adaptation The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984). Thus starting the second phase of her career, as she went on to appear in The Raj Quartet, The Jewel in the Crown, Tandoori Nights, My Beautiful Laundrette, et al.
She returned to India in the mid-1990s and lived for a few months in Burdwan. At that time she acted in several films, plays and TV series since. She first performed poetry at a memorial to Uday Shankar organised by his brother, Ravi Shankar in 1983, and soon took it in big way; she started getting invited to perform poetry at various occasions. She even traveled to Pakistan to recite verses for “An Evening With Zohra”. Her impromptu performances of Punjabi and Urdu became a norm. After stage performances she was often requested by the audience to recite Hafeez Jullundhri’s famous nazm, Abhi To Main Jawan Hoon.
In 1993, a critically acclaimed play, Ek Thi Nani, was staged in Lahore for the first time, featuring Zohra and her sister Uzra Butt now staying in Pakistan. A performance in its English version, A Granny for All Seasons, was held at UCLA in 2001. She became very active in Hindi films in grandmotherly roles in from 1996, with frequent appearances in high budget movies like Dil Se, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Veer Zara, Saawariya, Cheeni Kum. She was 90, when she did the film -Chalo Ishq Ladaye in 2002, whee she was the main central character of the film and Govinda played her grandson.The film Ishq Ladaye had her riding a bike and fighting the villains as well. In 2008, at the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF)-Laadli Media Awards in New Delhi, she was named Laadli of the century and the award ceremony was presided by the Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit.
In her career she has acted with heroes across generations – Prithviraj Kapoor, Ashok Kumar, Dev Anand, Govinda, Sharukh Khan, Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Ranbir Kapoor. In 2012, she became the longest-living actor to have appeared on Doctor Who, as well as the first centenarian associated with the show. The second is Olaf Pooley, who celebrated his 100th birthday on 13 March 2014.
She married Kameshwar Sehgal, a Hindu. There was initial opposition from her parents, but they eventually gave their approval for the union. They married on 14 August 1942. Jawaharlal Nehru was to attend the wedding reception, but he was arrested a couple of days earlier for supporting Gandhi’s Quit India Movement.
Zohra and Kameshwar had two children, Kiran and Pavan. Pavan Sehgal works for the WHO. Kiran is a highly reputed Odissi dancer.
In 2012, Kiran Sehgal, her daughter wrote Zohra’s biography titled “Zohra Sehgal: Fatty”.
On 9 July 2014 she was admitted to the Max Hospital in South Delhi after being diagnosed with pneumonia. She died on 10 July 2014, aged 102, after suffering cardiac arrest and was cremated on 11 July at Lodhi Road crematorium, Delhi.