How many of us remember the aww-so-cute ‘dadi’ who danced along with Preity Zinta in the song ‘Jiya Jale’ from Dil Se? Or the sassy mother of Amitabh Bacchan, who asks “Budhha maan gaya kya?” in Cheeni Kum? Presenting to you, Zohra Sehgal – the rebellious ‘tomboy’ of the 1920s who raised her voice and broke the shackles of a conservative society to pursue her dreams in India and abroad. Blinded in one eye at the tender age of one, did not stop her from performing on numerous stages across the world. Her mother herself was a liberated woman, who before passing away at a young age, left clear instructions in her will to fund her daughters’ education.
Google recently celebrated this legend with a beautiful doodle designed by Parvathi Pillai, on 29 Sep 2020, to mark the anniversary of her film ‘Neecha Nagar’ that was released at the Cannes Film Festival in 1946. Starting her career as a dancer, Zohra attracted audiences through her active acting career spanning over six decades. She received the Padma Vibhushan in 2010 for her contributions to Indian Cinema, and the Legends of India Lifetime Achievement Award.
Zohra aka Sahibzaadi Zohra Beegum Mumtaz Ulla Khan was born in Rampur (UP) in 1912 into a Rohilla Pathan family. She grew up with her seven siblings in a very traditional Sunni Muslim atmosphere but she was always the ‘rebel’. During a holiday at Dehradun, she was awestruck with Uday Shankar, a popular dancer/choreographer of the time. The seeds of her passion for dance must have been sown at that time. She went on a tour with her uncle, by car, and visited Western Asia, Europe, and other parts of India before being sent off to Queen Marys Girls College, Lahore for her studies. But a burqa could not contain her enthusiasm for long – after her graduation, she shed the burqa once and for all, and joined Uday Shankar’s troupe as a dancer in 1935.
She had initially no formal dance training, as it was taboo in those times. But she trained and grew to be a prominent dancer in the Uday Shankar Ballet Company, travelling the world and dancing on various international stages. It was during this time that she married her co-dancer Kameshwar Sehgal, never heeding the age and religious differences between them. They briefly moved to Lahore to establish a dance institute but were forced to move back to Mumbai, due to increasing tensions during the pre-partition era. She soon joined the Prithvi Theatre run by the legendary Prithviraj Kapoor. Transitioning from a dancer to a stage artiste, she worked in theatre for 14 years and was closely associated with celebrities like Dev Anand, Chethan Anand, and wife Uma, Balraj Sahni, and wife Damayanthi and Ebrahim Alkazi.
After her husband took his life due to depression; Zohra moved to Delhi and then left for London in 1962 after securing a Drama Scholarship. As a single mother who had to raise 2 kids, she worked tirelessly in London’s green rooms and tailoring institutions as a dresser. Her big break came in the late 1970s when Arthur Rank and Merchant Ivory Productions discovered her for the ‘Courtesans of Bombay’. She went on to act in movies like The Raj Quartet, Jewel in the Crown, Tandoori Nights, My beautiful laundrette, Bhaji on the Beach, and Bend it like Beckham among others. She has also acted in numerous TV serials including the main character in Sadiya Dalvi’s ‘Amma & Family’ in 2002.
She was diagnosed with cancer in 1994 and returned to India. In Bollywood, she has appeared in memorable roles in Veer Zara, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Dil Se, Saawariya, Cheeni Kum, and Dillagi. Zohra Sehgal was admitted for pneumonia at the age of 102. She left this world on 10th July 2014, leaving behind 8 decades of unforgettable characters that she played on stage, and also small and large screens. What a sweet twist of fate! that she started her acting career with Prithviraj Kapoor and her last film was with his great grandson, Ranbir Kapoor.
Zohra was well known for her wit, her zest for life, and the naughty twinkle in her eyes. Amitabh Bachhan had famously quipped that she is a 100-year-old kid! She will forever be remembered as one of the first female actors from India who gained international recognition, at a time when women rarely even raised their voices in the household.