Almost as old as Indian cinema itself, Zohra Sehgal had a career in dance, theatre and cinema that lasted seven decades. Sehgal, who died on July 10, 2014, at the age of 102, was trained in modern dance in Germany and under Uday Shankar and appeared in several noteworthy stage productions. Her career spanned Indian arthouse cinema and British Raj-era nostalgia television, but most Indians know her as the impish grandmother who is easily horrified by the antics of the young.
In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya (2007), Sehgal is Lillian, a landlady who is picky about her tenants but allows Ranbir Kapoor’s character Raj to stay with her as he reminds her of her dead son. Sehgal was 95 when she appeared in Saawariya, and it was her last role. Sehgal’s casting is no coincidence: the film makes references to the legendary romance between Raj Kapoor, Ranbir Kapoor’s grandfather, and his co-star Nargis. Sehgal had acted in several plays directed by Prithivraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor’s father.
Sehgal was born Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan on April 27, 1912. Her sister was the renowned theatre personality Uzra Butt. Sehgal envied her sister’s fame and attractiveness, says Sehgal’s daughter Kiran Segal in the biography Zohra Sehgal: Fatty. Because of this complex, Zohra Sehgal “tried very hard to be charming and attract attention”.
Butt migrated to Pakistan in 1964, and was reunited with her sister on the stage for Shahid Nadeem’s popular play Ek Thi Nani. In 1993 in Lahore, Sehgal and Butt played fictional versions of themselves – sisters separated by the Partition.
After the acclaim accorded to Ek Thi Nani, Sehgal became the go-to actress to play curmudgeonly yet loving grandmothers. She often went by the title “Bebe”, which is Punjabi for mother or grandmother, and her credits in the 1990s include Bhaji on the Beach (1993), Dil Se (1998), Dillagi (1999) and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999).
In Bhaji on the Beach, directed by Gurinder Chadha, Sehgal’s character Pushpa is initially disapproving and cranky but ends up frolicking on a beach despite being deemed too old for it. Chadha, who cast Sehgal again in her film Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and her production The Mistress of Spices (2005), said about Sehgal in an interview that “never was there an actress who enjoyed plying her trade with such fun and commitment”.
In Dillagi, Sehgal has a substantial role as the grandmother of brothers played by Sunny Deol and Bobby Deol, and she even shakes a leg in a song.
In Dil Se, Sehgal is the one who extracts a promise out of Shah Rukh Khan’s character to get married, while in Veer-Zaara (2004), she is a loving governess to Preity Zinta’s heroine. Sehgal’s stock in trade included a twinkle in her eye and witty quips, and her characters added a comic flavor to the narrative. One of the best uses of her mixture of crustiness and charm is in R Balki’s Cheeni Kum (2007), in which she plays Amitabh Bachchan’s mother.