By Lata Jha:
In a world as fierce and unforgiving as ours, it’s easy to get bogged down by pressure and competition, give up or simply give in. Especially in show business, one has seen so many celebrities lose steam or at least spark eventually. One thus tends to presume that calling it a day is somewhat inevitable. In scenarios like these, lives like Zohra Sehgal’s are remarkable, not just for their longevity but for their everlasting value and sheen.
For the uninitiated, it may come as a surprise that Sehgal actually began her career as a choreographer and dancer with the legendary Uday Shankar’s troupe. That probably explains those radiant, expressive eyes and the spring in each step she took even post 90. She wasn’t only one of the rare female actors belonging to a Muslim family but also an exuberant, fearless young woman who toured with Shankar across Japan, Egypt, Europe and the US at a time when choreography and pursuing dance as a career were unknown concepts.
Sehgal’s association with the Indian People’s Theatre Association, a leftist group, various television productions both in India and abroad and her stint as a teacher of the Uday Shankar style of dance, reflect that she was not only multi talented, but was brimming constantly with great zest for life and hunger for more. I remember reading an interview of hers where she said that it’s never too late to learn any skill in life, and she recalled having learnt to rustle up a biryani at the ripe age of 50 when she was forcibly pushed into the kitchen.
It’s amazing how much she was loved despite never really being a ‘leading’ lady. Every single film viewer knows and acknowledges the fact that no one could have reprimanded Amitabh Bachchan the way she did in Cheeni Kum (2007), or played Ranbir Kapoor’s compassionate landlady in the otherwise forgettable Saawariya (2007) which was her last screen appearance, or the blind, adorable grandmother who has to be told in the ear that the guest of the house has turned up for lunch in a towel in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999). For as long as we have watched and known her, we realise that there is only one Zohra Sehgal. No one can ever do what she did. Proof of it lies in the fact that she was around long enough to grace Ranbir Kapoor’s debut film years after she had worked with not just his grandfather Raj Kapoor but also his great grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor.
Her love for life and the desire to live it to the fullest were manifested in how positive she remained till her last breath. Irrespective of the good, bad and ugly she may have encountered over the years (and one is sure she did), not one of her interviews saw her crib or seem bitter about the cold ways of show business. Or the fact that she was never inundated with work or awards and recognition of any kind.
Zohra Sehgal represented an era. An era of resilient, committed actors who were driven by their love for the craft and their passion for entertaining audiences. To our generation, she was a slice of the golden age of cinema and art we couldn’t witness. And with her passing away, the era comes to an end. But knowing her, she’s probably smiling from up there. And reprimanding us for moping around. Saying life has to move on and that she’s having fun wherever she is. We needn’t worry.