My other granny — Zohra Sehgal

2014-07-17 00:00

“ARE you sure she’s not my counterpart in the Madras Tamil industry?” Zohra Sehgal joked with me in 2002 as she looked at a picture I had just shown her of my late paternal grandmother, Amina Bera, who bore a striking resemblance to Sehgal.

The indefatigable grand old dame of Indian cinema, who died last week aged 102, was commenting on the fact that my granny, who was of south Indian descent, was much darker than her, despite the similar looks.

I had approached Sehgal at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai during a visit to the city not long after a film featuring her had been released.

She was attending a wedding reception in the hotel, flashing at everyone the smile she was famous for.

I had only a couple of minutes with her, as hordes of guests, including many from the film industry, queued to greet her.

I told her how I had liked her role in the comedy Chalo Ishq Ladaye, in which she played a tough grandmother to actor Govinda. Her character in the movie not only got away from goons hired to kill her, but ended up giving them their just deserts, complete with scenes that saw her riding a bicycle and beating up the thugs. That at the age of 90!

Every time I saw Sehgal in the cameo roles she appeared in in many films after that, I thought about her comments regarding my granny, who had long since died.

But I never really thought about her background until last week, when I learnt for the first time that she had actually started out as a dancer.

Born Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtazullah Khan, Sehgal acquired the Hindu surname after marrying scientist and fellow arts lover Kameshwar Sehgal, despite the initial opposition of her staunch Muslim parents.

The marriage only occurred after she had already achieved fame internationally as a dancer with the famous Uday Shankar troupe. Sehgal was also renowned for her theatrical performances, especially at the famous Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai, as well as her roles in a number of films in English, including Bend it Like Beckham.

She also choreographed several Hindi films, including Baazi and Awaara, made by legendary directors Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor, respectively.

I recall an interview in about 2012, when, after appearing in the long-running TV series Dr Who, as the first centenarian to appear on the show, Sehgal said it had been a special privilege to spend more than 80 of her 100 years with three generations of Indian actors. She listed Prithviraj Kapoor, Ashok Kumar, Dev Anand, Govinda, Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Ranbir Kapoor as having been among her favourite co-stars across the generations.

At her 102nd birthday party in April, Sehgal is reported to have said she was preparing to die with a smile on her face. That is how those at her cremation service said they would always remember her, with many saying she was the life and soul of any event she attended. For me, she will always be a second granny.

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