Remembering Zohra Sehgal: the asli Jewel in the Crown

Long before we talked about crossover stars, there was Zohra Sehgal. On her 100th birthday, friends from around the world from James Ivory to Aasif Mandvi, toast the art, craft and naughtiness of Zohra Sehgal.

Maria Giovanna July 11, 2014 09:20:44 IST
Remembering Zohra Sehgal: the asli Jewel in the Crown

Editor's Note: When Zohra Sehgal turned 100, the event was celebrated with the kind of warmth enthusiasm, and élan that the actress embodied over her lifetime. There will be no more birthday celebrations for Sehgal who passed away yesterday evening. Now that she has moved on to greater adventures beyond, Firstpost is republishing Maria Giovanna's tribute to Sehgal. It is our way of remembering a great lady who was always irrepressibly alive.

Sakina Jaffrey remembers how she would lift her sari to her upper thighs and show off her kicks.

Susan Wooldridge recalls her getting sloshed on gin fizzes.

Gurinder Chadha remembers her teasing the young camera boys on set.

Aasif Mandvi remembers her as both “youthful and vibrant” as well “calming and maternal.”

As the irrepressible Zohra Sehgal turns 100 today, her former directors and co-stars from around the world are raising a toast to the original “Jewel in the Crown.”  Zohra Sehgal is surely India’s first and brightest crossover international star – of film, television, and stage, living proof that East and West can and do meet.

Remembering Zohra Sehgal the asli Jewel in the Crown

Zohra Sehgal turns 100 today. Screengrab/ibnlive

James Ivory, of Ivory and Merchant fame, says he met her through the Kendal family whose theatrical troupe, which included Jennifer Kendal, toured India. He cast Zohra in his 1969 film, The Guru. “As soon as we set up the shot, she was just terrific,” he says. Later in Ismail Merchant’s The Courtesans of Bombay she played a retired courtesan being interviewed and throughout the film she’s shown making pickle. “She was great,” says Ivory. “There’s a personality there, and that’s always such an asset with actors. It doesn’t all come from the parts they play. They themselves are interesting, which she is!”

“I wish I could be there to wish her every kind of happy birthday!” says Ivory.

The role that really made Zohra recognizable around the world (and upped her pay scale) came her way in 1981 - Lady Lili Chatterjee in Granada Television’s The Jewel in the Crown , a 14-episode serialization of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet.  In it, she played a sophisticated, wealthy matron who resides in the palatial MacGregor house, when she’s not off at the country club.

Two of the stars of that production, still acclaimed as one of Britian’s best mini-series,  still remember her vividly. “She was perfectly cast in that role as Aunt Lili because she had that twinkle all the time and that phrase ‘I must dash off now to the club’ - sort of aping the British and mocking them at the same time,” recalls Tim Pigott-Smith who played Captain Ronald Merrick.

“She knew absolutely what she was doing and did it in the most perfect way,” says Susan Wooldridge who played Daphne Manners. She remembers a scene where Zohra shield her hand with her eyes as if looking at Daphne with concern. In reality she was shielding her eyes from the bright sun in a scene that was supposed to be set in the evening. “She turned necessity into a virtue,” says Wooldridge admiringly. “I remember thinking afterwards That’s the way to do it.  Not to complain about something, but to use it to an advantage.”

Wooldridge and Zohra formed a real bond both on-screen and off. In the series Daphne lives under Lady Chatterjee’s roof. In her diary from the 29th of December 1981, the day of the first read-through in cold, snowy Kennington, London,  Susan  Wooldridge wrote: “A good omen:  I came out of the tube to find a bemused, saried figure.  It was  Aunt Lili and so we entered the rehearsal room together.”

Three decades later, Wooldridge says unhesitatingly “ She will always be my Auntie.”

Wooldridge still relishes little memories of those days –  their first gin fizzes together in the name of research for a scene  (“absolutely disgusting, and wonderfully strong. We loved them!”) or Zohra dressing her up in a sari for the after party and dancing together (“me very badly, like an elephant in clogs and Zohra absolutely beautifully.”)

“She was a lovely companion,” agrees Pigott-Smith. “She opened doors to us that would otherwise have been closed. She was generous with her time and herself.”

Zohra’s appetite for life is legendary. The older she got, the more  high-spirited she seemed to get. A decade after Jewel in the Crown she was in Toronto filming for Srinivas Krishna’s Masala.” I remember her habit of lifting her sari to her upper thighs and the flurry of kicks that would follow,” says Sakina Jaffrey, her co-star in that film.  “Every move was aimed to catch you off guard and leave you in a fit of hysterics.  Amazing lady!”

She stole the show as crusty bossy old lady in Bhaji on the Beach,   Gurinder  Chadha’s 1993 feature film debut. Chadha says she was a fabulous actor to work with -  “tremendous energy” , “huge sense of self-deprecating humour” and “happy to be working.” “She was very quick to say ‘Please tell me if I’m overacting, because I have a tendency to overact’” says Chadha. Chadha had such a good time she came up with a small role for her in Bend it Like Beckham just so she could be part of that film as well. “By then, she had two hearing aids and needed a little help getting around, but she was sharp and witty,” recalls Chadha.  “Just because of her years, you can’t think she misses anything, she sees everything.  She loved talking with the crew, teasing the young camera boys.  She wasn’t one of these actresses who wanted to go hide in her room.”

While her film work was making her famous around the world, Zohra  who had started out with Prithvi Theater in 1945, also showed up on stage. A couple of years after  Bhaji, Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith, co-founders and artistic directors of Tamasha Theater, brought Zohra back to London to star in their British Punjabi adaptation of Garcia Lorca’s Yerma, then christened A Yearning.  Zohra toured the country for eight weeks, doing six shows a week. “Her secret was green chilies, cat naps, an incredible routine of yoga and poetry recital in the morning, not to mention making sure there were wheelchairs handy when she decided to play the 'old' woman,” says Bhuchar. She says Zohra loved to tell the story of her “fine performance as a needy old desi woman at the airport” who gets whisked through baggage control in a wheelchair, only to get off it at the end and march off to catch the Tube, wheeling her own suitcase.

In the nineties she came back to India. Although over 80 she  jumped happily into Bollywood films like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Saawariya and Dil Se. Santosh Sivan - who had seen Bhaji - suggested her to Mani Ratnam.  “She was the youngest on the set, full of radiance and a naughty, charming smile.”

As Zohra turns 100, it’s that “naughty smile” her co-stars remember from all corners of the world. Aasif Mandvi recalls the 89-year-old Zohra going for check-up at a local hospital in Trinidad during the shooting of Merchant Ivory’s The Mystic Masseur. A handsome young doctor attended to her. “She said that when reviewing her medical history, he asked her ‘Do you put anything on your lips?’ to which Zohra flirtatiously replied “Only kisses!”

At 100, only kisses will do for the one and only Zohra Sehgal.

Maria Giovanna also writes at

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