Here's how Zohra Sehgal made dull and silly roles beautiful
One of the things that Zohra Sehgal was proud of was that in over a career of more than 70 years in show business, she had rarely said no to any role. "I have hardly ever refused a role. Agar kharab role miley, toh main usey sawarti hoon." It's a beautiful idea, that she would dress up a dull, silly role to become something special. It also sums up her career, because Sehgal is a legend despite the work that her industry afforded her.
Actor, teacher, dancer and livewire, Sehgal was the grand dame of Indian performance and one of the last of that haloed set of actors who weren't plasticine in directors' hands. Often, she'd discuss with directors how a part should be modified, what gestures a character would use. It didn't matter to her how much screen time she had; the work she'd put into the character would be the same.
To most of us, she's the quintessential dadima, thanks to the ads she appeared in and the roles she played in Hindi and English films like Bhaji on the Beach, Bend it Like Beckham and Kal Ho Naa Ho. The phrase "twinkling eyes" seemed to coined just for her. She'd come on screen and her energy would bring the blandest film to life. Yet, despite all her achievements (and there are many), the sad truth is that the Hindi film industry didn't really make the most of Sehgal's outstanding acting talent.
Sehgal turned to acting in her thirties, which is late by most standards. By then, she'd already established herself as a dancer, a teacher and a theatre actress. She was the first Indian to study ballet in Mary Wigman's dance school in Dresden. Wigman is considered one of the pioneers of modern dance and it was an incredible opportunity for young Sehgal, particularly since Sehgal had no training in any kind of dance.
In later years, when asked about her dancing, Sehgal described herself as a dreadful dancer. To her mind, she'd been a better dance teacher than a dancer and a far better actor. However, her self-assessment notwithstanding, Sehgal was clearly good enough to impress the legendary Uday Shankar.
He met her while he was touring with one of his dance shows in Germany. She was still a student in Dresden and had come to see his show. Afterwards, when Shankar met Sehgal, he gave her an autograph and asked her join his troupe when she returned to India. He told her he wanted women from good families to join dance, to give the art form the respect it deserved from Indian society.
With Uday Shankar, Sehgal would travel around the world, performing in a number of productions. She also taught dance at the Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre at Almora. One of her students was a talented young man, eight years younger than her, named Kameshwar Sehgal. Kameshwar was the one who made the fiercely independent Sehgal break her vow of not ever getting married. The two fell in love and got married in 1942.
Soon after, the Sehgals moved to Lahore and set up the Zohresh Dance Institute. Unfortunately, it wasn't a success and in 1945, with the uncertainty and Partition in the air, the Sehgals moved to Mumbai. Sehgal began working in Prithvi Theatre with Prithviraj Kapoor.
She would work for 14 years with Prithvi Theatres and held Kapoor to be the greatest influence in her life. She would always say that Kapoor had made her not just a better actor, but also a better human being.
Despite all the amazing work Sehgal did in these years, it wasn't until the 1980s, thanks to work in English films, that she tasted success. The intervening years were hard for her. Her husband committed suicide in 1959. Sehgal then moved to Delhi and later to London, struggling to make ends meet by teaching dance. In London, in the seventies, Sehgal played bit parts in a number of TV series, including Mind Your Language and Doctor Who. On one hand, the fact that she had an unusual face was her advantage. (Once, she got cast as a Chinese person.) But on the other, she remained a "character actor" — someone who wouldn't be allowed the spotlight for too long, simply because she didn't look the part of a glamorous lead.
In 1984, she played the role of Lady Chatterjee in Jewel in the Crown, and suddenly, the world discovered Zohra Sehgal all over again. Then, in 1993, she appeared in Gurinder Chadha's Bhaji on the Beach and it did wonders for Sehgal's career. Every year, there was at least one film in the theatres that had Sehgal in it. This working streak continued all the way into the 2000s. Her last appearances were in 2007, when she played Lilipop in Saawariya and Amitabh Bachchan's mother in Cheeni Kum.
Of all these roles, among Sehgal's favourite was the character she played in the Govinda film, Chalo Ishq Ladaye (2002). In it, not only did she get to slap Govinda numerous times, she also got to ride a bike and shoot bad guys.
Sehgal was loved and respected by the film industry, as the celebrity tweets mourning her passing show. Yet, sadly, no one wrote Sehgal that breakthrough lead role that she deserved. She was one of the rare actors who was versatile enough to slip effortlessly between tragedy and comedy. Yet, looking back at her career, no one gave her the kind of lead role that would have given her a chance to really showcase her talent. Sehgal would have made a marvellous, Indian Mrs. Marple, for instance, or the equivalent of James Bond's M, the head of MI6. No one wrote those roles, no one made those films.
It's a sign of her grit and talent that she was able to make a place for herself in the youth-obsessed film industry, unhindered by wrinkles and an ageing body. But she was capable of so much more than the minor roles that she was offered and the proof of this lies in the fact that her performances in films like Bend it Like Beckham and Cheeni Kum are as memorable as those of the lead actors. She was a star, and if the roles she was given didn't allow her to shine, it didn't bother her. As her interviews show, she sparkled anyway and nothing that life threw at her, dulled her light.
Updated Date: Jul 11, 2014 15:12:13 IST
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