On her 110th birth anniversary, Sanjay Bhansali celebrates Zohra Sehgal

The spirited late Indian actress, dancer and choreographer was born on this day, April 27, in 1912—she would have turned 111 today

Zohra Sehgal
Zohra Sehgal

Subhash K Jha

Zohra Sehgal started her career with Prithviraj Kapoor (great-grandfather to Ranbir) in the Prithvi Theatre. She worked with four generations of the Kapoor family—from Prithviraj Kapoor to Raj Kapoor to Rishi Kapoor and now Ranbir. It's unheard of in showbiz.

The unanimous verdict on Sanjay Leela Bhansali's breathtaking set of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Saawariya was that no one could match Sehgal's energy level. Bhansali could think of no one but her for a particular role in Saawariya. However, he felt some hesitation—Zohra Sehgal was 94 at the time. All of Bhansali's doubts were, however, dispelled once she came on the sets.

To call Sehgal a livewire would be an understatement. She was the life and soul of the sets. She came up with the most amazing suggestions. She had the most amazing memory. She remembered every single incident through her life.  

Bhansali says his experience of working with Sehgal in these two films will remain with him until his own end. He calls her a miracle woman, a "legend beyond explanation". In Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Bhansali put her in a Gujarati ghagra-choli. In Saawariya she wore a dress. She could create her own universe for each character, without going into too much background detail. Her understanding of the movie camera made all of Bhansali's team look like students of filmmaking, he recalls.

Bhansali is the only contemporary director who had the privilege of working with Sehgal in two films.

When Ranbir Kapoor and Bhansali went to pick her up at the airport while shooting for Saawariya, she said to Ranbir, "Do you know I've worked opposite your great-grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor and your grandfather Raj Kapoor? You're the third generation of Kapoors I'm working with."

Arriving in Mumbai that day, Sehgal had brought along her pictures with Prithviraj Kapoor and Raj Kapoor. From the first day, she insisted on calling Kapoor 'Ranbir Raj'.

Sehgal loved her role in Saawariya because, for the first time, she got to play a Catholic character. She enjoyed putting up her hair stylishly, wearing dresses and especially the crimson lipstick the character called for. There was a scene where she insisted on singing an English song for Kapoor—something unscripted that she remembered from her past. 

At 94, Sehgal had memorised not just all her own dialogues, but every single dialogue of every character in Saawariya. In fact, when Bhansali picked her up from the airport that first time, she rattled off all the lines and told him, "Don't you dare change one line." On the sets, Sehgal was always there to prompt any actor who forgot their lines.

Zohra Sehgal’s exuberance had always been infectious, for every team she worked with— right from the time she started her career with Uday Shankar's dance troupe and had a role in his ballet Kalpana. She was 'temperamental' in a very positive way. While some actors throw their weight around to feel important, she raged when she saw incompetence, mediocrity or compromise on the sets.

A free spirit and no compromise was what she embodied herself. At 84, in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, when she had to playfully pull Salman Khan and Aishwarya Bachchan's ears, their ears went red. They requested Bhansali to ask Sehgal not to put quite so much strength into her ear-pulling! But Bhansali couldn't find the courage to insist.

Though accompanied by her granddaughter on the sets, she remained fiercely independent into her last working days.

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