Zohra Sehgal is having the last laugh. The industry that had little to offer her as a young woman can't get enough of her these days. From movies to ad-films, Zohra's expressive face fearlessly flaunts all kinds of emotions. At 96, the woman who says she used to look very plain enjoys the way she looks and claims is no famous than ever before.
Anuradha SenGupta: Zohra Sehgal, I'm surprised that you're at home and available to do an interview because you're one of the busiest actors in the country today.
Zohra Sehgal: No, I'm very much at home. How much work can I do now? About 20 days ago I was 96 but if I come across something interesting I take it.
Anuradha SenGupta: But you enjoy working and performing?
Zohra Sehgal: Of course I do. Acting is the only thing I enjoy apart from kissing my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Anuradha SenGupta: When people approach you to do films or plays, how do you decide on taking up the role?
Zohra Sehgal: This is one thing I want to talk about. I have hardly ever refused a role. If I get a bad role, I take it up and work on it. Even when I was working with Balki, or as I call him Balti in Cheeni Kum, he had certain ideas which I felt didn't go with the character.
For instance, he wanted me to do a high-five with Tabu, so I said that a character of that age would not do a high-five but instead would gently hold Tabu's chin and compliment her on her beauty. And even with the dialogues, if there were a word of Urdu, which is incorrect, I would correct it. So he listened to all my suggestions. But of course my role in Cheeni Kum is just lovely and I really enjoyed portraying it.
Anuradha SenGupta: How do you decide on what project to say yes to?
Zohra Sehgal: First I look at the whole story and then I look at my part. Then I analyse, how much importance does my role have, as I'm a person who loves to be at the centre stage. And I have to be careful about the fact that I'm a great show off. When I was doing Bhaji on the Beach with Gurinder Chadha, I told her that I'm very capable of going over the top so please pull me back and she told me not to worry. So I tell myself the importance of my character. Then I copy my dialogues to my register and memorise them.
Anuradha SenGupta: In what language do you copy your dialogues?
Zohra Sehgal: I copy them in Urdu since my mother tongue is Urdu. I can't write in any other language. These days they send the script in Roman, which is very difficult to read and understand. So first I write it and then I learn it while walking in the room. I try and give each sentence a different interpretation.
Anuradha SenGupta: While Zohra's acting career started in the 1940s, it's only in the 1980s that it started flourishing. For two decades, starting in 1962, when she moved to London, she survived on small roles and odd jobs. It was after the TV series based on The Jewel in the Crown, that was popular both in India and the UK that there was no looking back.
Zohra Sehgal: What I really enjoyed was doing a silly film here in Bollywood called Chalo Ishq Ladaaye in which I slapped Govinda every five minutes and in which I rode a motorbike. That was the most enjoyable film. And on the stage in England I did a film as a Chinese because I look very Chinese; in Primary English Class with Orange Tree Theatre. It was so successful that it came to the Westend and played at the Windom. So these were the two roles I really enjoyed doing.
Anuradha SenGupta: Very few people remember that Zohra started her career as a dancer. Inspired by Isadora Duncan and trained for three years by the Merry Wigam Dance School in Germany, Zohra started to learn dancing on a whim. The idea came to her when she was on a road trip in Europe with her uncle. When she returned to India she joined Uday Shankar's dance troop and went on to teach in his famous school in the hills of Almora.
Zohra Sehgal: I met Uday Shankar in Germany. He brought his troupe there and the first time I saw him as Shiva, he was almost bare body and he was just sort of wearing a jhangia (underwear). He met me and said when you finish your course here and come to India, do come and meet me as I'm looking for girls from good families to come and join my troupe. So that is how I met him when I returned to India.
Anuradha SenGupta: Would you say you're a better dancer or a better actor?
Zohra Sehgal No, I was a hopeless dancer. As they say that in youth and moonlight, a female donkey can also look beautiful, but I was graceful and I had a certain charm. However, if there is anything I can vouch for it's the fact that I'm a very good dance teacher.
Anuradha SenGupta: And what about acting?
Zohra Sehgal Well, as far as acting is concerned I'm not bad. I would say the good thing in me is that I can do both comedy and tragedy. But to do tragedy you have to shed real tears or else nobody is going to believe you. However to play comedy you must laugh from the heart otherwise there will be no laughter. So there should be an unsealed emotion in an actor.
Anuradha SenGupta: How do you get real tears in your eyes?
Zohra Sehgal I would complete 73 years in non-stop showbiz on August 8 2009 and if I can't even cry or laugh on cue then I should be slapped. One should practice till they get it perfect.
Anuradha SenGupta: Zohra credits the 14 years she spent at Prithvi Theatres as the seminal influence in her life. She joined it in 1945 after her own dance school in Lahore had failed. It was also around the time when Prithvi Theatre had staged their landmark plays with strong nationalistic messages. Zohra being the daughter of an aristocratic Pathan family, she learned the art acting and life here.
Zohra Sehgal If you like my work today or praise my work, it's all thanks to Prithvi Raj. He never took any classes, but I learned just by watching him day and night for 14 years. Not only did he give me the voice and the art of natural acting but he also gave me a way of life. I was a great snob. I used to have my nose up in the air all the time. My daughter says that I'm still arrogant but I've learned to be down to earth now. I treat servants as equals. If we cut their hand, they will also bleed like us and this is all thanks to Prithvi Raj, it's his training. I remember he used to have a first class pass and he could travel by air anywhere, but when we used to go on tours as a troupe, we used to travel in third class bogies and we used to sleep on rugs on the floor. I've travelled from San Fransisco to Kuala Lumpur, right across the world from the North Cape to Jawa Bali.
I have yet to find a better actor than Prithvi Raj on stage. I've got different views on screen but on stage no one can match up to him. He used to have the pulse of his audience on his fingertips. He used to sink into any role he pursued. He had brilliant emotions. He always quoted this Persian saying, "In myself I'm nothing, I'm just a handful of mud which has bathed in fragrant oils and perfumes and have retained the fragrance." So I would say I have retained a little bit of his fragrance in me.
Anuradha SenGupta: You've mentioned that you were always conscious of the fact that you were plain looking, and therefore you had to be charming and intelligent. Do you think it’s difficult for women who aren't good looking and that the society wants them to be good looking?
Zohra Sehgal Yes I think it's natural. Prithvi Raj Kapoor used to say that when an actor enters the stage and if they are good looking they've won half the battle, meaning they've got 50 plus. If you see a beautiful woman or a handsome man entering the stage your eyes automatically brighten up. I had to start from a minus 50, so I had to make up for my plain looks.
Anuradha SenGupta: But Zohraji, I think you're fishing for compliments as I've seen photographs of you when you were young.
Zohra Sehgal I photographed very well. My younger sister was so beautiful and in fact she still is. She's in Pakistan but she never photographed as well as me. You see I'm very clever.
Anuradha SenGupta: Like most things in her life her marriage was unconventional. At 30 she married the gifted artist Kameshwar Sehgal, who was one of her student and eight years junior to her but she lost him early.
Zohra Sehgal He was a wonderful artist. I used to think if he goes abroad he'll do wonders. I fell in love with his paintings and his art.
Anuradha SenGupta: So that's how you fell in love with him?
Zohra Sehgal Yes, and even he fell in love with me. Like I said earlier, in youth even a female donkey also looks beautiful. And of course I was the infamous Zohra Mumtaz who had had such a free life.
Anuradha SenGupta: You lost him very early?
Zohra Sehgal I lost my husband on May 12, 1949, 49 years ago. He committed suicide.
Anuradha SenGupta: Do you still wonder why?
Zohra Sehgal Married to a woman like me, who wouldn't commit suicide. No I mean, like I was telling you earlier he was so talented, he was a scientist, painter and dancer. Then he took to films — he was a film director, art director. I would say he was ahead of his time. He never had the success that he should've got. Gradually he took to drinking and ruined himself and finished himself.
Anuradha SenGupta: Do you remember all that very clearly?
Zohra Sehgal I would say he has given me the most beautiful present by committing suicide. Kashmiri women hang kangris inside their dresses to keep themselves warm. A kangri is a basket in which one keeps coal to protect themselves from the cold. His death is like that inside me. Whenever I'm doing a tragic role, I just have to flick off the ashes. So what can be a better gift than this? And when it comes to comedy, I'm lucky I have a spring of humour and happiness inside me and I can see the lighter side of life.
Anuradha SenGupta: Toady, Zohra lives in New Delhi with her daughter, the acclaimed Odisi dancer Kiran Sehgal. What was the best time in your life and why?
Zohra SehgalThe best time of my life was when my daughter Kiran was born, even though I wanted a son. I was very disappointed when they told me that I had given birth to a daughter. On the third day, they kept her cot in my room and as I was sleeping I heard her little voice. I looked inside the cot and saw my daughter. My heart was filled with happiness, an electric chord went from my heart to her heart and it pulled us tight together. The chord is still there wherever she goes. So that was the most wonderful time in my life.
Anuradha SenGupta: Of course later on you had a son as well, so your desire to have a son also came true.
Zohra SehgalYes, I had a son and I'm very fond of him. I love them equally, but the most important and the most wonderful experience of my life was Kiran's birth and the connection I shared with her when I first saw her. Even though I know she’s nature’s creation, I looked at her and said she’s my creation.
Anuradha SenGupta: How would you describe Zohra Sehgal today?
Zohra Sehgal One day I woke up and thought to myself, I'm not a very nice person. I swear as I thought about all that I've done and said I'm not a very nice person. Then I laughed and said guzzar gayi guzran, kya jhopdi kya medaan, chalo nikle. I'm grateful that my image hasn't been tarnished and that in spite of so many surgeries my health is fine. I can walk on my own and with a little support and I can climb the stairs without any problems. I love Bloody Mary and I'm very fond of drinking but when I was in England for 25 years I never bought or kept any alcohol in my flat as this is one thing that is highly addictive and one just needs any excuse to drink, so I've been very careful in life.
Anuradha SenGupta: Yet would you say you've lived your life 100 per cent?
Zohra Sehgal Here at home I have vegetarian food, I have yoghurt, fruits and salads, but once when I went out I ordered Biryanyi and Bhuna Gosht and Kebab and I lapped it up. But now only once in a while I indulge in non-vegetarian food.
Anuradha SenGupta: Zohra Sehgal you have constantly said that you were not good looking and I was very plain looking, but let me tell you, you are memorable and I think that is what you wanted all you're life isn't it?
Zohra Sehgal Yes, thank you Anuradha, you have figured me out correctly.