The photograph used most often with her profile, was one of Zohra Sehgal sticking her tongue out, her sense of fun and irrepressible joie de vivre spilling out of her dancing eyes.
She lived a full life with a ne’er-say die spirit, gathering love and admiration wherever she went. Her career spanned nearly eight decades from the time she joined Uday Shanker’s troupe, through her years with Prithviraj Kapoor’s repertory Prithvi Theatres, where she worked along with her sister, Uzra Butt, as actress and choreographer.
Later, she joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association, and acted in KA Abbas’s first film Dharti Ke Lal in 1946 and Chetan Anand’s celebrated Neecha Nagar. After doing several plays and a few films she moved to London and taught dance, along with acting in serials like Mind Your Language, and films like Courtesans of Bombay, Bhaji on The Beach, Tandoori Nights and My Beautiful Laundrette, establishing herself as one of the best known Asian actors in the UK.
When she returned to India, she continued to perform on stage, and played the beloved grandmother in films like Dil Se, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Veer Zaara and Amitabh Bachchan’s mother Cheeni Kam.
She was often requested to recite Hafeez Jallandhari’s iconic poem Abhi to main jawaan hoon, which she made her own and always brought the house down with her impassioned rendition. It is said, age is just a number, Zohra Segal proved it, by crossing the age of 102, leaving behind a vast and rich body of work.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She tweets at @deepagahlot