Zohra Sehgal, a South Asian actress par excellence, actually spoke multiple languages including Urdu, Hindi, English and German. She is one of the earliest international actresses who came from an aristocratic Muslim family in India. When her father insisted that she get married, she outright said, ‘I don’t want to get married,’ and announced that she might become a pilot. In 1917 she went to a boarding school in Lahore, after which, in 1930, she donned a burqa and set off for Europe by road — crossing Iran, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. She trained as a ballet dancer in Germany. Zohra was quite blunt when it came to expressing her opinions. She was an agnostic and defied all the stereotypes about a “Muslim girl from a traditional family”. She was unbelievably bold and confident and was known for her mischievous humor. She earned immense respect in British TV at a time when people were not accepting of ‘diversity’ and even the Asian roles were played by white people.
When she had first arrived in Britain, “it was such that if we were sitting in the bus, the British did not sit next to us. Unconsciously in the minds of white people, there was a hesitation”. She defied cultural norms once more when she married her Hindu student eight years younger than her. She never felt welcomed in Lahore, so she left half her family in Pakistan
after 1947 Partition
and settled in Delhi where she taught a theater group. She raised her children on her own when her husband committed suicide at a young age. She was literally unstoppable and appeared consistently in British TV series like The Jewel in Crown, Mind Your Language and Doctor Who. She has acted in myriad Bollywood films and performed across Japan, Egypt, Europe and the US. She was a classical dancer, choreographer, cinema, theater and television actress whose career spanned over 8 decades. She was awarded Padma Shri and Padma Vibhushan, some of the highest civilian honors in India. She was a fighter all her life, she even defeated cancer.
On her 100th birthday she said, “I want an electric cremation. I don’t want any poems and fuss after that. And for heaven’s sake don’t bring back the ashes. Flush them down the toilet if the crematorium refuses to keep them. If they tell you that I am dead, I want you to give a big laugh".
Zohra aapa lived the life of a grand diva and passed away in 2014 at the age of 102.
“Oh, my burqa was of lovely silk and I was so glad I made petticoats out of it!”
Zohra with her husband Kameshwar Sehgal in 1945.
“What actually makes brings out your beauty is the radiance of being content and you can only be content when you are employed in something you love.”
“You see me now when I am old and ugly, in fact you should have seen me earlier — when I was young and ugly!”
Zohra at her 100th birthday was quietly humming “Abhi To Main Jawan Hoon” (I am still young) by poet Hafeez Jullundhri, as she attacked the huge cake.
“Life’s been tough but I’ve been tougher. I beat life at its own game”