x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Beloved Indian actress Zohra Sehgal dies at 102

Renowned dancer and theatre and film actress starred in English television series and films such as Bend It Like Beckham, as well Bollywood blockbusters.

Zohra Sehgal as Lady Lili Chatterjee in the British television series The Jewel in the Crown. ITV / REX
Zohra Sehgal as Lady Lili Chatterjee in the British television series The Jewel in the Crown. ITV / REX

NEW DELHI // Indians on Friday mourned the passing of Zohra Sehgal, the grand old lady of Indian theatre, dance and cinema.

Ms Sehgal died of heart failure on Thursday at the age of 102 – only a little younger than India’s film industry. Her last movie Saawariya (Beloved) was released in 2007, marking the end of a film career that began in 1946. She also performed and choreographed productions of modern dance and ballet, toured India with her theatre troupe for 14 years, won renown for her readings of poetry, and was in the international hit Bend It Like Beckham.

She also appeared in two episodes of an early season of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Narendra Modi, the prime minister, paid tribute to her on Twitter, calling her “prolific and full of life”. Amitabh Bachchan, the Bollywood veteran who acted as Ms Sehgal’s son in the 2007 movie Cheeni Kum (A Little Less Sugar), tweeted: “What a journey and what an immensely loveable co-star.”

Born in Saharanpur, in what is now Uttar Pradesh, on April 27, 1912, Sehgal — unusually for a young Muslim woman of her time — went to study acting and dance in Europe in 1930.

She returned to India 10 years later, first to work with Uday Shankar, one of the country’s leading dancers and brother of the sitar player Ravi Shankar, and then joined the acclaimed Prithvi Theatre troupe in Bombay (now Mumbai).

After the death of her husband Kameshwar, Sehgal migrated to Great Britain in the early 1960s, where she acted in a host of television programmes and films. She returned to India when she was 80, and started to take the sort of roles for which she became well known in the twilight of her career: as the impish, wise grandmother with a particular fondness for young couples in love.

It was her “pertness, or sauciness” that often endeared Sehgal to moviegoers, said Jai Arjun Singh, a New Delhi-based film critic.

“She briefly enlivened even a film that was as dead on arrival as The Mistress of Spices, which is saying a great deal – so much energy and vitality even in her short, poorly written role,” Singh said.

He said a similarly cheeky tone pervaded her 1997 autobiography, Stages.

“Given the kinds of things she said in her book – about wanting her ashes flushed down the toilet, for instance – I think this chutzpah is a personal quality, which she successfully incorporated into her roles,” Singh said.

The reigning superstar of Hindi film, Shah Rukh Khan, also praised Sehgal and her “journey of a million miles overloaded with smiles”.

“Even at a 100-plus, I have yet to meet a naughtier young girl,” Khan said tweeted on Friday. He had worked with her on four films in the 1990s and the 2000s.

Sehgal had been ill with pneumonia for several days before her demise. She is survived by her son Pawan and her daughter Kiran.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae