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Zohra Sehgal, a magnetic force

Zohra Sehgal celebrates her 100th birthday in 2012. Photo: PTI

Zohra Sehgal celebrates her 100th birthday in 2012. Photo: PTI  

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Ranvir Shah remembers the actor for loving life and living it fully

When I first met Zohra Sehgal, she was over 90 years old but she could make strange faces and delight in the game of abhinaya with the innocence of a child.

As a co-curator of The Other Festival, I had been trying to get in touch with her for over a year. Then a chance meeting happened during an event that I had gate-crashed in Mumbai. I sidled up to her and made my request: would she please come and present something in Chennai — whatever she liked — and how we could be in touch… the usual sort of conversation. She was extremely co-operative and said she would love to visit Chennai. After that, it was all very simple and fuss-free.

In Chennai, to a full house, she recited Hindi and Urdu poetry, which was translated by two young Chennai-based poets Tishani Doshi and Priyamvada. After a standing ovation for her encore, she repeated the speech she had given from the ramparts of the Red Fort, celebrating India and its independence at a memorial event.

Post performance, a mesmerised audience stayed back for a question and answer session. She returned after a change and was greeted by another standing ovation. A young editor of a Carnatic music and dance magazine asked the first question. “Madam, at this age, you have given us such a great experience. What is the secret of your energy?”

Zohra’s eyes twinkled; straight-faced, she answered: “Sex!”

It took the audience a moment to catch on, but there was thunderous applause and yet another standing ovation. She gently waved them to sit and proceeded to talk about her past, movies and future projects. The day before had resulted in the entire Chennai press waiting to meet her, and as organisers we had to schedule the day.

The evening ended with a light tea at my house to meet a few theatre people and friends in a relaxed atmosphere. My grandfather, also in his nineties, had been a bit of an adventurer in his life having worked for the British police and then running a private detective agency for many years. He was reminiscing about the past, Lahore and Prithviraj Kapoor. A clear memory stays: Zohra asking him for dinner, dance and a date, and he promising it the next time she visited; both in jest, with an understanding of the stations of life they had reached.

Later that night, an interior designer — a big fan of Zohra’s — was very keen to meet her so I requested her to see him at her hotel. He finally came out — flushed and red — delighted with her company, and inducted into the club of whiskey drinkers. Her characters on stage and cinema have left us a huge public memory but the image that has stayed with me all these years is of her talking to a friend about the suicide of her husband; the pain and memory, she said, was in her heart every day like the coal embers that the women of Kashmir keep close to their hearts in winter.

She recounted to me a lesson about gratitude and paying back of life’s debts. It is a well-known fact that she had been in Prithviraj Kapoor’s theatre group and movies in her formative years. Years later, Shashi Kapoor sent his son to her to be trained in acting. After a few weeks, he called and asked for her fees. Her reply: the debt she owed his father, Prithviraj Kapoor, was so great that she could train several generations of the Kapoors.

Gentleness. Kindness. Humour. Compassion. A life fully lived, not short on travails and losses, and yet a magnetic force of joie de vivre. She put us all at ease, had no special tantrums, gently asked for passes for her grand daughter who was in town, and taught us all the big lessons of life in those two days by just being herself completely and truly — a legend in our times.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 4:46:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/zohra-sehgal-a-magnetic-force/article6228340.ece

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