Let’s remember Bollywood’s Favourite Dadi Zohra Sehgal


Guwahati:  Zohra Sehgal’s stage and film career spanning seven decades is being celebrated on a day Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar, a film in which she played a key role was released at the Cannes Film Festival in 1946. 

Neecha Nagar grabbed the prestigious ‘Palme d’Or’ at Cannes for best film. Zohra Sehgal not only acted in the film she was also the choreographer.

The film is considered Indian cinema’s first international critical success, ‘Neecha Nagar’ won the festival’s highest honor: the Palme d’Or prize.

Talking about Bollywood’s favourite Dadi, Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan was born on April 27, 1912 in Saharanpur, British India. She attended a prestigious ballet school in Dresden in Germany in her early 20s and later toured internationally with the Indian dance pioneer Uday Shankar.

Zohra Sehgal was the third among seven siblings. In various interviews, she had often described herself as a tomboy, who loved outdoor games.

Zohra Sehgal joined Uday Shanker’s troupe in 1935. She travelled across the world with the troupe for many years. She also taught at Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre at Almora for several years.

Zohra Sehgal had an illustrious international career after moving to London on a drama scholarship in 1962. She was popular in many TV shows including ‘The Jewel in the Crown’, ‘Tandoori Nights’, ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ and ‘The Raj Quartet.’

Later, she transitioned to acting and joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association in 1945. Sehgal married Kameshwar Sehgal, a Hindu, despite reluctance from her parents on August 14, 1942.

Zohra Sehgal joined Prithvi Theatre in 1945 as an actor. She earned a monthly salary of Rs 400, and toured across India with the group for the next 14 years.

Zohra Sehgal’s first movie was Dharti Ke Lal which was released in 1946. 

Zohra Sehgal also did the choreography for several Hindi films, including Guru Dutt’s Baazi (1951) and the dream sequence song in Raj Kapoor’s movie Awaara.

After Sehgal relocated to London in 1962, she made appearances in British television classics like Doctor Who and the 1984 miniseries The Jewel in the Crown. She also played a role in Bend it Like Beckham.

In the mid-1990s, Zohra Sehgal returned to India. Apart from acting in several films, plays and TV shows, she began to perform poetry. Her first performance was at a memorial to Uday Shankar organised by his brother Ravi Shankar in 1983. After that, she received several invitations, and she even travelled to Pakistan to recite verses for ‘An Evening With Zohra.’

Sehgal acted in several Hindi films like Dil Se, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Veer Zara, Cheeni Kum among others. Her vivaciousness and zest for life impressed her co-actors Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Ranbir Kapoor, and Salman Khan. She was last seen in Saawariya. 

Zora Sehgal was awarded the Padma Shri in 1998 and Kalidas Samman in 2001. In 2004, the Sangeet Natak Akademi presented her with its highest award, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship for lifetime achievement. She received the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian honour, in 2010. 

On 9 July 2014 Sehgal was admitted to the Max Hospital in South Delhi after being diagnosed with pneumonia. She breathed her last on 10 July 2014, aged 102, after suffering cardiac arrest.