In the film business for over 70 years, the amazing Zohra Sehgal is still acting and still loving every minute of it. What many don’t know is that she turned 96 just 20 days ago. She recently sat down with Anuradha SenGupta of CNN-IBN to talk about life, dance, and of course acting. Here are some highlights from that incredible interview.
You perhaps remember Zohra as Kajol’s grandmother in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and just last year audiences and critics alike praised her performances as Lillypop in Saawariya and as Mrs. Gupta in Cheeni Kum. Though she is not working as much as she was before Zohra still takes roles that interest her and still loves being in front of the camera, “Of course I do. Acting is the only thing I enjoy apart from kissing my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.”
In her illustrious career she has done a myriad a roles, some good, some bad and made the most of them. She explained, “I have hardly ever refused a role. If I get a bad role, I take it up and work on it. Even when I was working with Balki, or as I call him Balti in Cheeni Kum, he had certain ideas, which I felt, didn’t go with the character.
For instance, he wanted me to do a high-five with Tabu, so I said that a character of that age would not do a high-five but instead would gently hold Tabu’s chin and compliment her on her beauty. And even with the dialogues, if there were a word of Urdu, which is incorrect, I would correct it. So he listened to all my suggestions. But of course my role in Cheeni Kum is just lovely and I really enjoyed portraying it.”
So how does she decide which role to take? “First I look at the whole story and then I look at my part. Then I analyse, how much importance does my role have, as I’m a person who loves to be at the centre stage. And I have to be careful about the fact that I’m a great show off. When I was doing Bhaji on the Beach with Gurinder Chadha, I told her that I’m very capable of going over the top so please pull me back and she told me not to worry. So I tell myself the importance of my character. Then I copy my dialogues to my register and memorise them.”
The actress mentioned two roles that she really liked portraying, one was with Govinda and one was in a play in England. “What I really enjoyed was doing a silly film here in Bollywood called Chalo Ishq Ladaaye in which I slapped Govinda every five minutes and in which I rode a motorbike. That was the most enjoyable film. And on the stage in England I did a film as a Chinese because I look very Chinese; in Primary English Class with Orange Tree Theatre. It was so successful that it came to the Westend and played at the Windom. So these were the two roles I really enjoyed doing.”
Besides acting Zohra was also a trained dancer who performed professionally with Uday Shankar and then went on to teach. However she says she was a “hopeless dancer”. “As they say that in youth and moonlight, a female donkey can also look beautiful, but I was graceful and I had a certain charm. However, if there is anything I can vouch for it’s the fact that I’m a very good dance teacher.”
About her skill at acting though she replied, “Well, as far as acting is concerned I’m not bad. I would say the good thing in me is that I can do both comedy and tragedy. But to do tragedy you have to shed real tears or else nobody is going to believe you. However to play comedy you must laugh from the heart otherwise there will be no laughter. So there should be an unsealed emotion in an actor.”
Many an actor nowadays uses glycerine to make their tears but with Zohra her crying is all-real. “I would complete 73 years in non-stop showbiz on August 8 2009 and if I can’t even cry or laugh on cue then I should be slapped. One should practice till they get it perfect.”
Zohra credits Prithvi Raj for her much of her skill in her craft. She began training with him in 1947 and continued working with him for the next 14 years. “If you like my work today or praise my work, it’s all thanks to Prithvi Raj. He never took any classes, but I learned just by watching him day and night for 14 years. Not only did he give me the voice and the art of natural acting but he also gave me a way of life,” she explained.
Adding, “I have yet to find a better actor than Prithvi Raj on stage. I’ve got different views on screen but on stage no one can match up to him. He used to have the pulse of his audience on his fingertips. He used to sink into any role he pursued. He had brilliant emotions. He always quoted this Persian saying, ‘In myself I’m nothing, I’m just a handful of mud which has bathed in fragrant oils and perfumes and have retained the fragrance.’ So I would say I have retained a little bit of his fragrance in me.”
Zohra always thought herself no great beauty, in fact, she says she was always plain and because of that had to have something extra to make her way in the acting world. “Prithvi Raj Kapoor used to say that when an actor enters the stage and if they are good looking they’ve won half the battle, meaning they’ve got 50 plus. If you see a beautiful woman or a handsome man entering the stage your eyes automatically brighten up. I had to start from a minus 50, so I had to make up for my plain looks.”
When asked: “How would you describe Zohra Sehgal today?” She replied, “One day I woke up and thought to myself, I’m not a very nice person. I swear as I thought about all that I’ve done and said I’m not a very nice person. Then I laughed and said guzzar gayi guzran, kya jhopdi kya medaan, chalo nikle. I’m grateful that my image hasn’t been tarnished and that in spite of so many surgeries my health is fine. I can walk on my own and with a little support and I can climb the stairs without any problems. I love Bloody Mary and I’m very fond of drinking but when I was in England for 25 years I never bought or kept any alcohol in my flat as this is one thing that is highly addictive and one just needs any excuse to drink, so I’ve been very careful in life.”
Finally Anuradha SenGupta said, “Zohra Sehgal you have constantly said that you were not good looking and I was very plain looking, but let me tell you, you are memorable and I think that is what you wanted all you’re life isn’t it?” To which Zohra replied, “Yes, thank you Anuradha, you have figured me out correctly.”
Each one of Zohra’s films is certainly memorable to us. We applaud her spirit, her performances and hope to see her in more films to come!