As she turned 100, the indomitable Zohra Sehgal was surprised when one of the guests at her birthday bash asked her if she wanted tea. The grand dame of Indian theatre and cinema smiled and enquired about the whereabouts of her whiskey. For someone who started her career in the 1930s while touring with Uday Shankar’s troupe and worked for over a decade with Prithviraj Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatres besides featuring in epoch-making films such as Bhaji on the Beach, Sehgal gained greater cultural significance over time. What is fascinating about Sehgal’s life is how despite being associated with some of the biggest names in the business, she rarely marched to someone else’s beat.
Even with names such as Aawara and Baazi— Sehgal choreographed the dream sequence in ‘Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi’ and ‘Tadbeer se bigdi hui’— she only became ‘mainstream’ in the early 1990s with the TV series Mulla Nasruddin. Her later career is made of great moments that have been etched in the viewers’ minds, and such was its impact that even with relatively smaller parts, she became a conscious part of India’s cultural heritage.
Those who followed Sehgal’s career or read her autobiography, Close-Up: Memoirs of a Life on Stage and Screen, might approach Ritu Menon’s Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts with some hesitation. The panache with which Sehgal penned her account in Close-up somewhere gives a sense that there isn’t much left to know about the legendary artist.
While on the one hand, the notion isn’t entirely incorrect, on the other hand, it would be a gross injustice to view Menon’s book in its shadow. Menon offers an intriguing perspective and, more importantly, manages to fill some of the blanks, especially about Sehgal’s approach to her craft. Sehgal’s interaction with the outstanding Prithviraj Kapoor and her ability to reinvent herself with ease and flair endeared her to her colleagues and generations of filmmakers ranging from Chetan Anand to Gurinder Chadha. From an early stage in her life, everything Sehgal did was an adventure.
Her decision to drive from Dehradun to England, joining Uday Shankar’s troupe as a replacement and touring between 1935-40, deciding to shift to London and then coming to terms with her husband’s death, Sehgal’s joie de vivre separated her from the rest. As an artist, Sehgal’s questions to herself were bereft of the somewhat overbearing sense of self that engulfs most artists.
In Close-up, Sehgal described how she found her communist-leaning IPTA colleagues at a loss of sorts after Independence as they didn’t have an enemy to rebel against. Ritu Menon’s Zohra!... does an excellent service to the spirit of Zohra Sehgal. Its biggest achievement is how you get a sense of how Zohra Sehgal felt young and lived long till the age of 102 and passed away in 2014.
Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts
By: Ritu Menon
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Price: Rs 599