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article imageRemembering legendary actor Zohra Sehgal, dead at 102

By Mathew Wace Peck     Jul 14, 2014 in World
The acclaimed Indian actor Zohra Sehgal, one of the best known faces of Indian television, cinema and theatre, who starred in dozens of films and TV dramas in her home country and in the UK, has died. She was 102.
According to the Independent, she died at a hospital in Delhi on Thursday, July 10. The 102-year-old had been admitted to South Deli’s Max Hospital the day before.
“She died of a cardiac arrest,” her daughter Kiran Sehgal confirmed. “She was unwell for last three-four days.”
Tributes to the actor were led by the recently elected Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who posted on Twitter: “Prolific & full of life, Zohra Sehgal made a mark through her acting, which is admired across generations. Saddened on her demise.”
From Saharanpur to London
Born in India in 1912, in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh state, Zohra Sehgal was the third of seven children. She decided to become a performer after completing an education at Lahore’s Queen Mary's Girls College.
Two years ago, she celebrated her hundredth birthday with the publication of a biography about her life. The book represents a pictorial monogram of her life, and was written by Sehgal’s daughter, Kiran.
At the time, Sehgal explained the significance of the word “Fatty” in book’s title, Zohra Sehgal: Fatty — “Fatty” was an endearment used by her to describe her “weight-conscious mother [who was] very particular about her figure like a 16-year-old starlet.”
Many members of the actor’s extended family had joined the centenarian’s birthday celebrations, to whom she joked, “Ao, ao, yeh mauka aur nahin milega [Come, come, you will not get this opportunity again].”
Zohra Sehgal (front left)  part of Uday Shankar Ballet (c. 1935–7)
Zohra Sehgal (front left), part of Uday Shankar Ballet (c. 1935–7)
In 2012, in an interview with the Hindustan Times, she described how, as a young woman, in order to fulfil her ambition to train as an actor, “she travelled with one of her uncles to England by road ‘in an old Dodge car through Afghanistan and Iran.’
Previously, Dispatch News Desk reports, following the death of her husband in 1959, Sehgal had moved to Delhi, to become director of the newly founded Natya Academy.
However, in 1962, she travelled to London to take up a drama scholarship. In detail, she said, “I sat in the front with my uncle. A young man sat at the back.” Once in Egypt, she caught a boat to Europe and then on to the UK. That was in 1962, when she arrived in London on a drama scholarship.
Then, in 1963, in Chelsea, in the British capital, she took up a post as a teacher “in the ‘Uday Shankar style’ of dance at [the] Ram Gopal School of Dance, set up by the India-born Bharatnatyam dancer, Ram Gopal.
In the 90s, at the age of 80, Sehgal returned to India, where she continued acting until the age of 95. However, she also continued working in British cinema, too.
British career
Her first role on UK television was in The Rescue of Pluffles, a BBC adaptation of a the Rudyard Kipling story.
She’s probably best known to British audiences for playing Lady Chatterjee in ITV’s lavish 1984 serial of The Jewel in the Crown. However, in the seventies, she anchored 26 episodes of the BBC TV series, Padosi (Neighbours). Other British TV appearances included in the 1970's sitcom Mind Your Language and, from 1985 to 1987, Tandoori Nights.
Cast in the 1982 in Merchant Ivory’s The Courtesans of Bombay, Sehgal went on to appear many more British movies, including, with a young Daniel Day-Lewis in Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette, Meera Syal’s Bhaji on the Beach (1992), Merchant Ivory’s The Mystic Masseur (2001), the 2002 films Bend It Like Beckham, with Parminder Nagra and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Anita and Me, again from Meera Syal.
From Saharanpur to Gallifrey
According to Doctor Who News, Sehgal also holds the record of being “the longest lived actress ever to appear in Doctor Who” and the first of just two centenarians (the other being Olaf Pooley, who became 100 in March this year) from the show. She appeared in two Doctor Who serials — 1964’s Marco Polo (1964) and, in 1965, as Sheyrah, in The Crusade — both opposite the First Doctor (William Hartnell).
In India, the woman many called the ‘Grand Old Lady of Bollywood’ starred in many Bollywood films, including her 1946 film debut, Dharti Ke Lal, Neecha Nagar, Afsar (1946) Dil Se.. (1998), Chalo Ishq Ladaaye (2002) and, at the age of 94, Cheeni Kum (2007). The last film she featured in, also in 2007, was Saawariya. According to BBC News, two of her most popular Hindi films were the aforementioned Dil Se.. (which translates as From the Heart) and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (I Have Given My Heart, Darling).
She also starred in Veer Zara (2004) and, what was her second movie, Neecha Nagar, the first-ever Indian film to gain critical international recognition, winning the Palme d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Also an accomplished stage actor, Sehgal was considered the doyenne of Indian theatre and was long associated with IPTA (the the Indian People’s Theatre Association), which dominated the Indian cultural scene in the 1940s, and Prithviraj Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatre.
In 1993, she appeared in Lahore, alongside her sister, Uzra Butt, in the critically acclaimed play Ek Thi Nani. In 2001, an English-language version of the play, A Granny for All Seasons, was performed in the US, at UCLA.
Sehgal — who was born into a Muslim family and married a Hindu but described herself as an atheist and agnostic — celebrated her 102nd birthday in April this year, when, speaking of the future, she said in typical jokey fashion:
I am preparing myself for death. When I go to sleep, I try to keep myself smiling. So that when I die, I have a smile on my lips. I want an electric cremation. I don’t want any poems or fuss after that. And for heaven’s sake, don't bring back my ashes. Flush them down the toilet if the crematorium refuses to keep them. If they tell you that I am dead, I want you to give a big laugh.
Seghal was a keen supporter of SAHMAT – the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust – which was set up in honour of Safdar Hashmi, the actor, playwright and street theatre activist who was murdered in 1989.
During her lifetime, she was the recipient of many Indian awards. These included the Padma Shri, which she received in 1998, the Kalidas Samman (2001), the Sangeet Natak Akademi (2004) and, in 2010, the country’s second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan (2010). Also, in 2008, at the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF)-Laadli Media Awards, held in New Delhi, she was named “Laadli of the Century”.
Zohra Seghal was cremated on Friday, July 11, at Lodhi Road crematorium in the Indian capital, Delhi. Her husband, Kameshwar Sehgal, having died in 1959, she is survived by two children: a daughter, the aforementioned Kiran, and a son, Pavan Sehgal, who works for the World Health Organisation.
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