Tribute

Flashback: Zohra Sehgal was the mother of all screen grandmothers

In movie after movie, the dancer and stage actress played a matriarch as charming as she is crusty.

Almost as old as Indian cinema itself, Zohra Sehgal had a career in dance, theatre and cinema that lasted seven decades. Sehgal, who died on July 10, 2014, at the age of 102, was trained in modern dance in Germany and under Uday Shankar and appeared in several noteworthy stage productions. Her career spanned Indian arthouse cinema and British Raj-era nostalgia television, but most Indians know her as the impish grandmother who is easily horrified by the antics of the young.

In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya (2007), Sehgal is Lillian, a landlady who is picky about her tenants but allows Ranbir Kapoor’s character Raj to stay with her as he reminds her of her dead son. Sehgal was 95 when she appeared in Saawariya, and it was her last role. Sehgal’s casting is no coincidence: the film makes references to the legendary romance between Raj Kapoor, Ranbir Kapoor’s grandfather, and his co-star Nargis. Sehgal had acted in several plays directed by Prithivraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor’s father.

Sehgal was born Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan on April 27, 1912. Her sister was the renowned theatre personality Uzra Butt. Sehgal envied her sister’s fame and attractiveness, says Sehgal’s daughter Kiran Segal in the biography Zohra Sehgal: Fatty. Because of this complex, Zohra Sehgal “tried very hard to be charming and attract attention”.

Butt migrated to Pakistan in 1964, and was reunited with her sister on the stage for Shahid Nadeem’s popular play Ek Thi Nani. In 1993 in Lahore, Sehgal and Butt played fictional versions of themselves – sisters separated by the Partition.

After the acclaim accorded to Ek Thi Nani, Sehgal became the go-to actress to play curmudgeonly yet loving grandmothers. She often went by the title “Bebe”, which is Punjabi for mother or grandmother, and her credits in the 1990s include Bhaji on the Beach (1993), Dil Se (1998), Dillagi (1999) and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999).

In Bhaji on the Beach, directed by Gurinder Chadha, Sehgal’s character Pushpa is initially disapproving and cranky but ends up frolicking on a beach despite being deemed too old for it. Chadha, who cast Sehgal again in her film Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and her production The Mistress of Spices (2005), said about Sehgal in an interview that “never was there an actress who enjoyed plying her trade with such fun and commitment”.

In Dillagi, Sehgal has a substantial role as the grandmother of brothers played by Sunny Deol and Bobby Deol, and she even shakes a leg in a song.

Play
Dhoom Dhoom Luck Luck in Dillagi (1999).

In Dil Se, Sehgal is the one who extracts a promise out of Shah Rukh Khan’s character to get married, while in Veer-Zaara (2004), she is a loving governess to Preity Zinta’s heroine. Sehgal’s stock in trade included a twinkle in her eye and witty quips, and her characters added a comic flavor to the narrative. One of the best uses of her mixture of crustiness and charm is in R Balki’s Cheeni Kum (2007), in which she plays Amitabh Bachchan’s mother.

Zohra Sehgal and Amitabh Bachchan in Cheeni Kum (2007).
Zohra Sehgal and Amitabh Bachchan in Cheeni Kum (2007).
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

The quirks and perks of travelling with your hard to impress mom

We must admit that the jar of pickle always comes in handy.

A year ago, Priyanka, a 26-year-old banking professional, was packing her light-weight duffel bag for an upcoming international trip. Keen to explore the place, she wanted to travel light and fuss free. It was not meant to be. For Priyanka was travelling with her mother, and that meant carrying at least two extra suitcases packed with odds and ends for any eventuality just short of a nuclear war.

Bothered by the extra suitcases that she had to lug around full of snacks and back-up woollens, Priyanka grew frustrated with her mother. However, one day, while out for some sight-seeing Priyanka and her family were famished but there were no decent restaurants in sight. That’s when her mum’s ‘food bag’ came to the rescue. Full of juice boxes, biscuits and sandwiches, her mother had remembered to pack snacks from the hotel for their day out. Towards the end of the trip, Priyanka was grateful to her mother for all her arrangements, especially the extra bag she carried for Priyanka’s shopping.

Priyanka’s story isn’t an isolated one. We spoke to many people about their mother’s travel quirks and habits and weren’t surprised at some of the themes that were consistent across all the travel memoirs.

Indian mothers are always prepared

“My mom keeps the packed suitcases in the hallway one day before our flight date. She will carry multiple print-outs of the flight tickets because she doesn’t trust smartphone batteries. She also never forgets to carry a medical kit for all sorts of illnesses and allergies”, says Shruti, a 27-year-old professional. When asked if the medical kit was helpful during the trip, she answered “All the time”, in a tone that marvelled at her mother’s clairvoyance.

Some of the many things a mother packs in her travel bags. Source: Google Images
Some of the many things a mother packs in her travel bags. Source: Google Images

Indian mothers love to feel at home, and create the same experience for their family, wherever they are

“My mother has a very strange idea of the kind of food you get in foreign lands, so she always packs multiple packets of khakra and poha for our trips. She also has a habit of carrying her favourite teabags to last the entire trip”, relates Kanchan, a marketing professional who is a frequent international flier often accompanied by her mother. Kanchan’s mother, who is very choosy about her tea, was therefore delighted when she was served a hot cup of garam chai on her recent flight to Frankfurt. She is just like many Indian mothers who love to be reminded of home wherever they are and often strive to organise their hotel rooms to give them the coziness of a home.

Most importantly, Indian mothers are tough, especially when it comes to food

Take for instance, the case of Piyush, who recalls, “We went to this fine dining restaurant and my mother kept quizzing the waiter about the ingredients and the method of preparation of a dish. She believed that once she understood the technique, she would be able to make a better version of the dish just so she could pamper me!”

Indian mothers are extremely particular about food – from the way its cooked, to the way it smells and tastes. Foreign delicacies are only allowed to be consumed if they fulfil all the criteria set by Mom i.e. is it good enough for my children to consume?

An approval from an Indian mother is a testament to great quality and great taste. In recognition of the discerning nature of an Indian mum and as a part of their ‘More Indian Than You Think’ commitment, Lufthansa has tailored their in-flight experiences to surpass even her exacting standards. Greeted with a namaste and served by an Indian crew, the passengers feel right at home as they relish the authentic Indian meals and unwind with a cup of garam chai, the perfect accompaniment to go with a variety of Indian entertainment available in the flight. As Lufthansa’s in-flight offerings show, a big part of the brand is inherently Indian because of its relationship with the country spanning over decades.

To see how Lufthansa has internalised the Indian spirit and become the airline of choice for flyers looking for a great Indian experience, watch the video below.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.