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One of Indian cinema’s most beloved character actresses, Zohra Sehgal, passed away in Delhi on Thursday due to a heart attack at the age of 102. She is survived by two daughters.
In her long and illustrious career, Sehgal worked with some of the biggest names in dance, theater and cinema, including Michael Caine, Ben Kingsley and Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan, to name but a few.
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Born Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan, she trained in ballet and was a principal dancer in acclaimed Indian classical dancer Uday Shankar‘s troupe, which she joined in 1935.
Defying convention, as a Muslim she married a Hindu, fellow dancer Kameshwar Sehgal, who was eight years younger than she was. She later joined the well-known Prithvi Theater in Mumbai, run by Indian cinema legend Prithviraj Kapoor.
Sehgal made her Hindi film debut with 1946’s Dharti ke Lal (Sons of the Soil). Her next film, Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (The Lower City), won the Grand Prix at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival.
She later moved to the U.K., where she spent 25 years working in various projects, including hit TV series The Jewel in the Crown, Tandoori Nights, Never Say Die and Little Napoleans. She also appeared in some episodes of Dr Who in the mid-sixties.
Her international film career included 1980s titles such as The Honorary Consul (with Caine) and Harem (with Kingsley). Some of her biggest films included the breakthrough British hit Bend It Like Beckham, directed by Gurinder Chadha, who earlier cast Sehgal in Bhaji On the Beach.
Relocating to India in the mid-1990s, she worked in mainstream Bollywood features, mostly portraying the fun-loving family elder with her characteristic mischievous smile. Some of her major films included 2007 comedy hit Cheeni Kum, in which she played mother to Bachchan. The same year she starred in Sanjay Leela Bhansali‘s Saawariya, the first Bollywood feature to be produced by a Hollywood studio (Sony Pictures). The film was also the thespian’s last big screen appearance.
Among her distinguished accolades, Sehgal was bestowed with the Indian government’s top arts honors, including the Padma Vibhushan.
In 2012, when she turned 100, Sehgal was quoted as saying, “If they tell you that I am dead, I want you to give a big laugh.”
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