I first saw Zohra Sehgal on screen as Mrs. Singh on a re-run of ITV’s Mind Your Language. She played the role of Ranjeet Singh’s mother, a role she perfected over time and played repeatedly in several movies.
Her journey started in Saharanpur and took her to Lahore, then the UK and back to India. Over her 102 years of existence she perfected the art of theatre and dance, and performed with some of the greatest actors, actresses and performers of her time. She continued to appear on screen well into her 90s.
The thing that always struck me about her, as clichéd as that sounds, was her youthfulness. Over time, and with age, she graduated playing a mother to a grandmother. She always added her flare of naughty, the old lady who would make inappropriate jokes, the kind that Khushwant Singh would make.
There was always a spark in her eyes. Always. It was a spark, which exuded youthfulness and experience at the same time. I don’t remember not seeing her smiling at any time.
When I think of Zohra Ji, I think of her determination, her talent, her smile and a reminder that age is just a number.
Here’s an excerpt from a conversation between her and Khushwant Singh
“Khushwant Singh: Now tell me. We’re both approaching the day. Have you thought about death?
Zohra Sehgal: I am preparing myself for that. When I go to sleep, I try to keep myself smiling. So that when I die, I have a smile on my lips. And I want 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. I tell all, if they tell you Ammi is dead, or my friends, ki Zohraji mar gayi, I want you to give a big laugh. Think about the funny things. My funny face.”
Keep Smiling Zohra Ji, we will always remember your funny face.