Zohra Sehgal started her career with Ranbir’s great grandfather Prithiviraj Kapoor in Prithvi Theatres. She had known four generations of the Kapoors… from Prithviraj Kapoor to Raj Kapoor to Rishi Kapoor and now Ranbir. It’s unheard of in showbiz.
The unanimous verdict on Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s breathtaking set of Hum…Dil De Chuke Sanam and Saawariya was , no one can match Zohra’s energy level.Bhansali could think of no one except her for a particular role in Saawariya.But there was a kind of hesitation within Bhansali : Zohra Sehgal was 94. But all of Bhansali’s doubts were dispelled once she came on the sets.
To call Zohraji a livewire would be an understatement.She was the life and soul on the sets.. Zohraji had the most amazing memory. She remembered every single incident from her life. On the sets she came up with the most amazing suggestions.
Bhansali’s experience of working with Zohra Sehgal in the two films he did with her, would remain with him until his end. Bhansali calls her aa miracle woman. A legend beyond explanation. And look at her range! In Hum… Dil De Chuke Sanam Bhansali put her in a Gujarati Ghagra-choli. In Saawariya she wore a Catholic dress.She could create her own universe for each character without going into too much background detail.
Bhansali is the only contemporary director who had the privilege of working in two films with Zohra. Both the films Hum… Dil De Chuke Sanam(HDDCS) and Saawariya were made memorable by her presence on the sets.He describes his experience of working with Zohra as timeless, just like the lady herself.
Although there was a decade-long gap between Hum… Dil De Chuke Sanam and Saawariya, she had not aged one bit in those ten years…not a single extra wrinkle, not one extra grey hair!!! She was a miracle woman!At 94, when she worked with Bhansali in Saawariya, Zohra was still the sprightly gamine with dancing eyes. Her sheer zest for life and her understanding of the movie camera made all of Bhansali’s team look like film students in front of her.
When Ranbir Kapoor and Bhansali went to pick her up at the airport when she arrived to shoot for Saawariya she looked at Ranbir and said, ‘Do you know I’ve worked opposite your great-grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor and your grandfather Raj Kapoor? You’re the third generation of Kapoors I’m working with.’
Zohra had come laden to Mumbai with her pictures with Prithviraj Saab and Raj Saab to prove her point to Ranbir. From the first day she insisted on calling him ‘ Ranbir Raj.’ They were the two youngest people on the sets. Zohraji’s energy on the sets of Saawariya was motivational. All of the crew would be dead tired by evening. But at 6 pm Zohraji would grandly announce, ‘Let’s have a glass of wine before we got back to work.’
She loved her role because for the first time she played a Catholic character in Saawariya. She got a chance to wear her hair stylishly, put on Western clothes and she specially loved the crimson lipstick. Once she had those in place she was in full form. There was a scene where she insisted on singing an English-language song for Ranbir? The song was her own. It was something she remembered from the past. And what a memory she had!
At 94 she remembered not just all her own dialogues, but every single dialogue of every character in Saawariya. In fact when Bhansali had picked her up from the airport for the first time she rattled off all her lines and then all the lines of all the other characters and warned him, ‘Don’t you dare change one line.’ On the sets if anyone forgot his or her lines Zohraji prompted the actor.
Zohra Sehgal’s exuberance was infectious. She had started her career with Uday Shankar’s dance troupe and had played a part in Uday’s dance ballet Kalpana..
When Bhansali wanted her to play Aishwarya Rai’s blind old but jovial and zesty grandmother in Hum… Dil De Chuke Sanam and Zohraji agreed Bhansali was besides himself with joy. She was 84 at that time. But she brought to the sets the energy level of a 19-year old. That Bhavai song Suno suno that she sings with Aishwarya and the rest of the Gujju family in HDDCS , Zohraji managed it in one take.
She was temperamental in a very positive way. While some actors throw their weight around to feel important, she raged when she saw incompetence, mediocrity or compromise on the sets. At 84 in Hum….Dil De Chuke Sanam she was such a strong woman that when in a scene she had to playfully pull Salman and Aishwarya’s ears their ears went red. They asked Bhansali in a whisper if he could ask Zohraji not to put so much strength into her ear-pulling.
But Bhansali didn’t have the guts to correct her. No one told Zohraji what to do. She was a free spirit. She was accompanied by her granddaughter on the sets. But she didn’t need any help. She did everything on her own.