Zohra Sehgal, a veteran Bollywood character actress, who was featured in such English-language films as “Bend It Like Beckham,” “The Mystic Masseur” and “Mistress of Spices” as well as Hindi hits like “Hum dil de chuke sanam,” “Kal ho naa ho” and “Cheeni Kum” died Thursday in a New Delhi hospital of a heart attack. She was 102 years old.
A favorite of helmer Gurinder Chadha, Sehgal played a censorious grandmother who later unbends in “Bhaji on the Beach,” as well as a fun-loving older relative in “Bend It Like Beckham” and “Mistress of Spices,” which was written by Chadha and directed by her husband, Paul Berges. With her charming smile and twinkling eyes, she made the perfect aged relative in film and TV.
Born Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan, the vivacious woman preferred a career over marriage at a time when that was considered revolutionary. She studied ballet in Dresden, Germany, but after meeting classical Indian dancer Uday Shankar, she became a principal dancer in his troupe in 1935 and later became a choreographer. She married a fellow dancer, Kameshwar Sehgal, over her parents’ objections (he was Hindu, she Muslim) and they had two children. Sehgal also taught at Shankar’s dance academy in Almora, Punjab, until India was partitioned in 1947 and the family moved to Bombay.
For 14 years she was part of the Prithvi Theater, run by Bollywood icon Prithivraj Kapoor. From there she segued to the Indian People’s Theater Assn., making her film debut in 1946 with “Dharti ke lal.” Her next film, Chetan Anand’s “Neecha nagar” won the Grand Prix at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival. Her last film was Sony’s “Saawariya,” directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, in 2007.
She spent 25 years in the U.K. and acted in Brit series such as “The Jewel in the Crown,” “Tandoori Nights,” “Never Say Die” and “Little Napoleans.”
The Indian government bestowed its highest arts honors, the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan on Sehgal.
Survivors include two daughters.