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NEW DELHI: In Saeed Mirza’s less discussed movie Naseem, poet Kaifi Azmi, who plays the idealistic grandfather of a doting Muslim girl, dies on the day the Babri Masjid is demolished. Acting legend Zohra Sehgal closed her eyes on Thursday, passing away at 102 shortly after the Narendra Modi government presented its first budget. She was his ardent critic.

Sehgal, who spent her last few years reviving progressive culture, liked often to recite Faiz Ahmed Faiz and a few other leftist poets to nudge her fawning audiences to fight the fight. However, she didn’t die grieving at the apparent failure of her comrades to tackle the resurgence of rightwing religious zealotry in India.

“I am preparing myself for that. When I go to sleep, I try to keep myself smiling,” she told the late writer Khushwant Singh in a memorable discussion shortly before his death recently. “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 Zohraji is dead, I want you to give a big laugh. Think about the funny things. My funny face.”

Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan was born on the April 27, 1912 in a traditional Muslim family in Sahranpur, Uttar Pradesh, and was sent to Lahore to pursue her higher education. Her journey from India to Pakistan and back again, encapsulated the entire Indian freedom struggle. She was a witness to the partition and it pained her a lot, she said.

Zohra ‘s sister Uzra Butt was a leading lady with Prithvi Theatre run by Prithviraj Kapoor. Though trained in ballet, she said: “Ballet was difficult at the beginning, but I wanted to learn it.” She started off her journey with Uday Shankar’s dance troupe and completed over eight decades of her journey in the industry.

She fell in love with Kameshwar Sehgal, a scientist, but his penchant for art is what brought them close. The Hindu boy from Indore, was eight years younger than Zohra. Reluctant to get married, Zohra took time to realise she couldn’t live without Kameshwar. Marriage was imminent. In the year 1942, as India fought the Quit India movement, the couple tied the knot. However, their togetherness was short lived. After Kameshwars’s death in 1952, Zohra knew she had to raise her kids by herself.

According to some accounts, travelling to England to pursue her acting career was a choice that was the most sensible decision she made in her life. The Raj Quartet, The Jewel in the Crown, Tandoori Nights, My Beautiful Laundrette etc. came along.

Over the last few years, she dabbled in numerous Bollywood movies too. Her performances in ‘Cheeni Kum’ alongside Amitabh Bachchan, ‘Dil se’ alongside Shahrukh Khan and Manisha Koirala, ‘Veer-Zara’, ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’, ‘Dillagi’, ‘Bend it Like Beckham’, ‘Sawariya’ and many more, were widely appreciated. Zohra, though approached for a slew of films even later, decided she had to stop; after all she was ageing.

“If you’re reborn, will you be reborn at age 92, or will you be reborn beautiful, in your 20s?” Khushwant Singh asked her “I will be reborn blue-eyed, blonde, 36-26-36 and five feet four,” replied Zohra Sehgal. Her funeral is planned at 11 am on Friday at the Lodi Road Crematorium in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2014