Sanjay Leela Bhansali pays a tribute to the spirited 100 year old grand lady of the performing arts:
"I think I’m the only contemporary director who has the privilege of working in two films with Zohraji.
And both the films ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ (HDDCS) and Saawariya were made memorable by her presence on the sets. Everything else will fade. But my experience of working with Zohraji is timeless, just like the lady herself. And that reminds me, though me there was a decade-long gap between ‘HDDCS’ and ‘Saawariya’ she had not aged one bit in those ten years…not a single extra winkle, not one extra grey hair!!! She is a miracle woman!
At 94 when she worked with me in ‘Saawariya’, Zohraji was still the sprightly gamine with dancing eyes. Her sheer zest for life and her understanding of the movie camera made all of us look like film students in front of her….I remember when Ranbir Kapoor and I went to pick her 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.’ I don’t know how she missed out working with Randhir and Rishi Kapoor.
She 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 the sets. I swear I felt old watching Zohraji’s energy on the sets of Saawariya. All of us 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. Do you remember that scene where she insists 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 has!
At 94 she remembered not just all her own dialogues, but every single dialogue of every character in Saawariya and earlier in HDDCS.
In fact I remember when I 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 me, ‘Don’t you dare change one line.’ On the sets if anyone forgot his or her lines, guess who promptly piped in with the correct lines??!!
Zohraji’s exuberance is infectious. The power and the magnetism in her eyes are still with me. I wanted to work with her for the longest. She had started her career with Uday Shankar’s dance troupe and had played a part in Udayji’s dance ballet ‘Kalpana’.
I wanted her to play Aishwarya Rai’s blind old but jovial and zesty grandmother in HDDCS. When Zohraji agreed I was besides myself with joy. She was 84 at that time. But she brought to the sets the energy level of a 19-year old. I remember an incident where one of my assistants asked her to look toward the characters and react.
She snarled back, ‘How can I LOOK at someone when I’m blind?’ She remained in character throughout. 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’s temperamental in a very positive way. While some actors throw their weight around to feel important, she rages when she sees incompetence, mediocrity or compromise on the sets. At 84 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 me in a whisper if I could ask Zohraji not to put so much strength into her ear-pulling. But I didn’t have the guts to correct her. No one tells Zohraji what to do. She is a free spirit. I’d often see her with her grand daughter on the sets. But she didn’t need any help. She did everything on her own. Once she had some female relatives over from Pakistan. She giggled and laughed and whooped it up like Sonam Kapoor would with her friends….My experience of working with Zohraji in the two films I did with her, would remain with me until I die. She is a miracle woman.
A legend beyond explanation. And look at her range! In HDDCS I 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. Yes, I certainly hope to complete a hat-trick of films with Zohra Sehgal by doing one film with her. I suspect she will out-live us all."