Age has not weakened her resolve (to act) nor diminished her zest for life. Zohra Segal, the grand old lady of Indo-English cinema, is 95, but she is as active and charming as ever, says Nilima Pathak.
What do you ask a legendary 95-year-old actress as you seat yourself across her and she looks at you with her famous naughty-child smile? To get the conversation going I decide to ask her the most obvious question: what's been her most cherished unfulfilled desire in these 95 years?
"I want to be a tall, fair, blonde with blue eyes and have a svelte model-like figure," she replies, her bemused expression not sliding off her face even by a fraction of a millimetre.
Her response is not quite the truth. The truth is, Zohra Segal cherishes nothing more than simply being herself. Recently, a Delhi-based magazine published the names of the 10 Most Beautiful Women in Delhi. The list included 95-year-old Zohra Segal.
If you talk of women's emancipation, Segal's life is a sterling example. A great-grandmother today, she continues to remain fiercely independent, is enjoying an astonishingly successful reprisal of her career in Hindi cinema and in person she exudes the kind of youthfulness that can only have been formulated in a generation that was hers to rule. Her charm and wit are not just intact, they seem to have acquired a patina that's of an indescribably beautiful shade.
In her extraordinarily busy life, Zohra Segal has been many things at different points in life – dancer, stage actor, film star, radio artist, lecturer and poetry reader. Time and again, she gives poetry recitations on stage in Delhi.
But in the recent years, Hindi movie audiences have seen her play a medley of delightfully wicked roles, in all shades of intractability possible. (But beneath the intractable nature lies a heart of gold.) Watching Zohra Segal on screen is like biting into a piece of luxurious limited edition dark chocolate. Your serotonin levels get a real boost.
Much before she became a Hindi film actor, Zohra was a theatre personality of great fame. "What one learns on the stage is vast, as the training is so thorough. It is like, if you had a saree, you could make several handkerchieves from it. But you cannot make a saree from a handkerchief," she says, referring to her many decades of stage experience.
Her face still holds all the clues to the gutsy character she was in her youth. Age has morphed that into a kind of nonagenarian charm and dignity that's hard to find these days. Talking of the times when she turned heads with her peerless self-confidence, she recalls Prithviraj Kapoor's comments during her stint at the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai: "Prithviraj Kapoor, whom we fondly referred to as Papaji, would say that when a good-looking artiste appeared on stage, he/she developed an instant rapport with the audience. But in my case, I think, I had to start with -50 points." Is she serious!?
Zohra lives in Delhi with her daughter, Kiran, an accomplished Odissi dancer. "But my mindset and daily rituals can be quite irritating to others as they feel I am quite fussy," she says of her daily lifestyle." She wakes up at 8 in the morning, has a half-hour exercise routine and even goes up and down the stairs inside the house. "I also like to keep myself abreast with current affairs and read the newspaper and attempt the crossword. It's good for the memory; one learns new words." Not surprisingly, she has an excellent memory. Which probably explains the felicity with which she delivers lengthy dialogues on screen.
Zohra's life evokes interest for various reasons. The most crucial being her decision during the early 1930s of following her dreams and taking up acting and dance as a career. "Such decisions were unheard of those days, but I not only pursued my goals I also succeeded in garnering my family's support. Dance those days was not considered a respectable career choice for girls. But nothing could stop me. I was not only a rebel, I was also used to having my way always."
The long and short of it
Zohra was born on April 27, 1912, in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh in present-day India. "My full name is Sahebzadi Zohra Begum Mumtazullah Khan, the last two names being my father's full name. In 1930, when I went to Germany, the official at the airport had a tough time pronouncing my name. In fact, at that time, wherever I went, I faced the same problem. My name was simply too long. I was once asked at an airport, 'What is your actual name?' Tired of explaining to people all the time, I got my name changed to Zohra Mumtaz."
Her parents did not object.
Her parents, says Zohra, have had a great role to play in her life. "I learnt a lot from my father. He was disciplined, a stickler for punctuality and a very warm-hearted man. But he did not easily reveal his emotions. He had his own quiet way of doing things. I remember how my teachers would throw him admiring glances every time he visited me at school (he was a good-looking man after all!)
"My mother was very supportive, especially of all her daughters and wanted us to do well in our studies."
Zohra is one of seven children. The others are brothers Zakaullah and Ikramullah, and sisters Hajrah, Uzra, Amina and Sabra. Their mother died in 1920 at the age of 30 after her youngest daughter, Sabra, was born. Zohra was devastated by her death. "Several years after her death, I realised that my mother was herself quite ahead of her times and used to write articles for a Lahore-based magazine, Khatoon," Zohra informs.
A year before her death, Zohra and her elder sister Hajrah had been sent to a boarding school, Queen Mary's College, in Lahore. Eventually, all five sisters studied there.
At school Zohra remembers having participated in a play, Jack and the Beanstalk, after which a teacher remarked that she was good at acting. The remark sowed the seed. She wrote to her father regularly and often mentioned that after school, she would like to pursue a career and not get married. She finished school in 1929.
Soon after she was deluged with marriage proposals but a) she was not interested in getting married at the time and b) her parents did not force her to do so either. Her greatest supporter in this matter was her uncle Dr Sahebzada Saiduzzafar Khan, who, incidentally, was the person to name her Zohra.
"An extremely broadminded person, he introduced Western cultural influences to our family. He had rebelled against his own father who did not want to send him abroad to study. So he ran away (from home) to Mumbai and sold off his engagement ring. With that money he bought his passage by ship to England. Upon reaching England, he sent a telegram home (to Rampur in Uttar Pradesh) saying he had no intentions of returning till he finished his studies to become a doctor."
Trained as a surgeon in Edinburgh, he returned to India and was the first Indian to be the principal of the Lucknow Medical College. He later settled down in Dehradun. Even though he had a son and daughter, Zohra continued to be his favourite child.
When he planned a trip to Europe by road from Dehradun, it was but natural that Zohra would accompany him. He was aware that his niece was nursing an ambition to be a stage actor. Isadora Duncan's autobiography, My Life, had had a deep impact on her and she had decided to become a dancer of renown. So it was decided she should go to Germany to join a dance school.
"After travelling for four months, we reached Dresden in January 1931 and explored several dance schools and finally opted for the Mary Wigman Tanz Schule." At the dance school, training was rigorous and Zohra spent almost 12 hours daily dancing and exercising. Two years later, training done, she was back in Mumbai, clueless about her future. It was at the time that she was offered the post of a dance teacher at Queen Mary's College in Lahore (her alma mater). Zohra accepted and proceeded to Lahore. Her classes were termed as 'musical drill' sessions, as the term 'dance class' was not considered respectable. In addition, she was given some administrative work to do as well.
Somewhere along her newly-established career as a dance teacher Zohra's attention shifted to acting. Since everyone in the family knew of her new ambition by then, they kept her posted about the dance and drama activities in their respective cities. In 1935, her brother sent her a cutting of an advertisement by Uday Shankar inviting girls and boys to join his troupe. She met Uday Shankar and expressed a desire to join his company.
Recalling the meeting, Zohra says, "He asked me to leave my address behind, which I did. But I presumed it was his way of politely rejecting my wish. With no hope of hearing from him, I booked a passage to Japan for my summer holidays. But prior to going on the holiday, I decided to visit my father at Pauri, a hill station in Garhwal, where he was then posted. Within a few days of arriving there, I received a telegram from Uday Shankar asking me to join his troupe immediately, as it was soon leaving for Japan!"
Zohra appeared on stage for the first time on August 8, 1935, at a Calcutta theatre called the New Empire. "I must confess, I wasn't appreciated much," she says, her typically bemused expression intact. But then there was no time for a replacement and the troupe set off for the East and Zohra danced her way from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.
Some years later, Uday Shankar decided to look for a permanent premises to open his school of dance which would enable him to also experiment and push the boundaries of this performing art. He rented a row of cottages in Almora in north India and developed it into the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre. Zohra moved up the ranks and became an assistant dance teacher. "But before the school was to be formally opened in 1939, we set off on an all-India tour in 1938-39."
During this tour, an art student, Kameshwar Segal, was one among the audience. Highly impressed, he persuaded his family to allow him to learn dance under the guidance of Uday Shankar. It was the beginning of a love story for Zohra that spanned many decades.
What attracted Zohra to Kameshwar was his sense of humour. But he was a multi-faceted individual. "An outstanding painter, his various abilities made Uday Shankar seek his help in designing and executing stage costumes and props also. Handsome and intelligent, he was very soft-spoken and good at sport," recalls Zohra of her husband. But despite her clear attraction to him, she was not ready to say yes when he proposed to her. "Kameshwar was eight-and-a-half years younger than me. We came from different religious backgrounds and I was not sure the marriage would work. But his persistence won me over. So on August 14, 1942, we got married in a civil ceremony."
Soon after their marriage, Kameshwar decided to open a dance school of his own. In 1943, both left the Centre. By then, the Centre was beset with internal problems and was closed forever.
Zohra and Kameshwar opened the Zoresh Dance School in Lahore the same year. A year later, their daughter, Kiran was born. In 1945, they travelled extensively in pre-Partition India giving performances in Lahore, Amritsar, Bareilly, Meerut, Lucknow, Allahabad, Patna and Calcutta. It was a period that would go down in history as the most tumultuous for the Subcontinent. Tension was brewing in Lahore as the impending idea of Partition reared its head. Zohra and Kameshwar decided to shut shop and move to Mumbai.
One day, Zohra attended a play at Mumbai's famous Prithvi Theatre and was highly impressed by the vision, commitment and ideals of Prithvi. Meeting Prithviraj Kapoor, actor, director, theatre legend and founder of Prithvi Theatre, was a turning point in her career. She resolved to be a stage actor. So in October 1945, Zohra Segal joined Prithvi Theatre. Her career with Prithvi lasted 14 years. In 1953, their son Pavan, who presently works with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Africa, was born.
During their stay in Mumbai, Kameshwar had taken to several occupations. He was known for his creative genius and he worked with well-known Hindi film director Chetan Anand in Neecha Nagar (1946) in the capacity of an art director. Zohra also acted in the movie but it was "a big flop and people threw chairs at the screen when it was released in Bombay."
And then Neecha Nagar was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. And it won an award. "To date, it is the only Hindi film to have received that accolade," says Zohra.
Life takes another twist
But life was still not roses all the way. The most wrenching times were just around the corner. Kameshwar committed suicide on May 12, 1959, leaving Zohra with their two young children. (Kameshwar was by then exhibiting extreme mood swings. He had attempted suicide twice. After the second attempt, he vowed never to do it again. But then it was not to be.) Her immediate reaction to the tragedy was to call Prithviraj Kapoor. "He was very supportive all through the ordeal. What followed were days of madness. I did not know what to do without Kameshwar. Why did he have to do this? Everything was left unsaid. I became an emotional wreck. But for how long could I continue like that? So for the sake of my children, I gathered myself and was back on stage. I toured for four months but found it impossible to go on in the same surroundings. So I spoke to Papaji (Prithviraj Kapoor). He understood my plight. I left Prithvi Theatre in 1959."
Zohra moved to Delhi with her children and with the help of another theatre legend, Ebrahim Alkazi, moved her career forward. Some months later, she quit and left for England alone to study acting and took up sundry jobs to support herself and her children whom she had enrolled in boarding schools in India. Once again, her spirit was being put to the test. Those years were harsh, gruelling but Zohra did not lose her grit. Finally, in 1967, she got an offer to star in the movie, The Long Duel, starring Yul Brynner and Trevor Howard. She also starred in The Vengeance of She (1968).
The following years saw her act in television serials in the UK like The Regiment, Tales That Witness Madness, The Road to Bannu, It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Mind Your Language (one episode), etc.
In 1975, she gave up all the sundry jobs to support herself (because she was pursuing her stage career). Thus at 63, she was eligible for a retirement pension in England. "From then on, I lived life at my pace – reading, writing, exercising and solving crosswords. And to date I continue to do the same. It keeps the heart, body and mind healthy." She returned to India in September 1987.
While still in Britain, because she was so closely associated with theatre and cinema, Zohra was advised by many to write her autobiography. She agreed and the result was a compilation of memories titled, Names Dropper. That's because I am a name dropper," she laughs. Subsequent to that, she spent a considerable amount of time shuttling between Indian and British publishing houses before settling for an Indian firm, Kali for Women. Her autobiography, co-authored by Joan L. Erdman hit the shelves under the revised title,
Stages: The Art and Adventures of Zohra Segal, in 1997.
"Life has taught me to be thankful," says Zohra looking back at her hugely event-filled life. "At this age, I can see without spectacles, can walk, although not briskly. My love for food is intact.
I have a hearing problem but the hearing aid takes care of that." Her zest for life is unending. "I intend continuing as long as I can ..."