‘…she is special…not just because she is making a hundred but because she is Zohra Segal, dancer, actress, story-teller, lover —lover of all things—and loved by all things, great and small and those in-between…’. These words of Tom Alter truly sum up the personality that has been so central to our imagination of Hindi cinema. The inimitable Zohra Segal turned hundred on April 27, 2012 and the launch of the book under review, a pictorial biography by her accomplished daughter Kiran Segal fittingly marked the centenarian’s birthday celebrations.
A familiar face to the people of the older generation, who have known her as a theatre and cinema artist, Zohra Segal is popular among the young generation as well, for her unforgettable roles in Hindi movies like Dil Se (1998), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), and Cheeni Kum (2007) and her roles in television serials, Mulla Nasruddin and Amma and Her Family. In the West, Zohra is best known for her parts in a number of movies, Bhaji on the Beach (1992), Bend It Like Beckham, Anita and Me (both 2002) and Merchant Ivory’s The Mystic Masseur (2001). Segal also earned fame for her role as Lady Chatterjee in the television adaptation of The Jewel in the Crown (1984) and Tandoori Nights in which she appeared from 1985 to 1987.
Born on April 27, 1912 and third among her seven siblings, Zohra was brought up by her father after her mother died in childbirth even before Zohra turned eight. Zohra’s father sent her, along with her two sisters, to the boarding school, Queen Mary’s College, Lahore where she was taught by several British teachers. It was here that she first discovered the actor in her, when she acted in the play The Rose and the Ring. She decided to learn dance and travelled all the way to Europe in her Mamu Sahibzada Saiduzzafar Khan’s convertible Dodge in 1930. Back in India, she began her career as a dancer with Uday Shankar’s troupe in 1935, and performed across Japan, Egypt, Europe and the United States. She later joined Prithvi Theatres in October 1945. The grand old lady of Indian theatre and cinema (she is a year older than the Indian cinema) has seen umpteen ups and downs—in her professional life as a dancer and as a theatre, cinema and television actor; in her personal life as a child who lost her mother when she was very young, a wife whose husband committed an unexpected suicide, a woman who battled with cancer, a mother of two children and a grandmother.
Apart from tracing the trajectory of Zohra’s life, the book Zohra Segal: ‘Fatty’, details several endearing facets of this rare personality with infectious warmth and pulsating affection. ‘Fatty’ in the title is how Kiran teases her ‘figure conscious mother’ as she tells us, ‘She is very particular about her figure, like a sixteen year old starlet. She weighs herself almost every week and if she goes a little bit above then, at lunch, it is one toast instead of two and in proportion every other intake is diminished.’ Another thing that fascinates Kiran about Zohra is her ability to ‘knock back her drink like a taxi driver.’
The narrative of the book is marked by a disarming simplicity, with the writer not making any pretence, whatsoever, to sound profound. Most of what she shares, is coated with her deep love and admiration for her mother, who also happens to be her friend and companion. We learn about the self-love of Zohra, how in her dance trips abroad with her sister she would only be interested in finding whether newspapers had anything to say about her; how she would always be conscious of her looks and the fact that her sister Uzra was more beautiful than her. Sample some excerpts from the book: Ammi is just like a little child at times… You’ve got to see her when guests are at home and she has dressed herself in a new outfit… She actually comes down the stairs as though she is making an entry on stage and laps up all the praise. Not one for being shy, she can easily talk to someone if she wants and also snub anyone if she is not interested. In spite of my mother’s position and dominating nature, Ammi feels that people remember Uzra more than her because of her exceptional beauty and, hence Ammi developed a complex and tried very hard to be charming and attract attention. Personally, I feel my aunt had a sweeter and more amiable nature.
Though mostly the tone and tenor of the book is spirited, there are a few emotional moments as well. For instance, the incident of suicide of Zohra’s husband, a scientist, painter and dancer Kameshwar Segal whom Zohra married in August 1942 and who was eight years younger to her. The children, who addressed their father as ‘Dost’, were devastated by this incident. Kiran poignantly recalls the event: I think my parents had had a tiff the previous day and in the evening Ammi and I had gone to see a play…My mother showed immense control over her emotions but every now and then she would suddenly break down like a mad woman and shed uncontrollable tears. I have never witnessed her crying like that ever.
The book also unfolds some charming aspects of a few other famous personalities of the Indian cinema. Prithviraj Kapoor, for instance, emerges as a kind, warm and generous soul, who even accompanied Zohra to the police station, after her husband’s suicide. Similarly, the account of Zohra’s relationship with Anand is fascinating. Recounting her childhood in Mumbai Kiran writes, ‘My parents stayed with my aunt and uncle, sharing their tiny flat in 41 Palli Hill, which they, in turn, were sharing with Chetan Anand and his wife Uma, Dev Anand and Vijay Anand. Ammi still remembers Dev Uncle standing in front of a mirror, brushing his hair and asking her, “Didi, do you think they’ll take me as a hero?”’
The book is beautifully produced with some memorable photographs that make it a collector’s item. Amitabh Bachchan and Tom Alter’s words, appended to the book, amplify the celebratory texture of the book. However, as Kiran admits in the opening of the book, ‘What can I write about her? She is my mother and that’s it’; if a daughter’s recounting of her mother’s tale is an advantage at one level, as one gets to see the very human side of Segal’s personality; it is also a drawback in many ways. Biographies and autobiographies are meant to unfold the history of the time. With a personality like Zohra Segal who has ‘a hundred years of history’ in her, this aspect gains greater importance, something that the book falls short of doing (or rather, does not even aim at). An enjoyable read as this book is, a loving tribute to the life that ‘truly needs to be celebrated,’ one only hopes that the cen-tenarian leaves behind a more comprehensive chronicle of her eventful life, an account that can give us insight into and throw light upon the hundred years of Hindi theatre and cinema.
Nishat Zaidi is Associate Professor in the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.