A hundred takes on laadli’s impish smile

(This is my article which was was published in the Business Line on May 4, 2012)

She’s the Laadli of the Century. Eyes full of mischief, impish smile. The adorable grandma of Dil Se, Bebe of  Veer Zara and Biji in  Bend it Like Beckham, she has charmed cinemagoers of all generations.

As the Indian film industry celebrates an extraordinary moment in history — its centennial year — Zohra Segal, too, hit a century last week.

But it’s not just the screen that she has lit up with her humour. Dancer, choreographer, actor, artist and rebel, Zohra has lived life — all one hundred years of it — to the fullest.

On her birthday, daughter and Odissi dancer Kiran Segal unveiled her biography, Zohra Segal Fatty — a loving tribute to her weight-conscious mother.

Age may have dulled her sense of sight and sound, but Zohra’s wit continued to shine on her 100 {+t} {+h} birthday as she chimed, “ Abhi na jao chod kar, ke cake abhi kata nahi, ke pet abhi bhara nahi.”

The silver-screen connection

Born the same month and year that India’s first film, Raja Harishchandra, went into production, Zohra’s flirtation with cinema was perhaps ordained. But before that came a serious love affair — with the performing arts, dance as well as theatre. An unconventional choice for a Muslim girl of an aristocratic lineage.

An Artiste
Photo credit: Printed in Zohra Sehgal:Fatty

Not one to let go of dreams, 18-year-old Zohra went to Germany in 1930 and studied modern dance for three years before joining Uday Shankar’s experimental dance troupe in 1935. She toured the world.

Meanwhile, just a year after the young Zohra left India, Indian cinema had achieved a new milestone with its first talkie — Alam Ara — in 1931.

Romance with dance

Dance proved to be a consuming passion for Zohra from the 1930s to 1940s, and she eventually moved back to India in 1940 to teach at Uday Shankar’s dance school in Almora.

She was one of the leading teachers there and actually set the syllabus at the school. “She left the centre after marriage to my father, Kameshwar Segal, who was her student,” recalls daughter Kiran.

Zohra married Kameshwar — a Hindu boy eight years her junior — despite opposition from her family.

Dance was the route through which she entered Indian cinema. In 1945, she joined Prithvi Theatre as a dance director, while also choreographing for several well-known films such as BaaziCIDNau Do Gyarah and Awaara.

“When she joined Prithvi Theatre, she wanted to join as an actress, but Prithviraj ji told her there was no vacancy for actors. She eventually acted in their productions as well,” Kiran says.

 Theatre and activism

In 1942 the Indian People’s Theatre Association — a left-wing organisation through which performing artistes raised their voice against social injustice and joined the freedom struggle — came into being.

In Zohra’s words from the essay ‘Theatre and Activism in the 1940s’, “The association drew talent like honey does bees and every branch of art was represented by the most honoured in the land.”

She along with her sister, Prithviraj Kapoor, Uday Shankar, Ravi Shankar, Salil Choudhury, S.D. Burman, Utpal Dutt, Habib Tanvir, Shaukat Kaifi and many other stalwarts were important members of this organisation.

In 1946, Zohra debuted in IPTA’s first film production, Dharti Ke Lal, which dealt with the Bengal famine, and later acted in another IPTA film — Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar.

Gurus in her life

Kiran said while Zohra considers Prithviraj Kapoor (in theatre) and Uday Shankar (in dance) to be her two gurus, the former is her favourite co-actor of all times.

“She admired him immensely,” Kiran said.

Zohra ji at 95:
Photo credit: Printed in Zohra Sehgal:Fatty

Zohra describes the two influencers in her life thus in an interview, “With Uday Shankar I had been treated as a star. All this ended when I joined Prithvi Theatres.

“Prithviraj travelled with his company in the third-class compartments engaged for the troupe in spite of the fact that he had a first-class pass … he ate exactly what we did. I started appreciating these things and thought this is the true way of living.”

Decades later, she also acted in Prithviraj Kapoor’s great-grandson Ranbir’s debut film — Saanwariya, which was one of her last films.

Turning point

Life took a sudden turn for Zohra after her husband, who was working as an art director while she became a dance director and actress, committed suicide.

“She was devastated. Because of that we were uprooted from Bombay, because she didn’t want to stay on in Bombay any more. We came to Delhi, then she moved on for a lecture tour through Russia, then she went to England and stayed on there,” said Kiran.

However, this move also led to Zohra eventually getting international acclaim and she got her first role in British television in a BBC adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling story in 1964; and eventually she worked with Merchant Ivory Productions’ The Courtesans of Bombay in 1982.

“The 1980s, when she got a lot of recognition, was her best decade. She struggled a lot after moving to England,” says Kiran.Sugar-less with Amitabh

In 2007 Zohra acted in her last two films — Saanwariya and Cheeni Kum.

“She is possibly the most wonderful woman and actor I have ever met. She is so full of life and has an incredible sense of humour,” says R. Balki, director of Cheeni Kum. “She turned 95 in 2007 and we were celebrating her birthday at Qutub Minar.

Changing the game? :)
Photo credit: Printed in Zohra Sehgal:Fatty

“Even in Delhi’s 42 degrees she was laughing and dancing. The best part was she made Amitabh Bachchan get up every time,” he laughingly describes.

But the woman who epitomises life has apparently often asked her daughter for euthanasia.

“I would like to take an injection and go to sleep,” said the woman who battled cancer in the mid-1990s.


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