Blast from the Past: Zohra Segal Interview – The drama of life

Zohra Segal turned 100 today. This is Zohra Segal’s Interview from 2003.

Rebellious, effervescent, stoic. As an individual, she has weathered the inner siege of not being conventionally beautiful, the untimely death of her husband, and the pain of living with cancer. As a dancer and actress, she has scaled the staircase to acclaim only after walking that extra step and decades of toil. Yet, the wrinkled grandma of showbiz has not lost her lust for life. Aparna Gupta draws the curtains of a world which unfolds the scenes of Zohra Segal ‘s life:

I have always been a rebel: I grew up in Chakrata in what is now Uttaranchal. There was no transport in those days and people were carried up and down the hills in baskets! Ours was a family of Rohilla Pathans and I was born to Mumtazullah Khan and Natiqua Begum as Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtazullah Khan on April 27, 1912. The third of seven children – the others being Zakullah, Hajrah, Ikramullah, Uzra, Anna and Sabira – I have always been a rebel.

My best years were at school: I lost my mother early in life. Ammi had one desire: her daughters should be educated. My sisters and I went to Queen Mary’s College, Lahore. I was rather mischievous, and once, when I got to know that Amana, a junior, had a soft spot for me, I announced at the breakfast table that she loved me! She was ready to crawl under the table!

I chose career over marriage: When Hazrah appa’s unhappy marriage broke up, I told Abba that I wanted to pursue a career rather than get married. My brother Zakaullah’s suggestion that I become a lady pilot fascinated me, but Abba was against the idea. I returned to acting, my first love. Sahebzada Saeeduzzafar Khan, my mamu, was based in Edinburgh and arranged for me to be an apprentice to a British actor. We left Lahore by car and, en route, crossed Iran, Palestine and Egypt before reaching Syria. With my bones aching, the hamam there was just out of the world!

One sentence changed my life: In Syria, we were joined by mamu’s girlfriend Auntie Dicta and my cousin Mehmood. When Mehmood asked me how the actress in me would enact a scene in which my lover was unable to meet me, I said, ‘Abhi mood nahi hai.’ Scared of men and sex, this one sentence changed my life. I couldn’t sleep thinking of what acting would involve. Overnight, I changed my decision: I would become a dancer, not an actress.

Dance gave me freedom: Auntie Dicta took me to Mary Wigman’s ballet school in Dresdon, Germany, and the first question she asked me was: ‘Can you dance?’ I told her that I hadn’t learnt dance because my childhood was a sheltered one. As a dancer, I enjoyed a newfound freedom. I cut all my silk burqahs and made them into petticoats and blouses. By the end of my third year at the dance school, I was in a bikini, nimble on my toes, and ready to touch the sky!

Uday Shankar spotted me: When my landlady Countess Liebenstein dragged me to a performance by Uday Shankar, I enjoyed his show but was put off by his accent. In the Shiv-Parvati ballet, Uday wore just a cloth to cover his loins – so tightly was this cloth wrapped that I was left wondering whether he was a female! Later, when I went backstage, Uday invited me to join his troupe once I was through with my course. He kept his word. On August 8, 1935, I joined his troupe and danced across Japan, Egypt, Europe and the US.

With Kameshwar, it was love at first sight: In 1940, while I was a teacher at the Uday Shankar Academy in Almora, I met Kameshwar Segal, a painter from Indore. I found him to be handsome and talented and was bowled over by a Burmese hut he had painted using rice and fungus. Although Kameshwar was eight years my junior, he reciprocated my feelings. After two years of passionate courtship, we were married on August 14, 1942, in the midst of the Quit India Movement. We had a civil marriage at Allahabad, but with railway tracks and roads being blocked, we had just one barati!

I’m still waiting for Nehru’s gift: My brother-in-law ZA Ahmed was a secretary to Jawaharlal Nehru and Panditji had promised to attend the wedding and gift us Persian rugs. But he couldn’t make it as he was arrested the night before. Later, when he asked my brother-in-law how the young couple was doing, my reaction was, ‘That’s fine, but where are the rugs?’

I was offered atrocious roles: Kameshwar and I left Uday Shankar’s troupe and opened Zoresh, a cultural centre, in Lahore. Initially, we received rave reviews and became the epitome of Hindu-Muslim unity. But as the political environment soured, the same praise turned into criticism. With our one-year-old daughter Kiran in my arms, we went to Bombay, where my sister Uzra was the leading lady at Prithvi Theatre. In Bombay, we stayed at Chetan Anand’s place. Despite the hardships, those were good times. I was desperately in need of a job, but the roles offered to me were atrocious. The last thing I wanted to do was doll up in a bathing costume and make an entry stepping out of a rose bowl.

I was jealous of Uzra: I was shattered when Papaji (Prithviraj Kapoor) refused to give me work. He revealed to Kameshwar that he was not sure whether I could work as a character actress for a group in which my younger sister was the leading lady. I told Papaji that it was not the role, but work which mattered to me. In 1945, I joined Prithvi Theatre as an actress with a monthly salary of Rs 400. For the next 14 years, I toured every corner of India with the group. Though I love and admire Uzra, I now realise that there was a tinge of jealously. I knew I was not beautiful enough to be a leading lady. Being short, plump and ordinary, I had to work extra hard to get noticed. In fact, my stage debut was as a vamp puffing away at a cigarette in Dewar.

Kameshwar’s suicide left me disconsolate: In 1959, Kameshwar committed suicide. I was shocked and, for two weeks, utterly inconsolable. I felt that life had come to a halt, but the responsibility of bringing up Kiran and Pawan gave me the strength to move on. In 1962, I received a drama scholarship in England and stayed on to educate my children. In recent years, the only time I have felt heartbroken was in 1994, when I was diagnosed with malignant cancer. I locked myself in a room and cried my heart out. Then, I realised that if I could handle Kameshwar’s death, I could handle cancer too. After all these years, I am ready for anything.

My children have done me proud: Kiran is an accomplished dancer and Pawan is a network manager with WHO. Pawan surprised me by expressing his wish to marry an Indian girl. We were in England then, and I remember how I clicked his pictures – one set with a moustache and one without – and sent them across to relatives in India. Destiny played its part. Pawan met Seema, the granddaughter of Munshi Premchand, and the couple is blessed with three children.

I have been lucky in life: I wish I were 5’5”, blue-eyed, and had a 36-25-36 body. But looking back, I am thankful for what I have been given. I had nothing going for me – neither the face nor the talent – but at an age when people pull up their socks, I have acted in Bhajji On The Beach, Tandoori Nights, Amma And Family, The Mystic Masseur, Bend It Like Beckham, Dil Se and Dillagi. Today, I am a star, and after going through 91 years of ups and downs, I value every moment of life.

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