FRIDAY REVIEW

An Indian of substance

(Clockwise from above) Zohra Segal with co-stars; in her youth and with her sister Uzra Butt at the beach; celebrating her 100th birthdayPHOTOS: Yash Raj FIlms, Kiran Segal’s “Zohra Segal: ‘Fatty’”, Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

(Clockwise from above) Zohra Segal with co-stars; in her youth and with her sister Uzra Butt at the beach; celebrating her 100th birthdayPHOTOS: Yash Raj FIlms, Kiran Segal’s “Zohra Segal: ‘Fatty’”, Shiv Kumar Pushpakar  

In a glamorised and image-driven industry like commercial Hindi cinema, Zohra Segal’s uncompromising presence cheerfully blew away the outer gloss. Having been discovered by Bollywood in what other folks would consider the evening of her life, she did a series of grandma roles. But she could never be a cardboard character. Like the proverbial glacier, this was an artist with many layers below the surface.

In public she always appeared as herself, not trying to cultivate an artificial persona, whether through makeup, clothes or stance. The photos of her days as an international star, whether travelling with Uday Shankar as a dancer or working on British television, show her consistently dressed in a sari. Her daughter Kiran Segal, who authored a biography of her mother, “Zohra Segal: ‘Fatty’” (Niyogi Books), published to mark her 100th birthday, mentions that in her youth, Zohra wore only saris and “a salwar kameez was like a night suit for her.”

Yet as an actor she was the quintessential patra of classical dramaturgy — a vessel that embodied the internal and external qualities demanded by a particular role.

This is not to say she was self-effacing. Zohra ‘Apa’ was the first to admit she was “ zara show-off type”. She enjoyed her fame, the admiration of her peers, but she was honest and humble in her analysis, whether of her own work or others’. In 2010, in a conversation a few days before the release of her book “Close-Up: Memoirs of a Life on Stage & Screen” (Women Unlimited), she remarked, “I am a good actress, but not that good. I am not the best. There are other good actors,” and added, “Okay, I got fame, but let me tell you I became famous recently.”

Giving an example of the irony of her situation she said, “When these awful gandi films started, people started recognising me — you are the one who slapped Govinda!”

But if she could take in her stride such roles in commercial cinema, instead of pining for the days of grandeur — eight years with Uday Shankar and troupe, 14 with Prithvi Theatre’s legendary productions, where she was also dance director, as well as her work with the Indian People’s Theatre Association — it was surely because of her solid foundation as an artist.

“I’ve been very lucky,” she recalled. “I had Uday Shankar who taught me stage presence, and I had Papaji (Prithviraj Kapoor) who taught me the use of voice, and humility in life.” Clarifying the last part, she said, “Because I belong to this so-called high class family. I still have this thing, though I try to shed it.”

She maintained that though she had worked — on stage, film and television — all over the world, she had “not met an actor of Prithviraj’s calibre.”

It was in 2010 also that she completed 75 years of “non-stop showbiz”, despite the many tests life threw at her. Caring for her family single-handedly after the death of her husband Kameshwar Segal; wresting an acting career in England long before multi-culturalism became a common term; odd jobs to make ends meet; knee surgery, cancer…she never allowed her problems to shadow her present. But ploughed them, it would seem, into the essence of intense experience that lies below the surface for an actor to draw upon. And since acting, as Prithviraj Kapoor taught her, “is assimilation, not reality,” she was able to sublimate these experiences and carried on life with a characteristic lightness and a ready laugh.

Looking at her history, one might say excellence came to Zohra Segal quickly, thanks to her talents, hard work and her mentors. But success, if measured in terms of financial security and popular recognition, took its time. Throughout, she remained herself, not merely a grounded star but an observer who could be detached.

When she was making Balki’s “Cheeni Kum” with Amitabh Bachchan in 2007, she had no problem in admitting she was “not very familiar with Amitabh’s films,” as she had lived in London for 25 years, though she added that after working with him she felt he was a “great actor.” As for the debutant director, the veteran admitted, “I feel Balki has a long way to go yet,” but again, tempered her remarks with the caution that the film was yet to come out.

When Bachchan sent her a gracious note saying she was “an inspiration to us youngsters”, Zohra Apa recalled, “ Maine kaha, ‘yeh buddha !’ (I thought, what, that old man!) Then I realised he is 30 years younger than me.”

Young or old, she continued to be an inspiration to all around her till her demise at 102 last week. Her relationship with daughter Kiran, an eminent Odissi dancer, guru and choreographer, is a lesson in itself. In a society that provides no public support for the elderly in any walk of life, the last years of an aging performer can be particularly sad. But Kiran and family managed the two demanding worlds of her own career and that of her mother with a sweetness and grace that must have made the veteran proud.

In Bollywood parlance Zohra Segal has been described as a ‘character actor’. The term does her little justice though. She was a woman of great character all right. She was an Indian of substance.



as an actor she was the quintessential patra of classical dramaturgy — a vessel that embodied the internal and external qualities demanded by a particular role



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