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A life less common: Celebrating Zohra Segal before her birth anniversary

A festival organised to celebrate Zohra Segal’s birth anniversary on April 27 bears testimony to the late actor’s extraordinary talent and charisma.

art and culture Updated: Apr 25, 2016 18:09 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
Zohra Segal

In a career spanning over seven decades as a dancer-actor, Zohra made a name for herself on stage, in television and films.(HT Photo)

When dancer Kiran Segal was writing Zohra Segal: Fatty, a book that gave an insight into her relationship with her legendary mother, the 100-year-old Zohra commanded her to also write about her flaws. “I told her how can I write bad things about you. But she retorted where’s the fun in only writing good things,” remembers Kiran, on the sidelines of a press conference to announce the Zohra Segal Festival of Arts to be held at the national capital this weekend (April 23-24). Two years after Segal passed away in 2014 at the age of 102, it is this memory perhaps that makes her daughter unflinchingly candid about her mother in an exclusive interview with Hindustan Times.

“She was great fun to be with. You could crack the dirtiest jokes with her and she would laugh the loudest,” recalls Kiran. But ask her whether that means Segal was an easy mother in her growing up years and she says, “Oh no, she was extremely strict. She never hit me, but my ears would singe from her scolding if I did something that she didn’t approve of. I used to be mortally scared of her. She would take me to rehearsals with her on my school holidays so that she could keep an eye on me,” But then Segal, born Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, had always been an odd ball of many, often contradictory, character traits. “She was perfectly trained in managing a household. When she folded a sheet or a table cloth, it would be in that perfect corner-to-corner style, without a single wrinkle,” says Kiran. But rather than getting married and settling down as was expected of her after graduating from Queen Mary College in Lahore, she went on to study Eurhythmics at the Mary Wigman School of Dance in Dresden and eventually joined dancer Uday Shankar’s group as a lead dancer and teacher. When she did marry, she chose Kameshwar Segal, a Hindu man eight years her junior. And after his untimely death in 1957, expertly juggled her career and the responsibilities of a single parent, in India and Europe.

Read: At 100, Zohra Segal wants blonde hair, hourglass figure

Zohra Segal with daughter Kiran. Segal was born Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh on April 27, 1912. (HT Photo)

Cutting the birthday cake at her 102nd birthday, the last one that she celebrated. (Kiran Segal)

In a career spanning over seven decades as a dancer-actor, Zohra made a name for herself on stage, in television and films, worked at Prithvi Theatres and the India People Theatre Association and was a part of such critically-acclaimed projects as The Courtesans of Bombay, The Jewel in the Crown and Tandoori Nights. “However, popular recognition in India came to her quite late. I remember soon after she had returned from Europe, after living and working there for 25 years, we had gone to a party. I thought it was quite nice, but when I asked her, she was quite disgruntled. ‘What nice party, no one paid any attention to me,’ she had grumbled,” says Kiran with a laugh. In 1995 she was approached by writer Sadia Dehlvi and her brother Waseem to act in Amma and Family, a television series about an ordinary Muslim family. “The story was partly autobiographical. The character of Amma was based on my own grandmother who was very lively. Zohra apaa played the character with such authenticity that many in the audience believed that she was really my grandmother,” recalls Dehlvi. After Amma, the character of the feisty, often mischievous and endearing grandmother or grandmotherly person became Zohra’s forte and she played it to perfection in films such as Dil Se, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Saawariya, Cheeni Kum, Bend it Like Beckham and Bhaaji on the Beach. “In real life too Zohra apaa was a lot like Amma. We would often gather around her on the sets and request her to tell us stories from her life. She was such a splendid story-teller. As an actor, she was a complete star. She would come alive under the lights,” says Dehlvi. Years later, Dehlvi remembers bringing Segal to the Khushwant Singh hosted – Not a Nice Man to Know. “They both had this ability to make digs at oneself. Khushwant told me later that he enjoyed the episode with Zohra Segal the most. There would be this twinkle in her eyes, an energy and body language that was perfectly charismatic,” she says. It was this ability to capture and hold her audience’s attention that made her such a legendary actor.

Read: Bollywood’s ‘Laadli of the century’ Zohra Segal dies at 102

A young Zohra Segal... she married Kameshwar Segal, a Hindu man eight years her junior. (Kiran Segal)

Zohra was perfectly trained in managing a household. But rather than settling down as was expected of her after graduating from Queen Mary College, Lahore, she went on to study Eurhythmics in Dresden, Germany and eventually joined dancer Uday Shankar’s group. (Kiran Segal)

But it was not always easy for those around her to live with her constant need to be under the spotlight. “She was a complete attention seeker. If someone was visiting home and started talking to me, she wouldn’t like it,” says Kiran with a laugh, as her television actor daughter Sujata adds, “She would says things to shock people just to get attention, but at times it would get uncomfortable for the family. For example, she had this habit of saying, ‘do you want to marry me’, to any young man she met. It stopped being funny.” She adds, “She could also be very selfish. She would always ask for pakodas to be made if there were visitors at home. But that was only because she loved pakodas herself and would polish off more than half of it.” In her youth Sujata remembers fighting and then making it up with her grandmother. “We used to fight like sisters. But we would make it up too. She used to call me her ‘golden girl’. Nani hated how untidy I used to be in those days, but I am just like her now – punctual and very tidy,” she says. And Sujata passed on both her rebellious nature and her love for Segal to her own daughter Madhyama, who also grew up in the all-women Segal household in New Delhi. (Segal’s son Pavan is settled in Malaysia.)

But though the family misses her “every moment” they believe that in whichever world she is in, Segal will be delighting both in the attention and the celebration of arts that has been organised in her name this weekend.

Read: When I pass away, I want no mourning, says Zohra Segal

Zohra Segal had years of experience in theatre and long associations with Prithvi Theatres and the India People Theatre Association. (Kiran Segal)

The mischievous and endearing grandmother or grandmotherly person became Zohra’s forte and she played it to perfection in films such as Dil Se, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Saawariya, Cheeni Kum, Bend it Like Beckham and Bhaaji on the Beach. (Kiran Segal)

What: The Zohra Segal Festival of the Arts

Where: CD Deshmukh Auditorium, India International Centre, 40 Max Mueller Marg

When: April 23-24

Time: 11.30 am onwards

The festival will include a panel discussion, theatre, film screening, dance recital by Segal’s great-granddaughter Madhyama and an exhibition of Segal’s photographs. Kiran intends it to become an annual event.