July 15 2014
By Suman Bhuchar
She won many awards and had an established career in drama and dance in pre-Partition India, before moving to Britain and virtually starting all over again and reaching new heights…we pay tribute to a very remarkable thespian…
THE DISTINGUISHED actress, Zohra Segal* died in Delhi last Thursday (July 10), aged 102.
She had been ill for a few days and had suffered a cardiac arrest in hospital.
It is reported that she had said: “Every time I go to sleep, I try to keep myself smiling, so that when I die I have a smile on my lips.”
As news of her death was announced, the twitter sphere went into overdrive with many Bollywood stars, paying tribute.
Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan said: “What a journey and what an immensely loveable co-star! Prayers for her blessed soul!”
They appeared together in the film, “Cheeni Kum” (2007) where she played his mother.
Meanwhile, Shah Rukh Khan, with whom she worked with on the movie, “Dil Se” (1998), said: “A journey of million miles overloaded with smiles. Even at a 100 plus I have yet to meet a naughtier young girl…will miss you Zohra…”
She was the recipient of many national awards in India, especially in her later years after moving back there.
She was living a quiet life in Delhi, with her daughter, Kiran, but two years ago celebrated her 100th birthday with an enormous cake that she cut with a huge knife.
In the UK, a considerable celebration was held for her at the Nehru Centre, London, organised by the actress, Shelley King, who had worked with her in the Channel 4 sitcom, “Tandoori Nights” (1985-87).
In a career spanning several decades, Segal made her name as an actor and dancer, and was known worldwide for her grey hair tied in a bun, having an autocratic glare, punctuated with an impish smile that ensured mischief was not far behind.
Zohra Mumtaz was born on April 27, 1912 in Saharanpur, Uttar Pardesh –two years before the start of the First World War, and 13 days after the sinking of The Titanic.
She came from an aristocratic Muslim family, but did not confirm to any stereotype about Asian women.
She decided to pursue a career instead of being a gentle lady living in the ‘zenana’ (women’s quarters).
During the 1930s she travelled to Germany to study at Mary Wigman Dance School in Dresden; later she joined Uday Shankar’s Dance Troupe in 1934, and toured the world with his ballets, before joining him as a teacher at the Uday Shankar Culture Institute in Almora, a Himalayan hill station.
There she met and fell in love with Kameshwar, a talented painter and dancer, who was a Hindu and eight years younger than her. They were married on August 14, 1942 and the couple had two children, a daughter Kiran and son, Pavan.
After marriage the couple left Almora to set up their own dance institute, Zoresh Dance Institute in Lahore, and toured around India until 1945. As a Hindu-Muslim couple, living in Punjab fermenting with unrest due to the impending Partition, they felt unsafe and decided to move to Bombay (now Mumbai).
Here, Segal got involved in theatre and acting, joining the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), and touring with Prithvi Theatre, Bombay. It remains one of the centres of excellence for drama in India.
She spent her next fourteen years with theatre, and, upon the death of her husband in 1959, decided it was time for a complete change of scene.
And so began the second phase of her extraordinary life.
In 1962, at the age of 50, Segal arrived in Britain to train at the British League Drama School and to experience ‘real English theatre in its original home,’ as she wrote in her biography,“Stages: The Art and Adventures of Zohra Segal” and co-authored with Joan L. Erdman and published by Kali for Women in 1997.
She had won a scholarship and passed the exams with some distinction, earning a Star Certificate – but as a widow with two children, she had to earn a living, so she worked at the Old Vic as a ‘dresser’ and became a principal of the school founded by the renowned Indian dancer, Ram Gopal.
Segal ended up staying in Britain for three decades, carving a niche for herself in the film, television and theatre landscape of her new home.
Initially, it was an uphill struggle, but Segal found work as a BBC radio and television presenter for programmes aimed at the newly arrived Asian migrants such as “English by Radio” and “Look, Listen and Speak” and “Make Yourself at Home”.
She worked at the Indian Tea Centre in Oxford Circus, but left in 1966, after being offered a job in the film, “The Long Duel” starring Yul Brynner and Trevor Howard and later was cast by Merchant Ivory in their film, “The Guru” (released in 1969).
Her first stage appearance in the UK was in the play, “A Touch of Brightness” at the Royal Court in 1967, and other highlights include the 1977 BBC series, “Padosi”.
In between this, she was invited back to India by the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi to head a National Folk Dance Ensemble in 1974, but this experiment failed and the scheme was abandoned in June 1975.
It was her portrayal as the haughty doyenne, Lady Lili Chatterjee in the hit iconic ITV Series, “The Jewel in the Crown” (1984), which propelled her to fame leading to other work as such the sitcom “Tandoori Nights” (Channel 4, 1985–87) and as the prejudiced granny in “Bhaji on the Beach” (1993).
Her famous stage performances include “The Great Celestial Cow” (1984) by Sue Townsend (of Adrian Mole fame) at The Royal Court; “Hedda in India” (Actors Unlimited, 1983) and a staged reading of “Blood Wedding” directed by another stalwart of the scene, Saeed Jaffrey, and produced by the Asian Cooperative Theatre at the Riverside Studios (1987).
Her last stage performance in the UK was in “A Yearning”, an adaptation of the Lorca play, “Yerma” by Tamasha Theatre Company (1995).
She also appeared in the acclaimed Urdu play, “Ek thi Nani”, with her sister, Uzra Butt in 1993, by the Ajoka Theatre Company.
She continued to work regularly until 2007, and other credits include: “Anita & Me” and “Bend it Like Beckham” in 2002 and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam” (1999) and “Saawariya” (2007).
Segal has been honoured with innumerable awards including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for acting (1993) the Padma Bhushan (2002).
In 2008, she was felicitated as ‘Ladli of the Century’ (Darling of the Century) by the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) Ladli Media Awards, where Sheila Dikshit, Chief Minister of Delhi of the time, presented her with the award in 2010 she received the Padma Vibhushan Award.
Segal, who had been settled in Delhi with her daughter, was much admired by the acting community in the UK, as a remarkable woman and will be much remembered for her acerbic and self-deprecating sense of humour.
*Segal – this is the spelling of the name as the family wanted it, though some refer to her as ‘Sehgal’.