The iconic artiste celebrated her 100th birthday with her official biography, Zohra Segal: Fatty, and feels she has done everything in life
“Abhi na jaana chhod kar… ki cake abhi kata nahin… ki pet abhi bhara nahin” (Don’t leave the party, the cake hasn’t been cut yet, tummy isn’t filled yet), recited the blue-eyed “baby” of entertainment, actor-dancer Zohra Segal on her 100th birthday, punning on her favourite sonnet Abhi To Main Jawan Hoon by poet Hafeez Jullundhri as she cut a large chocolate cake. Her characteristic lust for life appeared undimmed late Friday at the launch of her first official biography, Zohra Segal: Fatty by daughter Kiran Segal. And ‘Segal’ is how they have preferred to spell the name. The title Fatty is an endearment used by Kiran for her “weight conscious mother Zohra” who “is very particular about her figure like a 16-year-old starlet”. “She weighs herself every week and if she is a little bit above (overweight), then at lunch it is one toast instead of two,” Kiran said.
Born on April 27, 1912, in Saharanpur to Rohilla Pathan landlords, Zohra went with her uncle to England by road from India “in an old Dodge car through Afghanistan and Iran” to train as an actor. She recalls the journey in detail: “I sat in the front with my uncle. A young man sat at the back.” She caught a boat to Europe from Egypt.
The biography, a pictorial monogram, published by Niyogi Books was unveiled by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s wife Gursharan Kaur. Zohra was presented with a bouquet of 101 roses, a cake, a commemorative photograph by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), a painting by the director-general of Indian Council for Cultural Relations, gifts by families and old friends.
Zohra was surrounded by representatives of four families including her daughter’s, son’s, her own family and those of her in-laws that she said “went into the making of the Segal story”. “Ao ao, yeh mauka aur nahin milega (come, you will not get this opportunity again),” she commanded them on to a small podium.
Relaxed in a wheelchair, Zohra, clad in a cotton salwar-kameez, revealed the secret of her long productive life as “an inner fire that has pushed me through life”. “I have often told my daughter that I felt I have done everything in life and I wish someone would euthanise me. I will sleep in peace with an injection,” she said.
Releasing the book, Gursharan Kaur, who addresses the actor as ‘Ammi’, said it was a proud day. “Dear Zohraji completed 100 years of her extremely productive life. She is a multi-facetted icon of a youthful zeal. She is a mysterious woman though her life was an open book. It is an emotional moment for us,” Kaur said. She wrapped a richly embroidered Kashmiri shawl around the actor as a personal token of love. “She is my foster daughter,” Zohra said about Gursharan.
The low-key celebration was one marked with nostalgia and reminiscence. A documentary by noted stage personalities MK Raina and Anant Raina, Zohra Segal: An Interview 2012, structured around a lengthy conversation with the actor and old footage of her early years from the family albums walked the guests through 75 years of her active life. It began with Zohra as a teenager, her years abroad, as a dancer in Uday Shankar‘s troupe, her days at the Prithvi Theatre, her marriage to Kameshwar Segal, family and movies.
Zohra describes husband Kameshwar, her young student, “as a versatile talent who was a jack of all trades but who could master none”. “He was a talented artist, homoeopath, dancer and a cook… but he could not be famous,” she said.
“Zohra’s stamina is like an ocean,” friend and interviewer MK Raina recalled. Raina met Zohra at the Mandi House in New Delhi for the first time when she was assigned to manage the National Folk Ensemble by late prime minister Indira Gandhi. Later, Segal became a stout advocate of the progressive campaigns by the SAHMAT to promote social causes and the friendship between Raina and Zohra deepened, the theatre veteran said.
Recounting the making of the pictorial biography, Kiran said: “When I was first approached by the publishers, I did not want to write the book because I was neither a writer nor a historian. What can I say about my mother? But after much insistence, I started jotting down what I could remember from my childhood. When she was free, we would talk. I did not want the book to be edited because it was spontaneous.”
Long-time associate Dolly Thakore, actor, casting director and television personality, said she had met Zohra in 1966 in London to rehearse for a play at Zohra’s house. “Apa (Aunt Zohra) was working at the India Tea Board. At the time, there was an epidemic in London and being Indians, we were herded like labourers. We decided we had had enough of the discrimination and formed the Coloured Artists’ Dramatic Association,” Thakore reminisced.