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Zohra Segal’s perseverance was remarkable, says biographer Ritu Menon

The author of Segal’s biography, published by Speaking Tiger Books, shares insights into the late dancer-actress’s life and remarkable career that took her all around the world.

Photos: Courtesy of Speaking Tiger Books

Sonal Pandya

Ritu Menon’s biography, Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts, published by Speaking Tiger Books, captures the extraordinary life of the dancer, actress and choreographer Zohra Segal.

Segal, who was born on 27 April 1912, came from a liberal, Westernized and secular background that allowed her to travel the world — travelling to West Asia and Egypt with her uncle and studying dance at Mary Wigman's ballet school in Germany.

She joined Uday Shankar’s troupe at 23 and after it was disbanded, she and her husband Kameshwar moved to Bombay. Staying at Pali Hill in the same bungalow that housed the Anand brothers, Zohra spent 14 years under Prithviraj Kapoor and Prithvi Theatres. The detailed book shares wonderful anecdotes and stories from Segal’s long and storied journey as she travelled from India to the UK and back again, making a name for herself in international projects.

Book excerpt: From Doctor Who to Hollywood – How Zohra Segal carried on

Segal died at 102 on 10 July 2014, becoming more famous as she grew older. The book notes that she often remarked, “Eight years with Dad [Uday Shankar], fourteen years with Papaji [Kapoor], but no one knew my name till I slapped Govinda!” Menon gives a fair account of Segal’s achievements as well as the low points in her life, including the death by suicide of her husband.

Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts is not the first book on her life; she herself wrote Close-Up: Memoirs of a Life on Stage and Screen, and her daughter Kiran wrote Zohra Segal 'Fatty'. But this new biography gives an excellent overview of how Segal persevered against all odds to make a name for herself.

Over email, Menon answered questions from Cinestaan.com about writing the biography, using the metaphor of a play, and highlighting the times in which Segal flourished. Excerpts:

Photo: Courtesy of Kiran Segal

There was already a memoir by Segal and another by her daughter on her life. What was the key factor in choosing to write about Segal this time and explore her life and career in Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts?

A biography is very different from a memoir or an autobiography because it offers a perspective and, perhaps, insights into the subject’s life that a first-person account may not have. In Zohra’s case, the times she lived in, her long life-span and her very long career demanded a book that would talk about the explosion of creative energy in the arts in India in the 1950s, in dance and theatre and film, of which she became an active part. I wanted to highlight this aspect, talk about the influence of Uday Shankar and Prithviraj Kapoor in her life, and later about how she arrived in England when that country was undergoing enormous changes in the entertainment industry. To place her life and work in context.

How long did it take you to look into the past and write the biography? Was it difficult to accumulate all this detailed information?

Well, as I have a full-time job as a publisher, I could only work on the book in snatches, so it took me about five years. The research was the best part of the project, interviewing people she worked with, travelling to London, Bombay, Kuala Lumpur to find family and friends who could share their experiences and stories — it was wonderful. But I wasn’t able to see anything of her performances, either dance or theatre, for the first 22 years of her career, because there is no record of either Uday Shankar’s or Prithvi Theatres productions. So that was a real loss. I had to rely on secondary sources for this information. The films and TV shows that she did in England are all available, of course, so I saw all those.

Who are the people, besides Zohra's children Kiran and Pavan, who contributed greatly in sharing crucial parts of her life?

Oh, many colleagues, fellow actors and directors in England, in Bombay, among them Waris Hussain, Gurinder Chadha, Roshan Seth, Madhav Sharma, Lou Wakefield, Ken McMullen, Dolly Thakore, Salima Raza.... so many who worked with her or knew her well. Their contribution is huge.

Zohra's extraordinary life is framed as a play, with key chapters as different acts. How did you structure them out during your research?

Actually, they fell into place quite neatly — the dance phase (The Almora Dance Company), then the theatre phase (Prithvi Theatres), then the film and television years in the UK and India, with two Intermissions; when Zohra was not performing, she was an administrator and teacher. I quite liked the idea of using the metaphor of a play to recount her life.

Photo: Courtesy of Kiran Segal

Several key portions of Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts delve into the careers and decisions of Uday Shankar and Prithviraj Kapoor. Why was it so important to detour from Zohra and explore their journeys in the book?

Both Uday Shankar and Kapoor were an enormous influence on her, on how Zohra developed as a dancer and an actor, so it was necessary to talk about them at some length. But they were also very important in the Indian arts scene of the 1950s, and I wanted to highlight that, to set Zohra against that backdrop.

The book features several instances where Zohra writes and is surprised by her own stardom. Why do you think she was so modest about her successes, both in India and internationally?

Her success came to her rather late in her long life. You must remember that she was in her late sixties and early seventies when she found a bit of fame, so perhaps she was more comfortable in her self-assessment than she might have been if she were much younger. The other reason could be that most of her roles were actually quite small, she never had a major part — her skill lay in transforming her roles, however small, into something memorable that lit up the screen and the show. And then, she was acting with the great names of her time — Yul Brynner, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Caine, Rita Tushingham, Saeed and Madhur Jaffrey, Richard Gere, Amitabh Bachchan, and so on, so I guess she saw herself in perspective.

Segal with Amitabh Bachchan in Cheeni Kum (2007)

The book explores both her failures and accomplishment with equal coverage. Do you think her low points pushed her to keep at it, no matter what kind of a job, small or big?

Not quite equal, I think, I hope I have given her successes the space they require! My view is that Zohra kept at it, as you say, because she was incredibly disciplined, and because once she had made her choices she stuck to them, no matter what, and she made them work, through thick and thin. Her perseverance was remarkable.

If you had to sum up Zohra Segal in a sentence, how would you describe her?

Indomitable. One word!