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

Ritu Menon’s Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts, published by Speaking Tiger Books, charts out the fascinating and remarkable life and career of artiste extraordinaire Zohra Segal. The veteran performer, danseuse and actress toured the world with Uday Shankar and performed alongside Prithviraj Kapoor on stage in India. In the 1960s, she was one of the few artistes of Indian descent to make a name for herself on television and on the big screen.

[As the Rani in the 1995 TV series Ek Tha Rusty] Photo: Courtesy Kiran Segal / Book Cover: Courtesy Speaking Tiger Books

Ritu Menon

After Kipling, Waris went on to direct what would become an iconic series for the BBC, Doctor Who and, again, he cast Zohra as the attendant to Ping-Cho, in four episodes. Doctor Who, a science fiction story, was created by the BBC to fill the gap between children’s and young adult programming, and over its several episodes was set in periods ranging from the Stone Age to twelfth-century Palestine and contemporary Britain. The first series had the distinction of being produced by Verity Lambert, the BBC’s first female producer, and being directed by Waris Hussein, then in his mid-twenties.

Zohra had small parts in both the first and second series (directed by Douglas Camfield), in the episodes The Roof of the World; Marco Polo; The Singing Sands; Five Hundred Eyes (in all of which she was uncredited), and in The Crusade and The Knight of Jaffa, both set in Palestine. Kiran, who accompanied her on shoots for Doctor Who, later commented, ‘What I didn’t like was seeing her in all these chota-mota roles. I didn’t like it, but she was very happy doing them, waiting for a big break.’ Without realising it, Kiran had identified that singular trait of Zohra’s — her ‘fortitude, grit and determination’, as noted by Waris — that saw her through her first couple of years in London, dealing with disappointment, with prejudice, and with the challenge of being a single woman and single parent, hoping to make it in entertainment media that were notoriously exclusionary in their casting.

Zohra was the only non-white in Doctor Who, with all the other non-white characters being played by whites. But she loved being part of it, said Waris, this was a new medium for her and she ‘got a great sense of being involved in performing’. The series was hugely successful, and now, finally, Zohra was beginning to put her years of training in theatre to use in England.

News from home was always welcome, and from Bombay, doubly so. It came in the form of letters from Prithviraj Kapoor who wrote and told Zohra about what mutual friends were doing: Shaukat Azmi was acting in IPTA plays; he himself was working on twelve films at the same time; but when at Juhu, he would practise his sitar and tabla. ‘When I linger alone near these instruments,’ he wrote, ‘I find all of you here with me.’ So far from home, his words brought tears to Zohra’s eyes.

But visits from friends and family brought a whiff of India to Zohra in London, with both her sisters, Uzra and Hajrah, coming to stay. A temporary lull in television work meant she could spend all her free time with them, a time of warmth and affectionate reminiscing. Who also visited her beloved guru, Prithviraj Kapoor, on his way back from Karlovy Vary, where he had received an award for his role in KA Abbas’ film Aasman Mahal. She was sad to see how much he had aged, and how painful his varicose veins were — she looked away as he hobbled slowly, leaning on Pavan’s shoulder for support.

Rafiq Anwar, an acquaintance of Zohra’s from India, was the Indian consultant for a film to be directed by Ken Annikin (of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines fame), starring Yul Brynner and Trevor Howard. The Long Duel, set in 1930s India, was the story of Sultan, a tribal bandit, in the remote areas of the north-west and his capture by, and subsequent escape from, the British. Zohra was offered the role of Devi, an old tribal herbalist, in what would be her first film appearance in the West; along with her were Vivien Leigh, Merle Oberon (then known as Queenie Thompson) and Imogen Hassel, all three Anglo-Indians from Calcutta! Shooting was to begin in December 1966. By now, Zohra had signed up with an agent, Lloyd Williams Associates, with whom she would continue for all the years that she remained active — Eileen and Jill Williams represented her and handled her engagements and appearances in England till well into the 2000s.

The Long Duel, shot in the Sierra Nevada hills in Grenada, is an Orientalist potboiler, complete with bandits, dancing girls (recruited from Ram Gopal’s school) obsequious Indians and imperious Englishmen. Except for the women, it had an all-white cast made up to look brown in an effect that was at once hilarious and insulting. It would be unthinkable for a film like that to be made today, and yet, its storyline is oddly — and perhaps, inadvertently — subversive. The bandits foil the Brits at every step, the Empire bows to the inevitable, Britannia does not really rule the waves. For Zohra, working at such close quarters with actors she admired and with a director who was open to suggestions from his actors, was valuable experience — and she thoroughly enjoyed living in luxury in Alhambra! An odd coincidence made this film memorable for her; Sultan Dakoo’s headquarters in Rohilkhand was none other than the derelict fort of Najibabad, once owned by Zohra’s mother’s family. The film was shot in Spain, but the terrain there immediately put her in mind of Najibabad. Family lore had it that its erstwhile owner joined the 1857 war of independence, so the British stormed the fort and executed his brothers — Zohra’s direct forebears — as guilty by association. The rest of the family fled the scene. Of all the coincidences, this was probably the most unexpected!

Excerpted from Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2021. Click here to buy your copy.

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