Zohra Segal, theater and film actress, dancer, critic, mother of two, born in 1912 to landed royalty, passed away from a cardiac arrest in 2014. She was 102 years old. It was only four years earlier, at the age of 98, that she decided to retire from acting. That she was working this late in her life was not surprising since it was in her nineties that she was her most busy, most lucrative — playing the dadi figure with notorious charm. In a letter to her friend in 2006, Zohra wrote, "I am loaded with money… have never seen so much in my life! The older and uglier and shakier I get, the more they want me in Bombay! I am thrilled to bits!"
Reading Ritu Menon's biography Zohra! (Speaking Tiger Books, Rs 599) — just her first name followed by an exclamation, like reaching out to someone intimate — it is easy to feel that success is not just about talent, but talent embedded in fortuitous circumstances, like being at the right place, in the right generation, at the right time. Zohra never achieved success at the scale her talent, her training, and her tenacity deserved. But who deserves success? Fame is, afterall, an elusive, fickle, logicless, amoral condition. It is why Zohra wanted not just fame and power, which didn't come her way or didn't come her way the way she imagined it, but more importantly, she wanted to enjoy herself. In an interview she gave when she was 97, she noted with a guffaw, "Sex is very important for life to get going; I still want it!" This biography thus becomes an act of archiving that joy which would be bruised now and then by life's curveballs and love's receding stings.
"Eight years with Dada (Uday Shankar), fourteen years with Papaji (Prithviraaj Kapoor), but no one knew my name till I slapped Govinda (in Chalo Ishq Ladayen)!" — Zohra Segal
In the 1930s, after a brief stint studying dance in Dresden under Mary Wigman, Segal toured with Uday Shankar, the pioneer of modern dance. This is where Menon's biography begins, with Zohra poised to traverse the world. She traveled across Asia, Europe, and America, keeping an alphabetical list of all the cities she had visited. Back in India, she also helped set up Shankar's Almora Dance Cultural Center in the early 1940s, becoming part of the faculty, turning her penchant for dance into a pedagogy of it. It was here that she met her husband Kameshwar. The inter-religious couple married, left Almora, attempted to start a dance institute in Lahore, but in the increasing pre-partition zealous hostility they decided to close the academy and sink their roots in then-Bombay. After she left Lahore, Zohra, now with a daughter, never performed on stage as a dancer, for in Bombay she found acting.
She toured with Prithviraj Kapoor's theater troupe, this time making an alphabetical note of the Indian cities she toed and moved on from overnight. She also had a son. She made brief forays into cinema, choreographing, acting, but it was theater that held her heart. Menon gives us a glimpse of the various styles that went into sculpting Zohra's art — Wigman's rigorous dance school where there were no mirrors for it was believed "consciousness and awareness should proceed from within rather than an external image"; the iconoclastic artistry of Uday Shankar formulating "a new technique and dance grammar"; the political and emphatic realism of Prithviraj Kapoor. But ultimately, what came of all this creative marination? Zohra opines, "Eight years with Dada (Shankar), fourteen years with Papaji (Kapoor), but no one knew my name till I slapped Govinda (in Chalo Ishq Ladayen)!"
As her biographer Ritu Menon notes in Zohra! , "[She] spanned not only the twentieth century, but a century of the arts in India. She was, and remains, the only artist who was active in theater, in film and television, and as a dancer, within India and abroad at a time when there was no such thing as a crossover." And yet the blinding fame and power that Zohra was after did not come her way. Was this because she left the nerve center of Indian films, Bombay? A decision that was emotionally necessary after the tragic suicide of her husband. Everything in Bombay reminded her of him. A brief stint in Delhi, and then London helped calm the mourning nerves, but what of success? What of love?
She arrived in London, which Menon described as going through a cultural churn with increasing demand for Asian representation. But what is missing from this biography, but also perhaps from her life, was how Zohra felt about this churn, what her politics were. She was very much part of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), affiliated with the Communist Party, in the 1940s, but did she believe in communism? When her daughter goes protesting on the streets, she worries, and even disagrees. Is it for her safety or her method? Zohra's interiority comes to life only in the edges of the biography, in the questions Menon poses in bunches, unanswered, but not unthought of. A gesture that every biography is incomplete, however thorough. But how incomplete can a biography be? Zohra's love before and beyond Kameshwar is only hinted at, her interior life only grasped at from the decisions she makes. She becomes the summation of her choices. But is there more?
The celebrity biography, especially in film can be tricky, for access hinges often on the promise of hagiography. Would people speak without an agenda? Everyone wants to contain a myth of a loved one. For example, Penguin Books's anesthetically written Sri Devi biography by Satyarth Nayak, which read more like a curated hagiography, was made possible only with the blessings of and access to her husband Boney Kapoor. The topics that were off limits are made conspicuous by their absence. On the other hand, the Meena Kumari biography by Vinod Mehta which voyeuristically works itself into the personal life of the actress, almost excises the art from the artist. Few are able to strike that balance between speaking of the art and the artist, with respect, insight, intrigue, and information. We are, afterall, scavenging voyeurs, but we must be respectful, too. Menon is able to do that, speaking long hours with Zohra's daughter, Kiran Segal, while keeping a critical eye on Zohra's performances, even if she rushes through the acting in her last decade — the one she is most known for.
When I think of Zohra Segal, two images cut through the confected, curated clutter. One is her recitation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz's 'Mujhse Pehli Se Mohabbat Mere Mehboob Na Maang'. Zohra loved recitation, Menon notes, folding elocution into her routine. She began each day with a mugful of Nescafe, one hour of Uday Shankar's movement exercises, followed by Mary Wigman's eurythmics, and then a recitation of 34 poems in her balcony — Faiz, Iqbal, Jafri, among others. When she passed away, it was this video that was being circulated in collective mourning on the TL, the creases and her eyes widening, and her voice modulating with the changing tone of the poem — from love, to revolution, to devastation.
The other is a scene in Saawariya (2007), the last one from her last film appearance. She has just sent off Ranbir Raj (Ranbir Kapoor) — her paying guest who reminds her of her martyred son, and whom she loves just as much — to declare his love to his lover, Sakina (Sonam Kapoor). Ranbir is excited, charged with erotic longing in his red velvet coat, jumping around, and then runs out, yelling "Oh-kay-baai". We see Zohra respond, wave, smiling and seated on the bed, alone, aged. There is a chime of wind instruments in the background and neon shop signs blinking outside the window. She looks tired, happy, ready to retire now that the one she loves has love to take him forward.