Zohra Segal: The Centurion
Once described as India’s Isadora Duncan, the legendary Zohra Segal who last did a spirited cameo in Yash Chopra’s Veer-Zara (2004) and celebrated her hundredth birthday earlier this year “carrying a hundred years of history” in her through dance, theatre, cinema and television, has been an indistinguishable part of Hindi cinema. Even now there are seemingly more than six million people involved in making more than 800 features annually, mainly in six languages, bringing in a turnover of more than three billion annually making it the largest in the world in terms of manpower involved and there must have been an unaccountable countless situations and hundreds of individuals who must have left behind footprints in pursuit of churning out fantasies but wiped out by the waves undoing those now invisible marks it may be a lifetime in pursuit of an incomplete task of putting all the facts and figures together because unlike in the West there are organisations and agencies who are interested in keeping behind memories of a glorious past in more than a hundred ways.
We in India thrive on destroying them. How many individual names of institutions can one conjure up on the run up to celebrating the glorious past that has been left behind more by accident than any serious design to perpetuate images of the past? And one can hold both governmental and non-governmental organisations responsibilities even though at a rough estimate nearly 43 million Indians watch movies in the theatres on a daily basis. Millions of dream merchants have died in the past one hundred years. And whenever a pillar touches the ground, crocodile tears merge in the Arabian Sea. Tall promises are made by the grieving family about restoring the life and times of the individual who not only left behind millions for the family and vintages associated with him or her. But all those grandiose promises of leaving behind a living museum in his/her honour die down, the prime property succumbing to the teeth of real estate developers. The fate of three recent such proclamations will be out in the next couple of months.
One learns from reliable sources that the Maharashtra government’s gestures to convert the famed RK Studios into a heritage site have been spurned by the family because of the real estate value though every member of the family has pots of money. Almost all the old studios have disappeared, and if Mehboob Studio in suburban Mumbai continues to have regular shootings, it is not because the surviving family has any love lost for historical site but because the legendary Mehboob Khan had left the management to an independent trust, and that cannot be sold out.
For much of the hundred years not more than half a dozen banners have contributed from six to eight decades. Kiran Shantaram, who has contributed very little to the perpetuity of his father’s Rajkamal Kalamandir but kept alive his legacy, has at least left a small segment of the monumental property for cinematic activity. For both the uninitiated as and interested, Shantaram Rajaram Vankudre Shantaram (1901-90) was the visionary actor-producer-director, the founder of Prabhat Film Company together with Vishnupat Damle, KR Daiber, S Fatelal and SB Kulkarni. However, he disengaged himself from the routine affairs of running an institution, and branched out on his own—to choose subjects that may be anathema for others. Shantaram made such landmark films such as Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani, Do Ankhen Barah Haath, Navrang etc.
Next in the list, in order of seniority, will be what has come to be known as Bollywood first family which has through generations dominated Hindi cinema for eight of the ten decades of its existence, beginning with the patriarch, Prithiviraj Kapoor (1901-72) who really made his acting debut in Cinema Girl (1929), went on to pioneer Prithvi Theatre , followed by the distinguished clan starting with stalwarts such as Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Babita, Randhir, Neetu, Rishi and Randhir’s daughters, Krishma and Kareena, and now Rishi’s son Ranbir who is fast becoming Bollywood poster boy. And into this family walked in the firebrand Zohra Segal as a stage actor who “joined Prithviraj Kapoor as a dance-director” and went on to become “the leading lady who would take one corner in the make-up room…and nobody dared to touch any of her belongings”. She also simultaneously acted in two milestone films (partly related to the Indian People’s Theatre Association, IPTA), Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Dharti ke Lal on Bengal famine, and Chetan Anand’s award winning, Neecha Nagar (46) which won Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Later, while staying with the Anand family she also choreographed several of Navketan early productions (including the Guru Dutt-directed Baazi with Dev Anand and Geeta Bali in the lead, and Vijay ‘Goldie’ Anand’s maiden directorial venture Nau Do Gyarah), and the unforgettable dance sequence song in Raj Kapoor’s Awaara—(two of the few Bollywood long lasting banners. One can hardly think of any other single individual who might have been associated with two rival star-house production companies). Besides, she has also over the years acted in nearly 50 films, stage plays and television serials.
And then a few more inches got added when she moved to England, and elsewhere. Enjoying a fantastic sense of humour, she also has an infamous quote about herself: “You are seeing me now, when I am old and ugly. You should have seen me then, when I was young and ugly.” It takes a lot of courage to be able to laugh at yourself. The manner in which she ran after a huge cake with a large knife, and the battle cry with she which chased the audience on the occasion of her hundredth birthday speaks volumes about her attitude to life and living itself.
In later years, apart from British English movies like Bhaji On the Beach (92), The Jewel in the Crown—British Television), Tandoori Nights, Amma and Family (96), The Mystic Masseur (01), Bend It Like Beckham (02), Tandoori Nights (95-97), regular stage performances at home and abroad, she was last visible on the big screen in Amitabh Bachchan-Tabbu starrer, Cheeni Kum and Sanjay Leela Bansali’s youthful romance in Sawariya (07); part of two documentaries.
These are living institutions that set examples and precedents, possessed by a never-say-die spirit, and in the process became role models and inspiration. Celebrating her 100th birthday, Zohra Segal ‘Fatty’, a coffee table book by her no less celebrated Odisi dancer daughter, Kiran Segal touches upon some of these rare glimpses for an almost forgotten past.
By Suresh Kohli