Two years ago, shortly after Zohra Segal turned 100, an interviewer asked her if she had any regrets in life. "Of course," she replied, with that all-too-familiar impish glint in her eye. "I would have liked to be six feet tall, blond, with blue eyes, big bust and a slim waist." Instead, here she was, as she described herself, "flat-chested, big-bottomed, short, dark and, on top of that, with a face like this." But, there was also that insatiable lust for life. Now, as Zohra Segal, the much-loved star who started her career learning ballet in Germany and went on to perform across countries - on stage (including Broadway), in films and on television - signs out at 102, it is this lust for life that all those who knew her, even remotely, are celebrating.
Segal decided that stage was her calling while she was still in school. She was playing Jack in the stage adaptation of the fairytale, Jack and the Beanstalk, when she improvised on the scene and jumped from the ladder to the stage during rehearsals. So convincing was her performance that the teacher remarked, "If this child was in London, she would be earning £10 a week." So, in the 1920s, soon after graduating from college, this young girl from an aristocratic and traditional Muslim family from Uttar Pradesh was off to London, riding in a car with her uncle through Balochistan, Waziristan and Iran to Egypt, to train to be an actor. But halfway through the journey, she decided that she wanted to be a dancer and off she was to Germany.
The actor, whose life was led by her heart and her impulses, would go on to work with legendary dancer-choreographer Uday Shankar and at Prithviraj Kapoor's travelling theatre company Prithvi Theatres. It was at Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre in Almora that she met scientist-artist-doctor Kameshwar Segal, eight years her junior, whom she would marry in 1942. Among those who were to attend her wedding reception was Jawaharlal Nehru who had told her that his present to her would be a Kashmiri rug. But on the day of the wedding, Nehru was arrested for supporting the Quit India Movement. After his release when Segal's brother-in-law, who was his secretary, met him, Nehru asked, "How is that young couple?" When Segal learnt of this, she told her brother-in-law, "You should have responded, 'Where is that Kashmiri rug'?"
This quick, and at times wicked, sense of humour stayed with Segal till her last days. "I remember meeting her with my mother-in-law Amala Shankar for lunch at Taj Mansingh in Delhi some years ago," recalls Uday Shankar's daughter-in-law Tanusree Shankar. "Listening to them was like walking down history." Segal, she says, was happiness personified.
It's hard to imagine that Segal would have seen tough times. But her days in London, from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s were far from easy. She had gone to London on holiday, decided to stay a bit longer and then didn't have the money to return. The turning point came when she did the television series Padosan in England. And then, Granada Television's The Jewel in the Crown Jewel, where she played Lady Lili Chatterjee, made her a familiar face. She was around 80 when she returned to India but still raring to go. Hindi cinema followed, with her role as Govinda's grandmother in Chalo Ishq Ladaaye becoming a big hit.
Her co-stars, younger than her by several decades, have described her as the youngest star on the set. "She lived alone in a duplex flat in Alaknanda (in Delhi), but there was no scope for loneliness in that house - not with her voice ringing out loud," recalls Bikash D Niyogi, publisher and managing director of Niyogi Books that released Zohra Segal: Fatty written by her daughter Kiran Segal on her 100th birthday. "We would be discussing the book and she would call out, 'Come to my room and talk about it'." But she would not let anybody take any of her old pictures out of the house. "She had a trunk full of photographs of her life's journey - all neatly pasted in albums wrapped in muslin cloth. She had a story to tell with each picture." The publisher had to call a photographer friend to shoot those pictures.
"In the evenings, she sometimes still recites her poems," Segal's daughter had told this writer some months ago. "She still enjoys her kebab though she eats little now. At times she does get fed up because now she cannot do half the things she could earlier. But crack a joke, and she still breaks into her infectious laugh."
One of Segal's favourite couplets was: Duaen de mere baad aane vale meri vehshat ko, bohat kaanten nikal aaye mere hamrah manzil sey (May those that come after me bless me for my frenzy because in walking ahead, I have cleared the path of thorns.) In her lifetime, Segal broke many taboos. And she hoped her life would inspire others girls to go the same.