Yesterday, Sept 29th, I spent my most treasured hour with the best human on earth I know...a woman with a twinkle in her eye, wickedness in her smile, and wit and humour and grit and resilience in every sentence she utters. I wish I had recorded her as my awestruck responses galloped over details and quotes and memories that she sprinkled during our dialogue.
I WAS DETERMINED to see my friend Zohra Segal whose friendship has endured through 45 years across Continents. At a few months short of her 99th birthday, she reminisced about her life on stage and screen documented in a book, and remembered to send me her memoirs "Close Up".
When I rang to say I was on my way from the Airport to see her, she sounded reluctant to receive any visitors. It was already 6 pm. She now
leads a life dictated to by the clock. ..Calcium at 6.30, vocal exercises at 7 etc. Even at ninety nine she is crystal clear in her speech and delivery.
But time, clock, age was all forgotten when I walked in to hug her. Sitting upright in a comfortable chair smartly wrapped in a shawl over her kurta and churidars – she hates nightdresses as they rise up revealing her ‘bareness’ she volunteers, and asks me to move closer to her right ear as she can barely hear or see. But the observations she made and the responses she gave during our conversation belied any nonagenarian handicaps.
She reminisced about her days with Uday Shankar and Prithviraj Kapoor.
She told me she had preserved 55 letters from Prithviraj Kapoor. And recalled the fourteen years she spent with Prithvi Theatres – the longest time she has stayed with any institution. Even though Papaji had a first class train ticket, he travelled with the rest of the cast in third c
lass and slept on the floor like the rest of us. – “while Uday Shankar taught me dance, Papaji taught me humility”.
She jumped to eight years with Dada(Uday Shankar), 14 years with Papaji, and 25 years in London on television. She went back in memory to her big break with “Jewel In The Crown”; Sue Townsend’s “The Great Celestial Cow” at the Royal Court, and BBC’s telefilm “Maneaters of Kumaon”.
We talked of her part in the Rudyard Kipling BBC TV series directed by Waris Hossain.
I met Zohra Segal in 1965 in London when the best an Indian could do was radio broadcasts in English for immigrants from India and Pakistan called 'Look, Listen, and Speak' and 'Make Yourself at Home'.
“But when I returned to India in 1987, none of this was important – till I got a small role in a Hindi film.” No one recognized me or queued up for photograph or autograph. Then Amal Allana asked me to take part in her TV serial 'Mullah Nasruddin'. I read the script and rang Amal to ask what part is there for me. And she replied wherever it is said ‘old woman’. But it soon changed after that. Amal introduced the serial with: Story narrated by Zohra Segal’. And I came to be recognized. It has been a wonderful journey since then. I have acted with Amir Khan, Salman Khan, and even Amitabh Bachchan – who sent me a bottle of champagne after ‘Cheeni Kum’ with a note saying: Your unflinching energy is a great inspiration to all us youngsters."
And before I left she asked about all at Thespo who had worked with her when she was awarded the Thespo Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. And mentioned how she went in a wheel chair to receive the Padma Vibhushan this year. And the President came to her!!!
This is what she said to me as I left her still declaiming dramatically with arms outstretched and in her powerful voice:
“Nazar uthaa ke dekh to,
Badal rahaa hai ye samaan,
Badal rahi hai yeh zameen,
Badal rahaa hai aasmaan!”