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Zohra Segal (or sometimes spelled as Sehgal) was born as Sahibzadi Zohra Mumtazullah Khan Begum in Rampur on 27 April 1912 to Mumtazullah Khan and Natiqua Begum in what was then called United Provinces.
Her family descended from a Pathani Chieftain, Maulvi Ghulam Jilani Khan who came to the court of Ahmed Shah in Delhi in 1760 and got some land on the banks of Kosi river. The third of seven children, Zohra’s mother passed away when she was quite young and both she and her sister studied at Queen Mary’s College in Lahore.
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In 1930, Zohra embarked on a trip of a lifetime when she accompanied her uncle from Dehradun to England by car. They traveled via Lahore, Iran and Palestine, Syria, Egypt and caught a boat to Europe in Alexandria.
Zohra became the first Indian to get admission into Mary Wigman’s ballet school in Germany and studying modern dance for three years. She attended a performance by the great Uday Shankar, who offered her a job upon completion of her studied.
Zohra’s life changed when she unexpectedly got a telegram from Uday Shankar asking if she could join his troupe in Japan. Zohra answered the call and toured with Uday Shankar’s group across Japan, Egypt, Europe, and the US between 1935-40.
Upon her return to India, Zohra taught at the Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre, Almora, and this is where she met her future husband Kameshwar Segal.
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A few years later Zohra and Kameshwar moved to Lahore and set up Zohresh Dance Institute but growing communal tentions at the onset of the Partition of India saw them move to Bombay. Zohra’s sister Uzra Butt was working with Prithvi Theatre, and Zohra, too, followed suit. Between 1945 and 1959, Zohra toured nearly every major city in India with Prithvi Theatre as an actress.
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At the same time, Zohra also became an integral part of the leftist group Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) where she came in contact with the likes of Chetan and Uma Anand, Balraj and Damyanti Sahni, Dev Anand and K.A. Abbas, who directed IPTA’s maiden film production, Dharti Ke Lal (1946). She also acted in the said film.
Zohra featured in Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (1946), which became the first Indian film to win the Grand Prix at the first-ever Cannes Film Festival.
Poster of Awaara (2018-06/2018-06)Art Deco Mumbai
While working with IPTA, Zohra also choreographed songs for films. This included working in Raj Kapoor's Awara (1951).
When Zohra Segal taught at Uday Shankar's school in Almora, the legendary filmmaker Guru Dutt was one of her students. Later Zohra Segal choreographed songs for two of his films, Baazi (1951) and CID (1956) that was directed by Raj Khosla.
After the death of Kameshwar, Zohra shifted base to New Delhi in 1959 Delhi. She worked as the head of the then newly founded Natya Academy.
A few years later, Zohra went to England on a dance scholarship and began to teach her mentor Uday Shankar’s style of dance in London. It was here that Zohra also began her career as an international star with BBC’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s story The Rescue of Pluffles (1964) and later Doctor Who. Over the next two decades, Zohra acted in popular shows such as Mind Your Language, Jewel in the Crown, and Tandoori Nights (1985).
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In 1991, Zohra’s appearance as the narrator in Doordarshan’s Mulla Nasruddin introduced her to a new generation of Indians. The immensely popular show featured Raghubir Yadav in the titular role of the thirteenth-century wise man and Zohra soon became the lovebale granny to millions of Indians.
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In the 1990s, Zohra’s acclaimed play Ek Thi Nani was staged in Lahore for the first time. It featured Zohra and her sister Uzra Butt, who had moved to Pakistan after the Partition. Zohra also toured the US with the play’s English version, A Granny for All Seasons.
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Some of Zohra Segal's best-known films include Gurinder Chadha’s critically acclaimed debut Bhaji on the Beach (1993) and the global blockbuster Bend it Like Beckham (2002).
In Hindi films, through the late 1990s and early 2000s, Zohra featured as the grandmother in Dil Se (1998), Dillagi (1999), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and Veer Zaara (2004).
In a career that spanned across sixty years, Zohra Sehgal also acted opposite Ranbir Kapoor, the great-grandson of Prithviraj Kapoor, with whom she worked in Prithvi Theatre, and the grandson of Raj Kapoor, whom she choreographed in Awara, in his debut film, Saawariya (2007). In the same year, Zohra played Amitabh Bachchan’s mother in Cheeni Kum.
She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2009, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 2004 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2010.
Zohra encapsulated her wonderful life and career in her candid 2010 autobiography Close-Up: Memoirs of a Life on Stage and Screen. Zohra Segal turned 100 on 27 April 2012 and continued to engage with the public.
It’s impossible for Zohra’s infectious joie de vivre to rub off on anyone who has seen her on stage or in on the screen. Witnessing over a century of transition on stage and cinema, Zohra Segal’s contribution to the field remains peerless.
She passed away at the age of 102 on 10 July 2014 in New Delhi.
Curated by: Gautam Chintamani from the archives of Cinemaazi