Kameshwar died in 1959, Prithvi Theatres closed down, and Zohra stopped acting. For three years she lived in a kind of suspended animation, bereft of all the resources, relationships and activities that had sustained her. Kameshwar’s death, the more or less simultaneous closure of Prithvi Theatres and Uzra’s final departure for Pakistan marked the kind of turning point in her life from which there would be no going back.

A subtle transformation was taking place within her – she realised that the only skills she had were dancing and acting, and that, thus far, she had simply, and conveniently, attached herself first to one celebrated artiste and then another, ‘basking in their glory’. She was on her own now, single, the sole breadwinner, not just for the time being but for the foreseeable future. And she was forty-eight years old, with two very young children to look after. A stock-taking was necessary.

England beckons

There was nothing impulsive about her decision to seek work as an actor in England, just a practical reckoning that any experience gained on the London stage – should it come her way – could only be to her advantage. She needed to work as an actor, but also to earn a living, and so she arrived at the second critical decision in her current situation: she would take whatever she was offered with regard to both. She would suppress her ego as an actor; and as an individual, relegate her aristocratic lineage to the background.

She would, in a manner of speaking, make herself over. Acquire a persona. Present another face to the world. A dresser at the Old Vic, a glorified ayah? Why not? No one knew who she was in London and, looking on the bright side, she could see as many plays as she liked at the Old Vic. A seamstress at Pettits? A new skill. Managress at the Tea Centre? The better to entertain her friends and co-workers at the BBC with. Waiting for her luck to turn, recalling, at every low point, Kameshwar’s adage: ‘If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’

In the beginning all her roles were fillers, her screen presence often no longer than a few minutes. Producers would send their scripts to agents with a breakdown of the characters, and if the agents had clients who seemed to fit the roles they would send their details on and hope they were called for an interview. ‘With Zohra, people came to us because they wanted Zohra,’ said Jill Williams, ‘and I don’t remember her ever turning down a job.’

Zohra told Roshan Seth, ‘I’m more than fully aware of my shortcomings.’ But she persevered. ‘I didn’t,’ said Roshan. ‘I gave up, returned to India, she didn’t.’

Madhur Jaffrey, too, gave up her acting career for want of good roles and developed as a TV personality, focussing on food. Rani Dube moved into production, Jamila Massey slowly branched out into writing, and Indira Joshi retired early. Zohra waited. Used her voice initially to good advantage on BBC’s ‘English by Radio’, ‘Look, Listen, Speak’ and ‘Make Yourself at Home.’ She accepted bit parts whenever an offer came her way, made herself available, kept her body in trim.

Her mantra:

Eat a good diet.
Do all things in moderation.
Exercise every morning.
Keep happy.

The roles she got were like that of the Ayah in the Kipling series – and that, too (as she told her cousin Muneeza Shamsie), ‘because Waris Hussein stood by me’ – but she didn’t discriminate (unlike other Indian actors in London at the time) because, as Roshan Seth said, ‘to discriminate was a luxury, and she didn’t have that. She never turned anything down – she needed the money, she needed the work, she needed to be seen’.

She needed to be seen, and to be seen by as many people as possible, for which television was the perfect medium. She loved theatre, believed that the best training for an actor is the stage, and always maintained that ‘[the] stage is like a sari, the TV screen like a rumaal. You can make a rumaal out of a sari, but not the other way around.’ But she also knew that television was far more likely to have an opening for her than the West End, and also likely to be much better paid.

Through the hard times that continued for several years and gave little indication that they would end soon, or for long, Zohra never looked back or retraced her steps. ‘It was a kind of one-way street,’ recalled her nephew Babar, ‘because she had burnt her bridges. She never dwelt on her adversity.’

Indeed, adversity, it almost seemed, brought out the best in her. Although she herself thought she was bad-tempered, selfish and impatient, no one (other than her children, obviously) ever recalled her being so, on any occasion. The Zohra they saw, knew and worked with was never disparaging or judgemental, was always game – ‘creatively lovable’, in Dolly Thakore’s words, and ‘life-enhancing’, in Jill Williams’ opinion. In England, in a social environment that was never completely home to her, working in a field characterised by competitiveness, rivalry and professional jealousies, a field, moreover, where a subtle racism was never far from the surface, Zohra developed the habit of stiff-upper-lip-with-a-smile.

Zohra Segal with colleagues and fellow artists from BBC’s Hindi Service in London, 1964. Photo courtesy Dolly Thakore.

With rare exceptions – Jewel in the Crown, Firm Friends, her early films – Zohra was cast as what Jill Williams called the ‘funny granny’, and it was a role she made her own. In a way, a nani’s or dadi’s personality and place in Indian families almost comes ready-made; what Zohra did was to give it an added twist: she improvised. Often, dialogues were bland or boring or in broken English, and roles could be skimpy. She made something of them, regardless, even if it was only to add gibberish Bambaiyya lingo to the twinkle in her eye.

That Zohra had undeniable stage and screen presence was a fact, but was she actor or performer? Was she playing a role, or playing Zohra? Onstage or off, on screen or not, wasn’t she always just playing a part, and hadn’t she always said, ‘Whatever I do is for an audience’? Did she actually ever stop acting?

She loved being complimented, loved the applause, never tired of enquiring about her performance: ‘Did you really like it? I was good, wasn’t I?’ But she could also overdo it, become a caricature of herself. ‘If she had been directed properly,’ commented Roshan Seth, ‘her performances would probably have been very different.’ So, why wasn’t she? ‘Because of her age, because of who she was, because she was SO sincere, SO honest, SO truthful… Nobody told her, ‘Try not to try.’

Seth believed it was her early exposure in the Prithviraj mode of acting that was responsible for many of her over-the-top performances, that when ‘you are not given the tools to do the job, you think excess energy will do it for you’. Yet it was the same Roshan Seth who also believed that ‘there was something in Zohra of Mother Courage, taking the ploughshares on her shoulders, something in her of the tigress’.

Excerpted with permission from Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts, Ritu Menon, Speaking Tiger Books.