Zohra Segal: Begum Ballerina

A dancer, actor, and revolution all packed into one, Segal embodied carefree womanhood on and off screen.

Poulomi Das

April 27, 2021

Zohra Segal: Begum Ballerina
Segal as Bebe in "Veer Zaara" (2004)

In a 2013 interview, Zohra Segal, then 101, revealed that the one thing she enjoyed the most in life was “Sex! Sex! And more sex!” The interview dubbed her “The Grand Old Lady of Bollywood,” and many knew her as Bollywood’s venerable grandmother (from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam or Cheeni Kum). Segal died of cardiac arrest at 102 just a year later; today marks her 109th birth anniversary. But her illustrious career, which spanned three decades, lives on.

Born Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan on April 27, 1912, in Uttar Pradesh, Segal was raised in a Rohilla Pathan Muslim household. The third of seven children (her sister was veteran theater personality Uzra Butt), Segal’s memoir — written by her daughter — describes her as a tomboy who loved playing outdoor games. After graduating from Lahore’s Queen Mary College, Segal traveled to Europe by car with her maternal uncle, crossing Iran, Palestine, Syria, and then taking a boat to Europe. She arrived at Mary Wigman’s ballet school in Dresden, Germany, sometime in the 1920s, where she trained in eurythmics.

Segal (her last name is often spelled “Sehgal” in movie credits) effortlessly straddled the worlds of dance, theater, and film for seven decades. Her animated face, caressed by a lifetime’s worth of fine lines, could switch between evoking dread or laughter at the blink of an eye. To Segal, acting wasn’t just about mouthing a few dialogues; it meant conveying a range of emotions with her whole body. For instance, the glint in her eye, a Segal trademark, was capable of revealing backstories that enhanced the proceedings of any Hindi movie. Both on and off screen, the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan-garlanded Segal behaved nothing like Hindi films’ prescription of grandmothers.