In the introduction to Close-Up, actor, dancer and choreographer Zohra Segal, 98, writes, “I have travelled extensively…met and known most of the famous names of my generation, experienced two world wars and two British Coronations…” She also worked with dancing legend Uday Shankar and actor Prithviraj Kapoor, and appeared in some of the most enjoyable South Asian films of the past two decades.
Segal’s life should be an interesting read, if not an important record. She was born to a progressive family, so when she wanted to drive to Europe from India with her uncle at age 18, her parents happily packed her off on the journey. During her drive to Europe, Segal decided she would study dance in Germany and enrolled at Dresden’s Mary Wigman Tanz Schule in 1931. After completing her studies, she returned to India and, after a couple of years, joined the Uday Shankar ballet. While working with Shankar, she met her husband, Kameshwar Nath Segal. In 1943, as Shankar’s troupe began to fall apart, the Segals moved to Mumbai and Zohra joined Prithvi Theatre. She would work with Prithvi Theatre as choreographer and actor for 14 years. In the 1960s, after having tried her hand at running a government-sponsored folk dance centre in New Delhi, Segal moved to London. Close-Up finishes with Segal returning to India for good in the 1980s.
There are parts of the book that have the chirruping enthusiasm and energy that can be seen in the best of Segal’s performances. It begins well with Segal foraging around the roots of her august family tree for curiouser and curiouser ancestors. Her letters to her favourite uncle, Sahebzada Saiduzzafar Khan or Memphis, as she called him, show the young Segal’s love for travelling and her unflagging good cheer.
The recollection of her epic journey to Europe with Memphis, driving through places such as Quetta and Balochistan, makes for a lovely read but also hints at Close-Up’s central problem: Segal isn’t the best of storytellers. Despite having all the elements of a nail-biting tale, her encounter with bandits at the Balochistan border is told with the same tone as her first experience at a hamam in Mashhad (inexplicably spelt as Meshed here). This is why the letters in Close-Up, like those written by Kapoor, are often more engaging than Segal’s prose.
Inexplicably, the book almost entirely ignores her film career, though you would think otherwise from the fact that a letter from Amitabh Bachchan is plastered on the back cover. Bhaji on the Beach, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Cheeni Kum and the other films in which Segal managed to infuse a minor character with her distinctive spirit and charm appear only in a list at the end of the book.
Much of Close-Up appears to be Segal prodding her memory and putting down what she can recall, but it lacks the good humour that Segal has often exhibited in interviews and public performances. The book needed more background research and editing to give the reader contexts to Segal’s memories.
A helping hand in writing, of the kind J.R. Moehringer provided Andre Agassi in Open, would have been very welcome because Close-Up is far from being the best testament to either Segal’s achievements or her irrepressible spirit.
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