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I had finished iftar when a friend called to tell me that Zohra Apa had died of a heart attack in a New Delhi hospital where she had been admitted after being diagnosed with pneumonia. I last met her on her 100th birthday at the Capital’s India Habitat Centre, where she launched her wonderful biography Zohra Segal: Fatty, written by her daughter Kiran. The news of her leaving us for another stage brings back memories of the time spent with her.

When I co-produced and wrote the television comedy series Amma And Family some 15 years ago for Home TV, there was no doubt in our minds as to who Amma should be. I did not know Zohra Apa personally, and we could not believe our luck that the veteran actor had agreed to do the lead role for a relatively new film unit. As a writer, it was an honour for me to write scripts for her.

From the first day of shooting, Zohra Apa became the life of the unit, the darling of everyone on the set. We were all nervous but her kindness and grace put us all at ease. The series I wrote was partly autobiographical, aimed at breaking the Muslim stereotypes portrayed in film and on television. Zohra Apa brought Amma, my grandmother, alive, playing the lovable, snooping, domineering, hypochondriac and adventurous woman to perfection.

She never cultivated the press, and that’s probably why I feel she never dominated the Indian media. She couldn’t be bothered with giving interviews and as a professional, was even known to charge for the time spent with an interviewer. Zohra Apa had a “rate card" for everything. Photo ops, special appearances, home and studio interviews, everything came at a set price. I respected her for it. When writers wished to approach her through me, I warned them about this. Most never called again after checking with their offices.

One remembers her forever in high spirits, always raring to go. Zohra Apa was the oldest, but liveliest, person on the sets. She wanted her scripts in Urdu, and said she would always rewrite her lines so that she could remember them. A thorough professional, she came with her lines well-rehearsed. Other actors who normally did not know their lines would make sure they did when they had a scene with Zohra Apa, because she knew their lines and cues as well! She never arrived late, never complained; her professionalism was something that we all learnt from. And of course, as soon as the stage lights came on, Zohra Apa’s eyes would light up and she would become the character she was playing.

Off the sets, we all sat around the old lady listening to her stories. She had plenty of them and loved to entertain us with anecdotes from her life. Born in 1912 to an orthodox Muslim family in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, she went to a school where the girls remained in purdah. Her overwhelming passion for dance took her to Uday Shankar’s dance troupe, with tours around the world. An inter-faith marriage, theatre days with actor Prithviraj Kapoor, and choreographing film dance numbers for the actor Helen, were later landmarks in her life. Arriving in Mumbai in the 1940s, she soon became part of the film cognoscenti, often part of gatherings at Chetan Anand’s Pali Hill home. Her first major film role was in Neecha Nagar (1946), which won an award at the Cannes Film Festival, long before Om Puri and Irrfan Khan became our exports to Hollywood, Zohra Apa got roles in many international film projects, like The Long Duel (1967), The Guru (1969), and The Mystic Masseur (2001).

Zohra Apa told us stories of her struggling days, of her years of battling cancer, of coping with her husband’s suicide, and film and theatre in England, which bought her international acclaim.

I later produced a television show with the late writer Khushwant Singh, called Not A Nice Man To Know, where Singh interviewed women from various fields. He enjoyed doing the show with Zohra Apa the most and the two got on like a house on fire. At her animated best, she recited the lyrics of the song Abhi toh main jawaan hoon (I’m still youthful) for him. He said she was one of the most fascinating women he had ever met.

After our series, Zohra Apa went on to become Bollywood’s hottest grandmother. She worked with Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Manisha Koirala, and Sunny and Bobby Deol, among many famous actors. When I asked her about her experience of working with younger superstars, she said she loved showing off in front of them. With a naughty glint in her eyes, she said she was making a lot of money.

Along with Uzra Butt, her actor sister from Pakistan, Zohra Apa performed Ek Thi Nani, the famous play about two sisters living in India and Pakistan. Staged in many cities, the play, produced by Madiha Gohar from Lahore, had shades from both sisters’ lives and touched many hearts, including mine—my mother’s sisters too are in Pakistan.

Zohra Apa received the Norman Beaton award in England in 1996 for her contribution to acting in the UK. Then came the recognition in India with the Padma Shri (1998), followed by the Padma Vibhushan (2010). By then, awards and recognition did not mean much to Zohra Apa. She had tasted success and lived life on her own terms.

The author is a New Delhi-based writer.

Also See: Book Excerpt | Zohra Segal: Fatty--

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