Born in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India, on 27 April 1912, Zohra Segal graduated from Queen Mary's College in Lahore, 1929. She and her sister Uzra Butt were, by the late 1930s, renowned in India for combining classical dance with acting. After Partition the two were separated and Segal continued her performance career in India before moving to the UK in the early '60s.
Segal's first role for British television was as an Ayah (maid) for a BBC adaptation of a Kipling story entitled The Rescue of Pluffles (tx.27/9/1964). Though her television career was sporadic in the 1960s and 1970s, she appeared a number of small roles in film including Hammer's The Vengeance of She (d. Cliff Owen, 1967), and Tales That Witness Madness (d. Freddie Francis, 1973) before landing her first major role in Merchant-Ivory's The Courtesans of Bombay (d. James Ivory, 1982). This led to a major role as Lady Chatterjee in the television adaptation The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984).
Many of the roles Segal has played since the mid 1980s could be categorized as 'the elderly south Asian woman', as in the comedy drama series Tandoori Nights (Channel 4, 1987) and Never Say Die (Channel 4, 1987) and the east-meets-west drama Firm Friends (ITV, 1992-94), about the fast food business. Segal has also worked on many independent British features including Caravaggio (d. Derek Jarman, 1986), Partition (d. Ken McMullen, 1987) and Bhaji on the Beach (d. Gurinder Chadha, 1993).
Since the mid-1990s most of Segal's work has been for the Bollywood film industry, in films such as in Dil Se (India, d. Mani Ratnam, 1998) and Dillagi (India, d. Sunny Deol, 2000), though she has continued to make films in Britain, recently The Mystic Masseur (d. Ismail Merchant, 2001) and Bend It Like Beckham (d. Gurinder Chadha, 2002).
To date, her acting career has spanned over 6 decades internationally and almost 4 decades in the UK alone, bringing to the screen many different representations of a south Asian woman of the Diaspora.