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Sabu (1924-1963)


Main image of Sabu (1924-1963)

Britain's first above-the-title film star of Indian origin - indeed, for many years India's only truly international star - Sabu's own life story was as unlikely and fantastic as that of many of the characters he played. Despite his lack of acting experience and a less than perfect command of English, it's easy to see from his opening straight-to-camera narration alone just why the veteran documentarist Robert Flaherty was literally charmed into casting him as Toomai, the title role of Elephant Boy (1937).

His full name is the subject of some controversy. Most reference books have it as 'Sabu Dastagir', but his son Paul confirmed that his real name was Selar Sabu, although his brother's was Sheik Dastagir. Sabu was born on 27 January 1924 in Karapure, Mysore, in southern India and his early life has many parallels with Toomai's: his mother died when he was very young and he was raised by his father, a mahout, or elephant driver. When he too died in 1931, the six-year-old Sabu was taken into the service of the Maharajah of Mysore, first as a stable boy, then as a mahout in his own right, and it was when riding one of his beloved elephants that Flaherty first saw him when looking for someone to play Rudyard Kipling's Toomai of the Elephants (from 'The Jungle Book').

The film had a troubled two-year gestation, with Flaherty being replaced by Zoltán Korda mid-production and Sabu shipped over to England for six weeks of studio scenes. Although the end result garnered mixed reviews, Sabu's performance was universally praised and the film a box-office hit, and Alexander Korda quickly signed him up to a long-term contract.

The first fruit of this was The Drum (d. Zoltán Korda, 1938), his first Technicolor production, though as Korda wanted to keep a much tighter rein on the budget it was largely shot in Wales. But Sabu's winning performance as heroic young Prince Azim showed that he had real range as an actor, cemented by his third, best-known role as Abu, The Thief of Bagdad (1940), a notoriously piecemeal production shot on both sides of the Atlantic and with six directors holding the reins (Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan credited, along with Alexander and Zoltán Korda and William Cameron Menzies). It is not entirely thanks to Sabu that none of this is apparent from the finished film, one of the most richly imaginative fantasies ever put on screen, but he certainly deserves a major share of the credit.

Sabu remained in Hollywood for the duration of World War II. He made a final film for Korda, The Jungle Book (US, 1942), which brought his London Films career full circle in that it returned to the source of Elephant Boy, the actor being as natural as Mowgli as he had previously been as Toomai. He remained in Hollywood after his contract expired, signing with Universal Pictures to make a quartet of films opposite Maria Montez, becoming a US citizen in 1944 and flying several missions for the US Air Force as a tail-gunner towards the end of the war.

Returning to Britain in 1946, Sabu teamed up with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger for his last two British films. By far the best of these, the exotic Technicolor extravaganza, Black Narcissus (1947) cast him as the young general, a relatively brief but pivotal role in which he sports the scent that gives the film its title and runs off with young village girl Kanchi (Jean Simmons). The End of the River (1947) gave him another leading role, but this Powell-Pressburger production directed by former editor Derek Twist was over-ambitious and under-developed, and failed to make much of its authentic Brazilian locations. That said, Sabu acquitted himself very well in the complex part of Manoel, a young Amazonian Indian sucked into a world of moral and political corruption.

After this, Sabu left Britain for good and spent the rest of his career making relatively undistinguished Hollywood films and building a successful career in property. He died of a heart attack at a shockingly young 39 shortly after completing his first Disney film (A Tiger Walks, US, 1963), and was buried in Hollywood's famous Forest Lawn cemetery.

Michael Brooke

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Black Narcissus (1947)Black Narcissus (1947)

Remarkably passionate melodrama set in a Himalayan convent

Thumbnail image of Drum, The (1938)Drum, The (1938)

London Films' first Technicolor feature, a stirring Empire epic

Thumbnail image of Elephant Boy (1937)Elephant Boy (1937)

Korda Kipling adaptation that made an instant star of Sabu in the title role

Thumbnail image of End of the River, The (1947)End of the River, The (1947)

Brazil-based melodrama starring Sabu as a young man accused of murder

Thumbnail image of Jungle Book (1942)Jungle Book (1942)

Sabu plays Mowgli in this Korda Kipling adaptation

Thumbnail image of Surviving Sabu (1997)Surviving Sabu (1997)

Intelligent short about Asian identity and generational conflict

Thumbnail image of Thief of Bagdad, The (1940)Thief of Bagdad, The (1940)

Michael Powell co-directed Korda's lavish Arabian Nights fantasy

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Thumbnail image of Asian-British CinemaAsian-British Cinema

From the margins to mainstream

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