Film history

Sabu Dastagir, the actor who crossed over to Hollywood on the back of an elephant

Almost everything you need to know about the first Indian actor to make it big in the West years before Om Puri and Irrfan Khan.

Sabu Dastagir (January 27, 1924-December 2, 1963) rarely figures in the roster of names of Asian actors in Hollywood. But between 1937 and the mid-1940s, he rose to popularity in films that depicted the East as an exotic and wild, fantasy land.

His name actually was Selar Sabu. It was his brother, who accompanied him on his journey, who was Dastagir. The confusion over nomenclature was apparently created while filling out forms during immigration.

Their father served the Maharaja of Mysore as a mahout, but the boys were orphaned young and became wards of the king. As the story goes, it is either Frances Flaherty, writer and wife of the director Robert Flaherty, or even the latter’s cameraman, Osmond Borradaile, who spotted Sabu while location hunting for the film Elephant Boy in 1934 or ’35.

Sabu in ‘Elephant Boy.’
Sabu in ‘Elephant Boy.’

The film’s producer, Alexander Korda, based the movie on Rudyard Kipling’s Toomai and the Elephants from The Jungle Book. The locations were filmed in Mysore by Flaherty, while other sequences were shot by Zoltan Korda in England’s Denham Studios. Sabu was flown to England by Alexander Korda, and lived with his brother in London’s West End. For a while, he even attended school here. Elephant Boy proved a big hit, with much of the praise reserved for Sabu, described by critics as a “complete natural”.

The Drum (1938), based on AEW Mason’s book, was set in a fictitious kingdom in the North West Frontier. Sabu plays prince Azim, who is threatened by an evil uncle and becomes friends with a British drummer boy. For all its obsequious subservience, the film (also a first in Technicolor) caused riots in Bombay and Madras.

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The Thief of Baghdad (1940) was one of the most expensive Korda productions ever. Sabu essayed one of his best roles. As Abu, he outwits the evil vizier to save the princess. The movie won Oscars for special effects, cinematography and art direction.

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Jungle Book (1942), based on the Mowgli stories (played by Sabu) from Kipling’s Jungle Books, was shot in Hollywood. Though it moved away from Kipling’s original work, the movie secured Academy Award nominations again for its music and special effects.

Sabu stayed on in the United States of America and served in its military during World War II. He was part of over 40 air missions across the Pacific, serving as a machine gunner on the B-24 aircraft. For his services, he was awarded the distinguished flying cross and other military honours.

Sabu had also contracted himself to Universal at this time. Arabian Nights (1942) marked his first appearance with the actors Jon Hall and Maria Montez. Hall (whose mother was a Tahitian princess), Montez (originally from the Dominican Republic) and Sabu would go on to star in similar exotic-themed movies, such as White Savage (1942) and Cobra Woman (1944). Sabu was reduced to providing support to the lead actor and/or comic relief, even singing as he did in Tangier (1946), in forced pidgin English, “She’ll be coming round the mountain.”

The chronology of his career after this is a bit confusing. He moved to Britain to do two films with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Black Narcissus (1947), based on Rumer Godden’s novel about a group of dedicated nuns at a convent in the Himalayas, was filmed entirely in England. Sabu had a small role as an Indian prince who falls in love with the dancing girl Kanchi, played by Jean Simmons.

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In Powell’s The End of the River later that year, Sabu played the lead role of a boy of the Akuna Indian tribe living by the Amazon river in Brazil. The film was criticised for simply transporting Korda’s Empire movies to a more Latin setting, and for having the same patronising attitude towards ‘natives’.

Sabu’s last film for Universal was Man Eater of Kumaon (to all intent, only its title was taken from Jim Corbett’s book) where he was one of three Indian actors. He played Narain, the native who befriends Dr John Collins in the film.

It was in the sets of Song of India (1949) that he met Marilyn Cooper, whose role as princess Tara remained uncredited as she filled in for the actual lead, Gail Russell. Again set in a jungle, the film nevertheless had modern-day notions when Sabu, as the leader of a tribe, comes into conflict with the maharaja (played by Turhan Bey, another actor who performed Oriental roles) over capturing animals for zoos. Sabu and Cooper soon married, and remained a couple till Sabu’s early death in 1963.

In the 1950s, for all his efforts, Sabu was unable to revive his Hollywood career. The roles that came his way required him to play the same stereotypical dazed and naïve Asian. It was the time of the anti-communist ‘red scare’ in the US, and Sabu had a role in Savage Drums, where a battle against communism is waged in a small tropical island.

In these years, Sabu tried his hand at various things. He invested in real estate, with his brother’s help, and also performed with elephants as part of the Harringay Circus. It seemed he had come full circle in life, but his film career revived a bit with some low-budget humour films. In Hello Elephant, directed by the Italian Giani Franciolini, Sabu played the Sultan of Nagore. The movie also starred Vittorio De Sica. In 1954, Sabu featured in the French-Italian Treasure of Bengal (Il Tessoro de Bengala).

In Michael Lawrence’s book on him, titled Sabu, the actor apparently returned to India and reached out to Indian filmmakers. He was even considered for the role of Birju in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957), which went finally to Sunil Dutt. As Lawrence writes, Sabu found that his naiveté and simplicity did not work in drawing in Mumbai’s crowds, and hence he drove out in his Cadillac.

In Europe, Sabu had unhappy experiences with two productions by the filmmakers Ron and June Ormond. Sabu even sued them for using old footage related to him, in their film, Jungle Hell. Despite this, he did have the distinction of starring in a film with his name in the title: Sabu and the Magic Ring (1957, directed by George Blair), where he plays a stable boy who befriends a genie, and speaks to elephants.

His last three movies were Mistress of the World (1960), a European collaborative venture, where Sabu, as Dr Lin Chor, is one of many shady characters. In Rampage (1963), a jungle movie again, he played a guide. His last film, released after his death, was A Tiger Walks (1964), where he plays an Indian animal trainer who helps pacify a Bengal tiger whose escape from a circus has caused panic in a town.

Sabu’s children went onto relatively fulfilling careers. His daughter Jasmine worked as a horse trainer (she died relatively young) and his son Paul is a musician and a producer. Ian Iqbal Rashid’s short Surviving Sabu (1997) uses the plot device of a gay man who is making a film on his father’s idol, the actor Sabu, to explore confusions relating to identity. It could almost be a metaphor for Sabu’s own life.

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