In Britain there was only one indisputable child star and he was an Indian – Sabu. The story of Sabu is more romantic than any film script, a journey from unknown, uneducated Indian mahout to Hollywood star and World War Two hero.
Sabu acquired instant stardom when he appeared in Elephant Boy (1937). It was in 1935 that Britain’s premier film producer Alexander Korda commissioned the celebrated documentarist Robert Flaherty to travel to India and shoot a film about a boy and his elephant. It was Flaherty’s cameraman Osmond Borradaile who discovered an illiterate eleven year old boy, Selah Shaikh, working in the stables of the Maharaja of Mysore and persuaded Flaherty to cast him as the young mahout. The boy rapidly developed a rapport with the elephant Irawatha and with his boyish good looks, radiant smile and innate charm, proved a natural before the camera. Flaherty proceeded to shoot fifty-five hours of film illustrating the importance of elephants in Indian life and highlighting the skills of the mahout. But the film had no story and so Korda recalled the production to England, commissioned the writer John Collier to fashion a simple narrative from Rudyard Kipling’s short story ‘Toomai of the Elephants’ and appointed his brother Zoltan to shoot new scenes at Denham Studios. The film included a lengthy prologue spoken by the boy direct to camera. Selah, who knew no English, learned it phonetically and took easily to studio filming. The outcome was an 80-minute film which was roughly half-Flaherty and half-Korda but which won the Best Director prize at the 1937 Venice Film Festival. The film was a hit with the public and Korda found himself with a new star whom he renamed Sabu.
Sabu was enrolled in a private school and rapidly learned English. He became an instant celebrity, sculpted by Lady Kennet, painted by Egerton Cooper and broadcast on radio and television. For Sabu’s next film, The Drum (1938), Korda provided a specially commissioned screen story by A.E.W. Mason and Technicolor photography. The Drum was an adventure film, celebrating the exploits of the British army on the North-West Frontier of India and the Kiplingesque concept of the ‘Great Game’, dangerous secret service work in defence of the empire. Sabu played Prince Azim, heir to the throne of the border state of Tokot, who prevents his wicked uncle, the usurping ruler Ghul Khan from massacring the British and starting a border war. Azim is installed as the pro-British ruler of the state.
The Drum was a critical and popular success in Britain and America. But it met with a different reception in India. The Muslim League complained that the film sought to divide the Muslim community and the Indian National Congress complained that Sabu was being used as a tool of imperial propaganda. There were demonstrations when the film was shown in Delhi and Bombay and it was eventually banned in several Indian provinces to prevent further disturbances.
Korda avoided controversy with his next vehicle for Sabu, The Thief of Bagdad (1940), a classic ‘Arabian Nights’ fantasy with Sabu outstanding as the quick-witted boy thief, Abu, who befriends and helps to restore to the throne the deposed Caliph of Bagdad. The film’s infectious joi de vivre, poetic dialogue, soaring imagination and sumptuous production values set it above others of its kind. Begun in Britain, the film was completed in Hollywood because of the outbreak of war.
Sabu’s final film for Korda was The Jungle Book (1942), a beautifully realised jungle fantasy in technicolour shot entirely in America and based on five of Kipling’s short stories featuring the adventures of Mowgli, the Indian boy raised by wolves who encounters love, greed and prejudice when he returns to the world of men. The film owed much of its success to Sabu, giving perhaps his finest performance as Mowgli.
Sabu had been launched in the cinema in four successive hits and as a result was signed to a contract in Hollywood by Universal Pictures and cast in three of the exotic Technicolor melodramas starring Jon Hall and Maria Montez that entranced wartime audiences, Arabian Nights (1942), White Savage (1943) and Cobra Woman (1944). But where Sabu had been the centre of attention in the Korda films, in the Universal films he had a supporting role as the sidekick of the hero.
In 1944 Sabu became an American citizen and immediately volunteered for the Army Air Corps. He served as a rear-gunner in B24 bombers over the Pacific and emerged as an authentic war hero, loaded with medals and citations. After the war, he returned to Hollywood where after another melodrama, Tangier, his Universal contract expired. It was Michael Powell who, having directed Sabu in The Thief of Bagdad, now came to the rescue.
Powell and his partner Emeric Pressburger cast him in Black Narcissus (1947), their brilliant film version of Rumer Godden’s novel about an order of nuns trying and failing to set up a convent in an abandoned palace in the Himalayas. Sabu was excellent as the Young General, the heir of the local Rajput ruler, who elopes with one of the nuns’ pupils. Where The Drum celebrated the British Empire, Black Narcissus can be seen as an allegory of the retreat from Empire. Sabu was equally good in another Powell and Pressburger production, The End of the River (1947) as a South American Indian confronting the perils and temptations of civilization. But too grim and downbeat for audiences in austerity Britain, it flopped.
Back in Hollywood Sabu who retained his boyish good looks continued to play the same ethnic roles in which he had made his name but increasingly in Grade Z quickies for Poverty Row Studios.
In 1948 Sabu met and married the American actress Marilyn Cooper. By now he seems to have thought of himself as an American. An American citizen, married to an American, an American army veteran, with a very American passion for hot rod cars, he raised his two children as Americans. Returning to India in the mid-1950s for the first time since 1936 he felt it was no longer his home. But the colour of his skin meant that he was fated only to play ethnic roles, Indians, South American Indians and South Sea Islanders.
In the 1950s, with film work drying up, he showed a willingness to diversify in order to support his family. For several years he appeared in touring circuses in Europe, performing his familiar role with elephants as the dhoti-clad turbaned elephant boy and he began a successful real estate career owning and renting apartments. Then in the 1960s he made a cinematic comeback, heading the supporting casts of two major Hollywood films, Rampage (1962) and A Tiger Walks (1963). Whether or not a career as a character actor beckoned we will never know as in 1963 he died suddenly of a heart attack aged only 39. To this day he remains the only Indian star to enjoy a global reputation.
Text by Professor Jeffrey Richards, University of Lancaster.
The above findings are part of the research which ensued in the project – A Hidden Heritage: Indo-British Film Collaboration (1930-1951)