French postcard by Edition P.I., Paris, no. 291. Photo: Universal International.
British Indian actor Sabu (1924 - 1963) had 'a smile as broad as the Ganges and charm enough to lure the stripes off a tiger'. He became an instant star with the release of the British film Elephant Boy in 1937. His succession of tropical Technicolor treats delighted audiences before and during WW II.
Sabu Dastagir (or Selar Shaik Sabu) was born in the jungles of Karapur, in the little town of Mysore, British India. He was the son of a mahout (elephant driver) in service for the Maharajah. The young stable boy learned responsibility early in life when, at age 9, his father died and Sabu immediately became the ward of the royal elephant stables. At 12 he was discovered by documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty and his location crew while searching for a youth to play the title role in their upcoming feature Elephant Boy (1937). Quite taken aback by his earnest looks, engaging naturalness and adaptability to wild animals and their natural habitat, mogul Alexander Korda placed him under an exclusive contract.
Sabu and his older brother (as guardian) were whisked away to England to complete the picture and became subsequent wards of the British government. They were given schooling in the process and Sabu quickly learned the English language in preparation for his upcoming films. Elephant Boy (1937, Robert J. Flaherty) was an unqualified hit and the young actor was promptly placed in The Drum (1938, Zoltan Korda) surrounded by a British cast that included Raymond Massey and Valerie Hobson. Hollywood started taking a keen look at this refreshingly new talent when he first arrived in the USA for a publicity tour. Again, his second film was given rave reviews, proving that Sabu would not be just a one-hit wonder.
Sabu’s third film for Alexander Korda is considered a true classic. In the Arabian fantasy-adventure The Thief of Bagdad (1940, Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell), Sabu plays Abu the Thief and is not only surrounded by superb actors -- June Duprez, John Justin, Rex Ingram (as the genie) and Conrad Veidt (as the evil Grand Vizier) -- but exceptional writing and incredible special effects. Sabu's name began stirring international ears. His last pairing with Korda was the adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's classic book Jungle Book (1942, Zoltan Korda) playing Mowgli. Following this triumph, Sabu officially became the commodity of Universal Pictures and he settled in America. In 1944 , almost 20 years old, he became a citizen of the USA.
Unfortunately, Hollywood developed an assembly-line of empty-minded features for him that hardly compared to the quality pictures in England under Korda. His vehicles Arabian Nights (1942, John Rawlins), White Savage (1943, Arthur Lubin) and Cobra Woman (1944, Robert Siodmak) were, for the most part, drivel but fit the bill as colorful, mindless entertainment.While filming Song of India (1949, Albert S. Rogell), Sabu met and married actress Marilyn Cooper who temporarily filled in for an ailing Gail Russell on the set. The couple went on to have two children.
Sabu went back to England during the late 1940’s, starring in the crime drama The End of the River (1947, Derek N. Twist) and appearing fourth-billed as a native general in Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger). Daring in subject matter, the film had Deborah Kerr heading up a group of Anglican nuns who battle crude traditions, unexpected passions and stark raving madness while setting up a Himalayan order. By the mid-1950’s Sabu's career was rapidly approaching extinction. His life was further aggravated by unpleasant civil and paternity suits brought about against him. His last two pictures were supporting roles in Rampage (1963, Phil Karlson), which starred Robert Mitchum, and A Tiger Walks (1964, Norman Tokar), a routine Disney picture which was released posthumously.In 1963 Sabu suddenly at age 39 of a heart attack. His son Paul Sabu established the rock band Sabu in the 1980’s. Daughter Jasmine Sabu was an animal trainer on various films. She died in 2001.
Sources: Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), Philip Leibfried (The Powell & Pressburger Pages), Wikipedia, and IMDb.