Long before Irrfan Khan got roles with the likes of Angelina Jolie or Aishwarya Rai Bachchan acted alongside Andy Garcia, an Indian boy from Mysore with no acting experience at all became the first ever Indian superstar in the West. Film roles were written for him, presidents feted him and by the age of 17, he was leading the glamorous, fast life of a bona-fide star.
Selar Sheikh Sabu, or Sabu Dastagir as he is often mistakenly called, had four huge hits before he turned 18—Elephant Boy, The Drum, The Thief of Baghdad and Jungle Book, all films where he was the main draw. Discovered by the documentary film-maker Robert Flaherty, the 11-year-old orphan was a mahout in the employ of the maharaja of Mysore. It was the producer of Elephant Boy, the legendary Alexander Korda, who fully grasped the significance of this new find. The boy was quickly shifted to London and thus began a remarkable career.
Oriental avatars: (from left) Sabu in a still from the 1947 film Black Narcissus; a poster of The Thief of Baghdad; and Sabu. John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
Curiously, hardly any books have been written on him. He was never a big name in his home country, but even in Hollywood, where he still has a star on the sidewalk in Los Angeles, he is all but forgotten. A well-researched new biography by Philip Leibfried called Star of India: The Life and Films of Sabu (published by BearManor Media) seeks to correct this anomaly, and succeeds admirably.
It tells a compelling story. After Sabu’s shift to England with his brother (whose name “Dastagir” got attached to Sabu’s), he was sent off to a British public school while the producers mulled over how to best exploit this exotic new discovery. He was given a role in The Drum as a pro-British prince in colonial India, which did not go down well with many fellow Indians. The audiences, however, loved it and Korda began preparing for Sabu’s next—and most remembered— vehicle, The Thief of Baghdad.
The 1940 film, shot in glorious technicolour, is a pastiche of Orientalist fantasia, full of genies, palaces, flying carpets, a beautiful princess and an evil vazir. Korda spared no expense on the lavish sets for what was then the most expensive film made in Britain.
To a demoralized British public, facing bombings and privations because of the war, The Thief of Baghdad was perfect escapism, the magic carpet taking them far away from their worries. The young star had flattering coverage, with critics noting his lack of affectation, which more than made up for his lack of formal training.
The book quotes critic Leonard Maltin, who wrote, “Sabu’s wonderful naivete was just right for the role of the thief, and he made it his own.”
The next project was, inevitably, Jungle Book. It was as if the role of Mowgli was written for him. The ensuing film was a hit and at 17, the boy from the jungles of India was at the peak of his career, squiring around beautiful ladies and driving fast cars.
Sabu then moved permanently to the US, where Universal Pictures offered him a $1,000 (around Rs 45,000 now) a week contract. Then began the second phase of his career, which was characterized by supporting roles in films designed for the studio’s star Maria Montez. Films with titles such as Arabian Nights, White Savage and Cobra Woman followed. Sabu’s job was to contribute to the exotic feel of these films but little else—he remained the Elephant Boy all his life. Pachyderms became the leitmotif of his career—fans sent him small toy elephants all the time. During his very first visit to the US, Leibfried writes, “Mrs (Eleanor) Roosevelt greatly impressed the young Indian with her own knowledge of elephants, indeed an odd choice of animals for a life-long Democrat.”
His 1947 film Black Narcissus, based on a book by Rumer Godden, was an exception, where he did an excellent job as an Indian general.
But for the most part it was films such as Song of India, Savage Drums and The Black Panther, all designed to capitalize on his original Elephant Boy image. The author points out that in most of his films, he had virtually no love interest; perhaps audiences were thought to be uncomfortable with a handsome dark man kissing a white woman.
A variety of careers followed, including as a circus star (again with an elephant), a real estate businessman and a tail gunner in the US armed forces. He also faced—and won—the almost mandatory scandal of a paternity suit.
A stint in India to act in Nanabhai Bhatt’s forgotten Baghdad, audition for Mother India and also launch Sauda, an aborted film for Kishore Sahu (which the author does not mention), did not result in the much needed career fillip; by then, the Indians found him too American.
But though his career was floundering except for cheesy films capitalizing on his image, he remained a happy man, settled comfortably in California with his American wife and two children. At 39, he died suddenly of a heart attack; the funeral was sparsely attended, but letters of condolences came from all over the world, including from the newly elected president Lyndon Johnson.
Today he is remembered as a curiosity, though many of his better films—The Thief of Baghdad, Jungle Book and Black Narcissus—still remain very watchable.
This is a much needed book. Leibfried writes fluidly and with wit, though it is intriguing to note that there is no Indian name mentioned in his acknowledgements. Perhaps that shows how feeble Sabu’s connection with India was after he left the country to seek fame and fortune.
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