SABU- ‘The Elephant Boy.’
 

 A Tribute by Naveen K. Gupta

 

Selar Sheik Sabu

In 1962, Leela Naidu charmed the western world in Merchant Ivory Productions,”The Householder’, she along with Maharani Gayatri Devi went on to be voted as one of the ten most beautiful women in the world, but could snag any other Hollywood projects.

In the late 50s, I.S. Johar played cameos in international films such as ‘Harry Black ‘(1958), ‘North West Frontier (1959), ‘Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and ‘Death on the Nile (1978), besides acting in ‘Maya (1967), a US TV series.

 Saeed Jaffrey has to his creditThe Man Who Would Be King (1975), ‘ Gandhi (1982), ‘A Passage to India ‘(1965 BBC version and 1984 film) and’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). For television  Jaffrey starred in ‘Gangsters (1975-1978), ‘The Jewel in the Crown (1984), ‘Tandoori Nights (1985-1987) and ‘Little Napoleons (1994). But even a kid would tell you that he has greater Bollywood output than his character roles put together over these decades in Hollywood.

Kabir Bedi shot to fame as Gobinda in ‘Octopussy’(1978),the Bond flick, where he sparred with Roger Moore. But made it real big with the television series ‘Sandokan’,  the saga of a romantic Asian pirate during British colonial times; an Italian-German-French TV series which broke viewership records across Europe.It even reached the little island of Trinidad in 1978, where I and my kid brother watched it avidly every Sunday afternoon!  But besides being an exotic gentleman in the primetime US serials during the 80s to 90s, Kabir Bedi also remained much or less moored to Bollywood.

Naseeruddin Shah was beaten to the Hollywood post by his NSD and FTII batchmate Om Puri, when he appeared in a cameo in ‘Gandhi’(1982) compared to Shah’s Inspector Ghote in ‘The Perfect Murder’(1988).However Puri as Dr. Vijay Alezais in Mike Nichols’ disappointing fare ‘Wolf’ (1994) could not be written off unlike Shah, who had to wait for Sturla Gunnarsons’s ‘Such a long journey’(1998), Puri went on to score at regular intervals than Shah. Even at present Puri has more international projects than Shah or any other Indian actor to his credit. But no Indian has ever been the toast of Bollywood as was a mahout boy from Mysore. His name was Sabu.

In April, 1937, the legendary documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty, creator of ‘Nanook of the North,’ (1922) ‘Moana,’(1926) and ‘Man of Aran,’(1934) and  the mogul of London Films, Alexander Korda had their labour of love,called ‘Elephant Boy’ released.  It was based on  one of the tales from ‘The Jungle Books’, by Rudyard Kipling,-Toomai of the Elephants. The lead was a certain  11 year old Selar Shaik Sabu who was serving the Maharajah of Mysore as a mahout (elephant driver), just as his father had done before him. Sabu was born on Jan. 27, 1924, in Karapur, Mysore, in southern India. His mother's family (she died shortly after his birth) had come from Assam  which explained the part Mongolian countenance of his.

 His father took over the task of raising Sabu just like the little Toomai, even teaching his elephant to rock the little boy's cradle. When his father 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 four years later  when riding one of his beloved elephants that Flaherty first saw him when looking for someone to play Rudyard Kipling's Toomai

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. Filming began in the spring of 1935, but bad weather held up any real work until later that year.

Though it received mixed reviews, Elephant Boy was popular with the public, due mainly to Sabu, who became an instant star. “..With a smile as broad as the Ganges and charm enough to lure the stripes off a tiger..., wrote Frances Flaherty in her book,’Elephant Dance’, based on her and her husband’s travels in the Indian Subcontinent.

The young Indian was the toast of town  and was taken to England to promote the film, which was the official British entry at the Venice Film Festival that year where it won the award for best direction (shared by Flaherty and Zoltan Korda, who directed the studio sequences shot in London.) He broadcast over the BBC, televised at Alexandra Palace, sat for a sculpture by Lady Kennet and a portrait by Egerton Cooper. The Stable boy had made it good!

On the basis of this initial success, Sabu was rushed into his second film, ‘The Drum,’ based on the novel by A.E. Mason. It was Shot in Technicolor and directed by Zoltan Korda, it holds up very well even today.

Sabu's third picture undoubtedly his finest vehicle was. similar in story to the Douglas Fairbanks film of the same name, ‘The Thief of Bagdad’.It contained  a beautiful princess (June Duprez), a malevolent vizier( Conrad Veidt), a genie in a bottle (Rex Ingram), a fabulous jewel, a hidden temple, a giant spider, and a flying carpet -  in vivid Technicolor by design experts William Cameron Menzies and Vincent Korda. Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan shared the directorial credits.

No actor ever enjoyed a role more than Sabu did his in The Thief of Bagdad, and his enjoyment is infectious. In truth, he was a youth, living a fantasy and knew it, so he reacted, rather than acted. When finally released on Christmas Day, 1940, The Thief of Bagdad was deservedly a smash hit, as well as winning Oscars for color cinematography, color art direction, and visual and sound special effects.

Filing of The Thief of Bagdad took over two years, due to Britain's entry into World War II. Operations had to be shifted to Hollywood in order to complete the production. (Some location shooting was also done, notably at the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert.) This delay precluded Sabu's accepting the title role in RKO's 1939 release, Gunga Din; the part went to Sam Jaffe.

Sabu’s final film for Korda was ,’ The Jungle Book,’ released in 1942. Sabu was a natural for Mowgli, the feral child raised by a wolf pack. Animal footage was cleverly integrated with that of the humans so that the beasts seemed directly involved with the humans; only the snakes were models. The score by Miklos Rozsa also holds the distinction of being the first such to be released as a record album.

That same year Sabu was signed by Universal, where he appeared in four films in support of "The Queen of Technicolor", Maria Montez. The first was ‘Arabian Nights,’ (1942). Sabu received third billing for the first time.  For the next three pictures, ‘White Savage’ (1943), ‘Cobra Woman’ (1944) and ‘Tangier’ (1946), his role was essentially the same, friend of the hero and contributor of mild comic relief.

 The war years were busy ones for the young actor, unlike our Bollywood Khans who take pledges on news channels to protect India from terrorism! Sabu participated in the Treasury Department's defense bond sales campaign touring 30 cities and appeared on radio. In 1944, Sabu became an American citizen. He entered the Army Air Force Basic Training Center at Greensboro, North Carolina and as a tail gunner for the remainder of the war, flying over forty missions in the Pacific; he won the Distinguished Flying Cross among other decorations. He was discharged as a Staff sergeant.

 Sabu returned to England for his ninth film, ‘Black Narcissus,’ directed by Michael Powell His role was as the son of an Indian general who attempts to improve his knowledge by attending a school run by Anglican nuns headed by Deborah Kerr. ‘Black Narcissus,’ dealt with the various problems the nuns have coping with the environment and the populace, as well as the inner turmoil caused by Sister Ruth's (Kathleen Byron) losing her religious calling and succumbing to lust. Sabu appears about midway, wearing the scent that gives the story its title. He promptly becomes the object of desire of a young pupil played by Jean Simmons  runs off with her .

‘The End of the River,’ (1947) gave him another leading role, but this Powell-Pressburger production was directed by former editor Derek Twist. It was over-ambitious and under-developed, and failed to make much of its authentic Brazilian locations. Yet Sabu acquitted himself very well in the complex part of Manoel, a young Amazonian Indian sucked into a world of moral  and political corruption, and though a genuine Brazilian celebrity (Bibi Ferreira) was chosen to play Sabu's wife, the result was a short, but dull feature.

Sabu returned to the United States for his last Universal effort, a bummer called ‘Man-Eater of Kumaon’ (1948), which is best forgotten. The actor went over to Columbia for his next picture, and met his wife to be.

 On the set of ‘Song of India,’( 1948), he met a young actress named Marilyn Cooper,  a last minute replacement for an ailing Gail Russell in the female lead. However she received no screen credit for her work. On October 19 they were married and Sabu would become the parents of two children, Paul and Jasmine. Paul now heads a very successful rock band called "Only Child"; he also produces records for other artists. Jasmine is a writer and trainer of Arabian hybrid horses.

Sabu was a practical and realistic person. Early on he realized that his appeal would wane as he grew older. However, he had no intention of becoming a mahout again, so around 1950 he began a contracting and real estate business which occupied most of his time when he was not acting. In this he was assisted by his brother. But tragedy  was in store his brother was killed in a robbery of his furniture store, and the store closed due to losses.

  

Time being cruel as it always is to the nice people in this world, also took Sabu in its vice like grip and now Sabu took what film work came his way, even though jungle and fantasy films had fallen out of favor by the Fifties.

In 1952 he returned to his homeland for a film called Bagdad. this time he did not portray a thief. Toward the end of that year he was back in England, starring in the Harringay Circus with an exciting Elephant act. But audience response was low, so he was forced to wear the more traditional ‘dhoti’and consequently suffered a great deal from the cold. He also toured Europe with the circus in the following year.

After the tour, Sabu appeared with Vittorio DeSica in the 1954 Italian production, ‘Hello, Elephant!’(1954). 1956 was the nadir of his career. First came a short entitled ‘ Black Panther’, produced by Ron and June Ormond, followed by ‘Jungle Hell,’.

 Despite this brace of disasters,  Allied Artists must have felt that the former child star's name still had drawing power, for they cast him in a 1957 vehicle entitled ‘Sabu and the Magic Ring’, making him one of a select few to have their real names appear in a film title. Following that, Sabu made but three pictures; a German-Italian co-production directed by William Dieterle called ‘Mistress of the World’ (1959); a love triangle story concerning big game hunters in India with Robert Mitchum and Jack Hawkins in which he played an Indian guide –‘Rampage,’(19'63); ‘A Tiger Walks,’(19'64) a Disney film about a tiger that escapes from a circus,that was released posthumously.

On December 2, 1963, India's only international film star was stricken by a fatal heart attack in Chatsworth, California. His body was interred in Forest Lawn cemetery among many other film personalities.

Though the young Indian boy who charmed his way around the world is gone, his film legacy keeps him alive, and moving pictures still remind us of a magical man-boy called Sabu, who perhaps was the greatest gift India offered to Hollywood

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