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 credit ?The 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
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
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
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,
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 Zolt?n Korda mid-production and Sabu shipped over to
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
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
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
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
On the set of ?Song of
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
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,
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
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