The story of Sabu, the elephant boy

Sabu Selar’s trip from Mysore to Hollywood

Some months ago, I saw the latest version of the Jungle book film in IMAX 3D hoping it will be a great experience, and came away with the conclusion that I liked the 1967 Disney cartoon film better. But if you have watched ‘Jungle Book’ an even older non animated version, you’d have seen an Indian boy acting as Mowgli. Americans of the 40’s and 50’s would recall him, but hardly any of you would have come across this name in India. For a long time he was a popular actor, India’s cultural ambassador in Hollywood, the first and perhaps only Indian to figure in the Hollywood walk of fame. That was Sabu, the person enacting Mowgli in ‘Jungle book’ and as Sabu in the film ‘Elephant boy’. He hobnobbed with nobility, was President Reagan’s friend and for a while a very well to do actor in Hollywood. The story of the boy’s travel from the jungles of Mysore to Hollywood, his exploits as an American turret gunner during WWII are all legends that will remain in American minds for a long time. He is the subject of books, movies, numerous articles and even a doctoral thesis. I had mentioned him in my Elephantine caper story where I had mentioned that Senator Don Kennard was called Sabu, the elephant boy in jest. 

Don’t you think it is time to get to know this interesting character?

A number of mature Indian actors ventured into Hollywood after him, Om Puri, Nasiruddin Shah, Saeed Jaffrey, Kabir Bedi, Irfaan Khan and so on, but the story of Sabu started right at his childhood. It was a time for extravaganzas and the lure of the orient was just getting its due exposure in the Americas. Silent movies of the 20’s were making waves in Europe, WW1 erupted, but filming continued as usual in Hollywood and soon, the era of regular motion pictures with sound a.k.a ‘talkies’ had started becoming popular. Color in movies were just about to make a splash. There is a curious story as to why artistes and filmmakers flocked to Hollywood and it involves Edison. Edison, brilliant man that he was, was also one who liked to protect his turf and used the legal process as much as possible to benefit him and his business. On one side he was having his tussles with the father of alternating current transmission systems – the brilliant Nikola Tesla while on the other he was fighting with filmmakers arguing over his motion picture patents. To escape Edison’s legal forays, many filmmakers moved to the tinsel town in California where those patents could not be enforced.

And it was into this showbiz world that the little boy from Mysore arrived, as a representative of his exotic Eastern land. The western press then went on to showcase a rags to riches route which the little boy undertook and his pursuit of the American dream. And as you can guess, the root cause of Sabu’s good fortune was Rudyard Kipling and his jungle book stories. One story in the Kipling collection was ‘Toomai of the Elephants’. Kipling, if you did not know, was introduced to the elephant by his father Lockwood who was fascinated by the animal in India and wrote about it. Now there was a naturalist who worked in the Mysore irrigation department named George Sanderson and his novel efforts at catching numerous elephants fetched him the nickname Elephant King (Sanderson’s book covers his trips to Malabar). This was the character named Peterson around whom Kipling wrote his Toomai story.

Anyway Toomai, the mahout’s son is a boy attached to his elephant (strangely called Kala Nag) and this was the story which Flaherty the film maker wanted to showcase (whose rights were later purchased by Kroda) for America. He wanted to make the film ‘Elephant Boy’, tracing the story of a little boy and his big animal friend. To do this he collaborated with Alexander Kroda and set out in 1935 to commence filming in India. Within a year they had spent a colossal amount and completed the movie, though not quite to Flaherty’s satisfaction. But let us get back to Sabu.

Flaherty was clear about one thing, he did not want an established actor for the film, so he asked his photographers to keep an eye out for young boys especially one who was around 14 years old, with personality and character in his face and one who knew his way around elephants. The requirements were advertised by the Times of India and the film makers even checked out some aspirants in Malabar (alas! No Kerala firsts here, seems they looked too thin and weary). The Mysore maharaja Wodeyar offered one of his palaces, the Chittaranjan Mahal and his elephants for the filming. It was in these stables that Borradale, Flaherty’s cinematographer spotted the alert, smiling, strong and forthright little boy among the elephants. From one story, it appears Sabu had come to Mysore to collect his late father’s 30 cents pension from the Maharaja’s office, but from another he was caught hiding from the casting interviews. It appears that his uncle or head stable keeper kicked him out from his hiding place and into Kroda’s sight!

July 1935 - The 10 year old Sabu was auditioned together with three others over a period of time and soon it became clear that he was the potential actor. Sabu was relatively assertive, free in front of the camera and a natural. The Times of India promptly proclaimed him a rival to the reigning child star, Shirley Temple. The filming progressed quickly but the two makers Flaherty and Kroda kept fighting over its direction methods, the former who wanted to enhance the poignant relationship between the boy and the animal shown on screen, while the latter Kroda wanted to stick to Kipling’s story. The other parts were shot in Britain with British actors interspersed with the Indian footage, somewhat crudely, to today’s standards. As you can imagine, Flaherty’s Indian shots stood out compared to Zoltan’s (Kroda’s brother) work from Denham. Anyway the movie was released, was a success though not a money spinner for the producers and won a few awards. Sabu got noticed and became a member of Kroda’s human stable. He was a star and settled down to live in Britain…

Reviews were good – One states, First performance honors go to Sabu, the Indian stripling who brings to the part of Toomai a childish simplicity and directness which are strongly convincing. His work should be viewed a dozen times by child prodigies of Hollywood and by Hollywood producers who debauch juvenile talents with an eye to the box-office.

Soon Sabu-ware was launched, like elephant teapots and he went on to lend his face and body to various advertisements and dug in to even more filming in Britain, mainly animal based movies while also obliging zoos and cultural events, riding the obligatory elephant. This was the period when the west, as they said, went on to civilize this native boy rescued from the jungles and taught him new tricks – his passage from loin cloth to suits and luxury!

Born Selar Sheikh to Sheikh Ibrahim (and an Assamese mother) from Mysore, he was brought up in the Kanakpura jungles initially by his father after his mother died. Later it appears his uncle Hussain became his guardian when his father died as Sabu turned three. When Sabu left India, he was accompanied by his older brother Sheikh Dastagir a taxi driver, who served as his guardian and two others from Mysore. Kroda seeing the potential, insured the boy’s life for £50,000. It was clarified (Philip Liebfried) that a British Customs officer wrongly recorded his name as Sabu Dastagir perhaps borrowing the name of his brother as his last name.

Can you believe it, a Times story even went on to add further ridicule by stating that he was named Sabu after the Hindi word for Soap, signifying that the British tried to make him an acceptable western product after washing the dark boy with white soap. But he moved in style, when formally presented at occasions, he was dressed as a maharajah or a prince (sometimes bare chested) at times in an opulent sherwani and a red turban, leather shoes and a whip! In 1937 he was even presented a midget car (as it was one of his ambitions to drive). He was enrolled in a prestigious school in Middlesex where he went on to become a popular student, a favorite of the teachers and excelled in tennis and football. He was homesick of course, once writing to the Mysore stable keeper, asking how Ayrawatha the elephant (the one used for filming) was faring.

Kroda released a number of Technicolor movies set around oriental themes and Sabu starred in some of these new and unusual releases where his skin tone was a notable asset. He had become a star by now and made a lot of money for his producers, He kept his physique well-toned physique and his skin clear, and to top it, his long hair and charming smile were considered his greatest assets. The ‘Thief of Baghdad’ a film which followed had Sabu cast as Abu, and this filming took him to Hollywood.

By 1942, Sabu had moved to Hollywood under a contract for Universal studios and was part of a number of not so great movies, but ones that showed off mostly his half naked physique. Film roles were written for him, big names feted him and by the age of 17, he was leading the glamorous, fast life of a regular Hollywood star. The Jungle Book was then completed in 1942. But with the world at war, Sabu had decided to settle down in the US and try to become a U. S. Citizen. But the path was not easy.

In September 1943, at the age of nineteen, Sabu enlisted (his brother did too, a little later after sorting out some of Sabu’s financial issues ) in the U. S. Army Air Force mainly because of immigration requirements which would have otherwise made him ineligible as a non-white to apply for US citizenship. After training in California, he became a heavy bomber gunner. Being one of smaller build, he was placed to man a B24’s nose turret gun. He was deployed to the Pacific theater to join the 307th Bomb Group, a.k.a. the Long Rangers who saw action all over the Pacific theater and the Far East, operating in the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, Philippines and in the defense of China.

Sabu flew forty two combat missions (425 combat hours) in the dangerous position of ball-turret gunner, and when he was discharged in 1945 he was the proud recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross (sinking six Jap freighters), four battle stars, three Oak Leaf Clusters, Philippines liberation ribbon, The American Campaign Medal, and the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal. As they reported, the sky was his jungle, the B24 was his pachyderm, the Japanese were his game and the hunting was good. By all accounts, he did well and was naturalized in Jan 1944.

At the time of his leaving the air force he had been a resident of the United States for five years and had served two of those years in the armed services. He then graced the face of an American stamp and supported the war cause by selling war bonds travelling through 25 cities with a baby elephant, and parading his celebrity status. When asked whether he was either Indian or American in a Hollywood press conference in 1944, just days after returning to the United States from WWII, Sabu’s reply was, “I’m from India, but I’m American, of course. It sure is good to be home.” Sabu's favorite movie actors were Mickey Mouse, Freddie Bartholomew, Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Temple and Carole Lombard.

During the ‘Songs of India’ shooting in 1948, he met Marilyn cooper and they were soon married. Two children were born, Paul and Jasmine. Sabu continued to work in Hollywood, but the public’s appetite for eastern themes were waning. Though the 1950’s showcased many animal and orient themed movies, nothing distinguished Sabu as an actor.

His later period in America proved to be somewhat sedate. Initially he dabbled in real estate, building apartments and homes in LA’s San Fernando Valley. But misfortunes followed one after another, first a robbery and arson attack on his home in 1950, during a widely reported court case in England when a ballet dancer Brenda Marian Julier Ernest sued him in a paternity suit which was eventually settled. In addition to all this, insurance companies sued him for causing fires to his own home, which he contested on the basis that he and his wife were never at home when it happened. Subsequently, this ended with the conviction of one Andre Prez, upon his own confession. Then came the shooting, at the furniture store in Van Nuys which he and his brother managed, where his brother was killed by an 18 year old James Shields. Shields admitted that he tried to rob the recently divorced Dastagir of the money bundles he carried and in the scuffle shot him, a tragedy Sabu took a long time to come out of.

When Hollywood’s “Walk of Fame” was inaugurated in 1960, Sabu was one of the first to receive a star on the famous boulevard alongside other Asian American actors including the Chinese American starlet, Anna May Wong, and the Japanese actor, Sessue Hayakawa. A large remainder of Sabu’s life was spent in Los Angeles playing eastern sidekick roles onscreen while trying to project a rich and fancy American life off screen. His fascination for cars made him an owner of a rare Ferrari built 340 MM Vignale Spider which can be tracked even today, passing hands for many millions. African American musician JR Redd a.k.a. Korla Pandit was a high profile friend of his.

His Muslim identity was quite important to him, and he was quite miffed being termed a Hindu by the Hollywood press. Columnist Louells Parsons took it upon herself to correct the record in 1940: Sabu, the dark-skinned Mohammedan boy, yes, he is a Mohammedan and not a Hindu—who has been with us every day, has grown into our hearts on this personal appearance tour. He is a darling and the only thing that irks him is to be called a Hindu. He looked so grave about it and so sad, I asked his tutor Austin Menzies, why Sabu disliked being called a Hindu – “he is afraid”, said the tutor, “that they will tear him limb from limb when he goes back to India, for there is a great rivalry between the Mohammedans and Hindus”.  She continues "You speak English so much better now than you did when I first met you," I told him. "Yes," he smiled, "I studied very hard when I made 'Elephant Boy for Mr. Korda. I learned the words, but I didn't know what they meant. Each day I spoke English the way they told me how to say each sentence. It was very funny, so different from my native tongue." Everything Sabu does he does well even to composing a charming Indian song (Democrat and Chronicle Oct 20, 1940).

Such was the situation post-independence.

When Mother India was to be shot as a film in India, Director Mehboob Khan wanted to cast Sabu as Birju. In fact the movie was to be a bilingual and titled ‘This land is mine’. However, Sabu, who had become an American citizen, failed to get a work permit from India (there is even a dubious mention that he claimed Pakistan as his motherland, was he miffed or was that the reason?) and the role went to Sunil Dutt. Seems Mehboob Khan put him up at Bombay's Ambassador Hotel, a posh hotel, paying him Rs 5,000 a month, an astronomical sum those days.

In 1953, Sabu eventually came back to visit India, and filmed at Chalakkudi in Kerala for the film Sauda with Sashikala. The press ravaged the ‘American returned clown’ who was his ‘master’s boy, ‘a pet of the west’ riding about Chembur in his imported American car. Later, his off screen romances with Shashikala and Nimmi were splashed on tabloids. The movie Sauda was in the end, shelved. All reporting about him in India during his time in Hollywood can be seen as uncharitable, mainly frustration about the poor depiction of the eastern cultures in films. 

Caliph’s FilmIndia review stated - As for acting, there is nothing much to write home about. Sabu, who plays the title role, throughout wears a loin-cloth which is something unheard of and unseen in any part of Arabia. As the thief, looks as ugly as ever, it could not be an accident that the only Indian actor tolerated in Western films should be a dark-skinned South Indian stable boy, but acts with a certain amount of boyish vivacity.

Later on his marriage - Sabu hails from Mysore and plays roles to feed the Yankee notion of Indians being elephant boys, tiger hunters or snake charmers. His marriage makes Sabu an American citizen now. Let us hope some more stable lads cross the Atlantic. We have so many of them here.

Another report said- At the International Dance Festival held in New York. Ram Gopal with his ballet of talented girls gave performances which gave the Yankees a peep into our art of classical dancing. After all they are not all Sabus in India, eh, Sam!

His death in 1963, a fortnight after Kennedy’s assassination (or according to one news report - at the restaurant he was managing and running in Los Angeles) was sudden. He died of a heart attack aged just 39 and shortly after completing his first Disney film (A Tiger Walks). He was buried in Hollywood's famous Forest Lawn cemetery. He was always a very visible character and sported his signature turban for occasions, so much so that even his death announcements mentioned ‘elephant boy dies’.

Philip Libfried said it fittingly – 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. Though the young Indian boy who charmed his way around the world is gone, his film legacy keeps him alive, proof that "All things are possible when seen through the eyes of youth."

Marilyn Cooper his wife, passed away in 2009. Jasmine Sabu became a writer and trainer of Arabian hybrid horses, and passed away in 2001.Paul Sabu who started as a recording engineer now heads a very successful rock band and is an Emmy-Winning Singer/Songwriter, Producer & Guitarist.

Sabu – Michael Lawrence
Kipling, Sabu, and Goldie Hawn: Reflections on Elephant Boy, a Forgotten Film of Robert Flaherty’s - Paul Hockings
India in Britain – Sushila Nasta (Civilizing Sabu of India)
Sabu - Philip Leibfried (Films in Review - October 1989
Jungle Boys, Babus and Camp Orientals- The Liminal Personae of the Film Star Sabu (Thesis) - Jyoti Argadé
Moving Images: India on British Screens, 1917-1947 (Thesis) - Jacqueline Audrey Gold