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Sabu Dastagir — the child star who went international

The young boy from India became a child star of British and Hollywood films in the 1930s and 1940s. On his 53rd death anniversary, take a look at how Sabu Dastagir rose from humble beginnings to become a marketable star internationally.

Sonal Pandya

Actor Sabu Dastagir gained international fame when he was cast at age 12 in the British film, Elephant Boy (1937). While Sabu Dastagir was his screen name, his real name was most likely Selar Sabu. He adopted his brother Sheik Dastagir’s name into his own.

Sabu was born in Mysore on 27 January 1924 where he was raised by his mahout father. After his father’s death, he was sheltered by the maharaja of Mysore. He first became a stable hand and then a mahout in the maharaja's service.

Sabu was ‘discovered’ by Robert Flaherty, the American documentary filmmaker who co-directed Elephant Boy (1937). He was plucked from obscurity and cast into the lead role of Toomai in the film.

Flaherty, who had spotted Sabu as a mahout in the maharaja's court, was eventually replaced on the film by Zoltan Korda but still received a co-director credit.

Sabu was taken to England to film certain scenes in a studio. Elephant Boy, based on the story Toomai of the Elephants from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, became a hit and the film changed his life forever. Flaherty and Korda won the Best Director award at the Venice Film Festival for the feature. Korda's brother Alexander scooped up the young star for a contract to make more films.

Elephant Boy was followed by Zoltan Korda’s next film The Drum (1938), which again featured Sabu. He starred as Prince Azim who helps out the British during an uprising. The Technicolor film’s subject caused protests in Madras and Bombay as they viewed the film as British propaganda; outside of India, the film was well received.

Sabu’s next role was in The Thief of Bagdad (1940) where he played Abu. The film was directed by Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger and Tim Whelan and produced once again by Alexander Korda. It picked up three Academy awards for best cinematography, art direction and special effects for its fantasy sequences.

The late film critic Roger Ebert gave The Thief of Bagdad four stars and considers it in his list of great movies. He called Sabu “the star of the film, although he doesn't receive top billing”.

Director Michael Powell had a close relationship with Sabu and he mourned the star after his death. He wrote in his autobiography, A Life in Movies, “Sabu was my friend until his wickedly premature death [...]. He was kind, direct, strong and intelligent. He never had the slightest bit of star fever about him. He always will be for we who loved him; and for children in the world, so long as there is a print of The Thief of Bagdad which holds together long enough to be projected.”

Sabu as Mowgli

After Toomai, Sabu also took on the role of Mowgli in Zoltan Korda’s The Jungle Book. This was the first time Kipling’s beloved story was brought to the screen, but it became the last time Sabu worked with the Korda brothers who had introduced him.

He completed filming The Jungle Book in Hollywood and stayed back to make films with Universal Pictures. After a string of films with co-star Maria Montez, he became an American citizen in 1944 and joined the US Air Force. He fought in World War II as a tail-gunner with a B-25 bombing group in the Pacific. He was honoured with the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.

Sabu returned to Britain after the war to make two films with Powell — The Black Narcissus (1947) and The End of the River (1947). In October 1948, he married actress Marilyn Cooper, who had appeared with him in Song Of India (1949); they had two children Paul and Jasmine.

Sabu passed away suddenly on 2 December 1963 at 39 from a heart attack. His last film, Disney’s A Tiger Walks (1964) co-starring Vera Miles and Brian Keith, was released three months after his untimely death.

Sabu, a Hollywood Masonic Lodge member, is buried in the famous cemetery Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles alongside actors Stanley Laurel and Buster Keaton. Sadly, he never acted in any Indian productions, though Mehboob Khan had considered him for the role of Birju for his classic Mother India (1957). Sunil Dutt ended up playing the wilful younger son.