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Sabu Dastagir: The original Mowgli – Death anniversary special

As a new version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story, The Jungle Book, is unveiled on Netflix this week, we look back at the character and its history.

Sonal Pandya

Mowgli, the captivating child of the jungle, first appeared in Rudyard Kipling's 1893 story, In The Rukh. After his parents are attacked by a tiger, baby Mowgli is taken in and raised by a pack of wolves.

But as he grows older, and his human side conflicts with his bond with animals, he has to fight his inner demons and go up against his nemesis, Shere Khan, the tiger. Eventually, he finds his place in the world as a forest guard in the British government, straddling both the human and the animal worlds.

Since its publication, the character of Mowgli has fascinated the Western world. From 1942, there have been numerous adaptations of Kipling’s characters. There was a beloved 1967 animated film, produced by Walt Disney.

Several actors have played the conflicted man-boy, from Jason Scott Lee in the 1994 Disney live-action version to Brandon Baker in The Jungle Book: Mowgli's Story (1998).

Sabu Dastagir – The child star who went international

But the first man to step into Mowgli’s shoes on screen was Sabu Dastagir. As a little boy, he found fame when he was cast in the British film, Elephant Boy (1937), another Kipling adaptation, by Robert Flaherty, the American documentary filmmaker who co-directed the film.

Sabu, the son of a mahout in the erstwhile kingdom of Mysore, had a rag-to-riches story as he rose to international fame in especially Britain and later in Hollywood. After acting in a few films like The Drum (1938) and The Thief Of Bagdad (1940), Sabu played Mowgli in The Jungle Book (1942).

The 1942 version was a hit in Hollywood and received four Academy Award nominations that year. While it strayed from Kipling's source material, it displayed the Hollywood penchant for films set in India to be the cliched lore of snakes, tigers and uncivilized locals. The years have rolled by, but the stereotypes have stayed on.

However, Sabu, who died suddenly on this day (2 December) 55 years ago, 55 days short of his 40th birthday, was the last Indian to be cast as Mowgli. The 1990s adaptations of Mowgli cast other actors, bronzed and darkened to look like Indians.

In the past few years, Mowgli’s story has been revived thanks to two special-effects films, The Jungle Book (2016), and this year’s Mowgli: Legend Of The Jungle, which premieres on Netflix on 7 December.

The first, produced by Disney, was a faithful reproduction of the 1967 animated hit. Directed by Jon Favreau, the film cast a young boy with Indian roots, Neel Sethi. The animal characters all remained the same with a voice cast that featured artistes Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, and Scarlett Johansson.

The dazzling wizardry of computer-generated imagery (CGI) and an adorable Mowgli won audiences over and nabbed the Academy award for Best Visual Effects, something the 1942 version was nominated for. A sequel for the blockbuster with Sethi reprising his character is already in the works.

This week, Mowgli returns to our screens in the Andy Serkis film. This time, another Indian-American actor, Rohan Chand, plays Mowgli while Indian actress Freida Pinto plays his adoptive mother, Messua.

With the advances of technology and special effects, new generations are once again being introduced to the story of the jungle and the boy who was a bridge between both worlds. But the gaze as with Kipling’s stories remains exoticized.