ELEPHANT BOY: CHILD’S PLAY
It’s hard to imagine a movie role more perfectly suited to the actor playing it than Toomai in Elephant Boy (1937), the part that made Selar Shaik—known as Sabu—one of the least likely superstars in Western cinema history. A character from one of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 Jungle Book stories, Toomai is a spirited young mahout, or elephant driver, who proves his worth to his fellow villagers on an epic hunt for wild pachyderms. The eleven-year-old Shaik, who’d never acted before—he’d never even seen a movie—was himself an elephant handler in the stables of the maharaja of the southern Indian kingdom of Mysore, whose ward he had become after the death of his parents, when he was discovered during location scouting in 1935 by the film’s cameraman, Osmond Borradaile. The Hungarian-born British cinema kingpin Alexander Korda’s film version of Kipling’s story, made for his studio, London Films, was such an odd, precarious hybrid—directing credit went to both American ethnographic documentarian Robert Flaherty and Korda’s brother Zoltán, maker of glossy adventures—that it needed a strong, likable center, and the effortlessly magnetic Shaik (renamed Sabu by Alexander Korda himself) supplied that and more in Elephant Boy.
Critic Frank Nugent’s April 6, 1937, New York Times review of Elephant Boy identifies what audiences immediately found appealing about Sabu: “[His] naturalness beneath the camera’s scrutiny should bring blushes to the faces of the precocious wonder-children of Hollywood.” Appreciated for his authenticity in an industry where Caucasian actors often had their skin darkened to play foreigners, Sabu was exotic but also real—so real, in fact, that he had to learn his lines for Elephant Boy phonetically, as he spoke only Urdu. An Indian child star created by the Kordas and cast only in period pieces and storybook fantasies, he was also a safely apolitical figure at a time when the British empire’s dominion over India was being protested. For this reason, Sabu would inadvertently become a symbol of the contentedly colonized, a throwback to an earlier era of filmmaking. Yet the young actor rose above that by virtue of his thrilling natural talent and the dazzling craft of the films the Kordas fashioned for him.
The seeds of Elephant Boy were sown in 1929, when Flaherty, famous for his groundbreaking 1922 Eskimo documentary, Nanook of the North, approached Alexander Korda about doing a story, set in Mexico, about a boy and his bull. Korda wanted to work with Flaherty but changed the bull to an elephant, basing his idea on his favorite Kipling tale. When production began years later, Flaherty shot more than fifty-five hours of footage in India; meanwhile, Zoltán Korda was commissioned to direct the more story-driven scenes at England’s Denham Studios, for which Sabu was flown in. What could have been a schizophrenic film instead became a masterful amalgamation of its two parts, and a superb showcase for its young actor. Elephant Boy was a critical and commercial hit, even winning twin best director honors at the Venice Film Festival, and it was clear that Flaherty’s location-sensitive naturalism and Korda’s terrific way with forward narrative motion cohered largely because of one charming boy with no previous movie experience. In the coming years, Sabu would prove the most popular of Alexander Korda’s contract players. He had gone from one kind of stable to another.
THE DRUM: THE BEAT GOES ON
The speed of Sabu’s ascent as he made films for the Kordas was extraordinary, even by rocketing-to-stardom standards. And this orphan was not simply plucked from obscurity—he was then transplanted to bustling London, a world away from his home in southernmost India. When Sabu arrived in Britain with his older brother Dastagir, who would become his business manager, to film the studio scenes for Elephant Boy, Alexander Korda ensconced them in a spacious West End flat, which must have seemed impossibly foreign to two young people from the Karapur jungle. Sabu had many guardians: soon after the Elephant Boy production wrapped, he was taken in by cinematographer Osmond Borradaile (who had discovered him) and his wife, while Korda oversaw his education, enrolling him in a school in the London suburb of Beaconfield, close to the Borradailes’ home.
Elephant Boy was such a rousing international success that Korda wanted another vehicle for the boy while he was still riding waves of adoration. After some potential projects, including a Michael Powell film titled Burmese Silver, fell through, the famed British author A. E. W. Mason handed Korda a treatment for an action extravaganza with a plum part for Sabu. Screenwriter Lajos Biró then adapted Mason’s story into a full narrative adventure, The Drum (1938), set during the British Raj era and featuring Azim, a young Indian prince in the occupied northwestern city of Peshawar (on what is today the Afghanistan-Pakistan border) who chooses to fight with the British against his villainous uncle, the assassin of Azim’s father, the maharaja.
Though it is colonialist fantasy of the most ludicrous kind (Azim speaks with awe of the British Army uniform, for example) and features more than its share of white actors in brownface (including Raymond Massey as the murderous uncle), The Drum—directed by Zoltán Korda, shot in vivid Technicolor by Borradaile and the astonishingly well-credentialed Georges Périnal (he had worked with Jean Cocteau and Réné Clair and would go on to film for Powell and Pressburger and Carol Reed), and art-directed by Alexander and Zoltán’s brother Vincent—is an impressive technical achievement. It was shot both on location in mountainous northern India, in sequences overseen by Borradaile, and at Denham Studios; the result is a seamless outdoor spectacular. It also confirmed that Sabu’s stardom was no flash in the pan. Despite a cast that includes Roger Livesey, Valerie Hobson, and other established thespians, Sabu, this time in royal garb instead of an elephant driver’s dhoti, neatly steals every scene with a mixture of impish enthusiasm and regal composure. (His naturally charismatic performance glows especially bright next to the teenage Desmond Tester’s, whose work as the British Army’s official drummer boy is a study in more traditionally mannered child acting.)
Not everyone was pleased by The Drum—the unstinting endorsement of the British by Sabu’s prince was viewed as offensive by many in India’s independence movement, and there were reports of riots in Indian theaters where the film played. Safely back in England, however, Sabu was receiving more than a hundred pieces of fan mail a day and basking in his success as the most popular child star in the history of the British film industry.
JUNGLE BOOK: LIVING IN ANOTHER WORLD
Sabu’s star had risen so high after The Drum that it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling. RKO Pictures was readying its own India-set adventure, the Rudyard Kipling adaptation and Cary Grant vehicle Gunga Din (1939), and the studio wanted Sabu to play the titular water bearer. Sabu was by this time such an inextricable part of Alexander Korda’s London Films, though, that the impresario was unwilling to lease him out (the part ultimately went to the New York–born Sam Jaffe). Besides, Korda was already planning his biggest Sabu project yet: the special-effects-laden The Thief of Bagdad (1940), an eventual Oscar-winning box-office behemoth. That film was a turning point for Sabu in many ways. As it was cofunded by the American studio United Artists, its production was moved to Hollywood following the breakout of World War II. Sabu was entranced by sunny Southern California; his relocation there was inevitable.
The next Korda-Sabu collaboration was also filmed in the U.S. Designed to capitalize on The Thief of Bagdad’s success, Jungle Book (1942) was another family-friendly spectacular, directed by Zoltán Korda. Shot largely in the forests around Lake Sherwood, just north of Los Angeles, the film, like Elephant Boy, was adapted from Kipling’s classic. It drew from five of The Jungle Book’s stories, however, to Elephant Boy’s one, and was a more elaborate production, featuring not just live elephants but also real panthers, tigers, deer, monkeys, wolves, and a bear (plus some big rubber snakes). The seventeen-year-old Sabu plays Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves who speaks the language of the jungle. With its lush scenery and saturated Technicolor tones, Jungle Book is a glittering bit of storybook cinema, brought to vivid life by the Kordas’ usual flock of brilliant technicians. It was also the final collaboration between the Kordas and Sabu; Alexander Korda, who had temporarily relocated to Hollywood after The Thief of Bagdad, returned to England, but Sabu chose to stay behind, having netted a contract with Universal Pictures.
Despite this coup, it soon became clear that Sabu’s career had already plateaued. With the exception of his supporting part in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), Sabu’s post–Jungle Book roles were mostly in low-grossing Hollywood B pictures (Universal’s lavish 1942 Arabian Nights was his only notable American hit). Executives didn’t know what to do with him, so they fell back on exploiting his exoticism—rarely did Sabu act in anything other than loincloths, playing monosyllabic natives or adventuresome safari guides.
Sabu’s American movie career may have been a nonstarter, but he remained in the public eye, displaying heroism and being highly decorated as a U.S. soldier during World War II, and then marrying actress and model Marilyn Cooper in 1948. For fifteen years after that, he tried for a big-screen comeback, but his persona didn’t seem to hold the appeal it had before, and he was regarded largely as a curio of an earlier era. Sabu died of a heart attack at the extraordinarily young age of thirty-nine and was buried in Los Angeles. He is remembered today, however, not merely as a former child star but as India’s only internationally beloved movie icon. Even in death, he has transcended the path others laid for him.
Michael Koresky is staff writer at the Criterion Collection.