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Remembering Sabu, “The Elephant Boy”
by Durian Gray
The first Asian boy that I fell in love with was the Indian-born, film-star Sabu who romped across exotic Hollywood adventure pix mostly half-naked or in a revealing loin cloth. He was the cheeky urchin of “Thief of Baghdad”, the original Mowgli of “The Jungle Book” screen adaptation, and later when he came of age, the charming Indian prince of “Black Narcissus”. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, growing up in the closeted American suburbs during the 1950s and 60s, Sabu had secret admirers who, like myself, were attracted to the romantic image of the youthful Asian male. Like other gay icons, Sabu died young, while still in his thirties, and most people remembered him simply as “the elephant boy”. Though less remembered than JFK, 2003 was the 40th anniversary of his death.
In the depths of the Depression years, Hollywood audiences were charmed by a number of precocious child stars. Of course, America’s favourite juvenile sweetheart was Shirley Temple, known for her trademark dimples and curls and her song-and-dance routines. In 1937, she starred in an adaptation of Kipling’s “Wee Willie Winkie” set in colonial-era British India. Released in the same year, but filmed thousands of miles away from the back lots of Hollywood in a real Indian jungle, Robert Flaherty’s adaptation of another Kipling story, “Elephant Boy” also boasted another child star, the then unknown Sabu Dastagir (later to be known simply as “Sabu”).
Unlike Shirley Temple, whose pushy stage-door mother had her conveniently discovered in a Hollywood theatre at an early age, Sabu, the orphaned son of a mahout, was accidentally discovered by Flaherty’s cameraman in the elephant stables of the Maharaja of Mysore.
After “Elephant Boy” won the prize for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival in 1937, its star, the little elephant boy Sabu was brought to England and took the country by storm.
‘The studios went wild over him,’ recalls Flaherty’s wife Frances
Flaherty. ‘They insured his life for 50,000 pounds sterling and set their best writers to work writing a script for him of another film called “Drums”, another Imperial actioner set in India’s Northwest Frontier.’
Meanwhile the lad formerly clad in a rude loincloth became a cultural curiosity, holding court amongst the London aristocracy while sitting for sculptures and portraits. Ironically, for one who could hardly speak English a few months before, Sabu’s interviews were broadcast worldwide throughout the Empire over the BBC.
In 1938 Sabu was sent to America for a publicity tour, and returned to Hollywood the following year to complete the filming of “The Thief of Baghdad” which could no longer be safely shot in England during the Nazi blitz. Transplanted to sunny California, Sabu remained there and became the first (and only) Indian to become a Hollywood star. Unfortunately, due to Hollywood’s narrow colonialist vision, Sabu was never able to break away from the stereotypical casting of “native boy” roles ranging from the picaresque hero of “The Thief of Baghdad” to the downright ridiculous, as sidekick opposite Technicolor Queen Maria Montez in the exotic fantasies made for Universal (such as Robert Siodmak’s 1944 consummate high camp classic “Cobra Woman”).
Practically speaking, after his role as the peacock-like Young General in Powell and Pressburger’s technicolor classic “Black Narcissus” (1947), Sabu’s career was undistinguished. As the elephant boy grew up and got married, his career in Hollywood also wound up. Unable to find work in Hollywood as a superannuated elephant boy, Sabu made some low-budget potboilers in Italy, tellingly titled “Buongiorno Elefante”, and “Il Tesoro del Bengala” (1953), the latter released in English appropriately enough as “Jungle Hell”. Shortly afterwards, he retired and became, of all things, a furniture salesman.
By the time he succumbed of a heart attack in 1963 (the death of a salesman) Sabu was still remembered as his first role, the colonial Elephant Boy, as the New York Times obituary of 12/3/63 attests:
“Sabu the Elephant Boy Is Dead;
Star of Jungle Movies Was 39”
As if describing some species of wild animal the Times obituary recalls: “His white teeth gleaming against a background of smooth coffee brown skin and flowing black hair, Sabu captivated everyone who met him and managed to remain unspoiled.”
Because his “native” roles often required him to wear long hair, Sabu sometimes used to complain of being mistaken for a girl, despite his well-built physique. The treatment of “natives”, like females as objects of visual pleasure, is also revealing of Hollywood’s racist/sexist attitudes of the period. The majority of Sabu’s roles were that of a dominated native, usually a sidekick to the white hero adventurer such those as played by hunky Jon Hall. With his male-bonding roles, there was always a hidden homoerotic subtext which made the half-naked, well-built Sabu appealing to gay audiences. On the screen, Sabu would usually be scantily clad, his bare skin glistening with sweat on his muscular body, or else fashionably dressed to overkill (as in “Black Narcissus”, driving the repressed English nuns to distraction).
Sabu also seemed to have had an effect on director Robert Flaherty who was said to have been strongly possessive towards the boy, and who frequently shot the semi-nude youth being caressed by the dangling proboscis of the elephant Kala Nag (whose name means “black snake”). Flaherty had a romantic notion of youth and so-called primitive culture as an alternative to Western civilization that was heading towards chaos in the 1930s. As his biographer Paul Rotha notes, “After ‘Nanook’, all his films . . . are haunted by the image of a youth or boy. . .”
Except for Sabu, all of Flaherty’s other boy heroes returned to their respective previous occupations after the filming. Sabu, however, never went back to the elephant stables of his childhood again. After his brief career as a juvenile jungle actor, Sabu awoke to the fact that he could neither return to the India of his youth, nor find work in the Hollywood dream factory which had no place for grown-up elephant boys.