When you think of Indian actors in Hollywood, I’m certain that several names will come to mind, but “Sabu” isn’t one of them. Why did India’s first international star’s name fade away from the world’s collective memory? Let’s take a stroll down the past’s cobbled roads and discover the intriguing and scandalous life of Sabu, Hollywood’s forgotten superstar.
1. He Had Another Name
Sabu may be the name that gained fame, but it wasn’t what Sabu’s parents named him when he was born. His real name was actually Selar Sabu, while Dastgir was his older brother’s name. Sadly, the reason for Sabu’s name change stems from a horrific family tragedy. Buckle up and away we go…
2. He Grew Up Among Elephants
Sabu’s mother passed when he was only young, leaving his father to provide for the family. He landed a cushy job as the Maharaja’s personal elephant-handler, allowing his sons to live with him in the royal stables. Born in 1924, Sabu developed a natural affinity to the elephants and spent his days helping his father handle them. Little did he know what life had in store for him.
3. He Faced Tragedy Early On
Things took a tragic turn for Sabu when he was just nine years old. His father passed, leaving him and his older brother all alone. His mother had passed earlier. The Maharaja allowed the boys to continue living at the stables, as long as they took care of his elephants. They spent the next three years doing just that, when fate intervened in the most unexpected way.
4. He Got An Unexpected Break
Perhaps, at that point, if someone told Sabu he’d be an international movie star one day, he wouldn’t have believed it. He probably envisioned staying a mahout for the rest of his life, but the universe had other plans. A British film crew were scouting for location when they discovered Sabu tending to the Maharaja’s elephants. It was destiny.
5. It Was Meant To Be
Guess the name of the film the crew was searching a location for? Elephant Boy. You can’t make this stuff up. There’s some confusion as to whether the cameraman spotted Sabu or the script-writer did, but it doesn’t really matter. He entranced the crew with his natural charm and impish grin. Of course, the fact that he was so comfortable with elephants clinched his place in the film, and as we’ll see, film history too.
6. His Life Changed Completely
From living a life of poverty in the Maharaja’s stables, Sabu was suddenly part of a huge Hollywood film. The director, Alexander Korda, was a master filmmaker. Sabu, on the other hand, had never even seen a film, let alone acted in one. Now, instead of handling elephants, he was learning lines, performing in front of the camera, and flying out to England to complete filming. That’s when Sabu received a shock.
7. He Originally Had A Much Shorter Role
The initial screenplay didn’t have much of Sabu’s character, though you’d think the movie would revolve around him by virtue of its title. However, when the filmmakers saw Sabu performing on screen, they knew he was special. They rewrote his part, added much more material for the young boy, and just like that, Sabu’s star was on the rise.
8. He Left India
Elephant Boy was shot both on location in India and in a film studio over in England. The result was a superb film, which was both a critical and commercial hit. It even won honors at the Venice Film Festival, with everyone praising one aspect in particular: the actor who played the young hero, Sabu. Our boy had come a long way from the jungles of Mysore, but the good times wouldn’t last forever.
9. He Was Homesick
The glitz and glamor of his London life might have dazzled him in the beginning, but Sabu missed India, and his life there. He even wrote to the stable keeper in Mysore, asking him how his favorite elephant was doing. It’s easy to forget just how young Sabu was when his life turned upside down. When he came to England, he was only around 12 years old.
10. He Played A Prince
Korda saw Sabu’s potential and cast him in his next film, The Drum. This role was a step up for Sabu, as he went from playing an impoverished elephant driver to a young prince. The story was set in British-ruled India, where a young prince unites with the British to fight his evil uncle. Kind of like Lion King, think Simba and Scar, only with the British as Simba supporters.
11. His Film Got Mixed Reviews
The Drum too, was shot both in India and England, and was a technical masterpiece (even though it had a lot more actors in brownface than Elephant Boy). It did really well in Britain, no surprises there and proved that Sabu could really act. His natural confidence and charisma carried him through. He started to receive mountains of fan mail, but people in India were not as happy…
12. His Indian Audience Was Unhappy
The Drum came out in 1938, at the peak of the Indian Independence Movement. And guess what? Its plot—and specifically Sabu’s role—stoked intense controversy in the actor’s homeland. Sabu’s portrayal of an Indian prince so enamored by the British went directly against the freedom fighters’ efforts and philosophy. The film inspired riots in many big city theaters.
13. He Became A Symbol
Sabu’s films did well enough to turn him into a hot commodity. He became the face of many advertisements and people enjoyed seeing him riding an elephant at zoos or as part of cultural events. But there was a darker reason why the public liked him so much: Supposedly they were happy to see how their country had helped “civilize” Sabu.
14. He Was Used
Child stars and managers: They just don’t get along, and Sabu’s experiences were no different. Though Sabu became very close with his director Korda and a cameraman who took him in, his managers were…a different story. They actively played on his exoticism and encouraged him to dress up in formal Indian clothes at occasions, complete with a turban and even a whip. Oof.
15. He Played A Thief
When it came to Sabu’s next picture, Korda wanted to create something unique. The result was the spectacular The Thief Of Bagdad. Sabu played the titular role of the thief, Abu. The film was unusual because of all its special effects, the first of their kind. There were flying carpets, genies, and magic crossbows. And if you’re thinking that sounds familiar, you aren’t wrong. The movie is the basis for Aladdin.
16. It Was Worth It
The Thief of Bagdad went on to win three Academy Awards, which was a huge deal at the time. Critics called it “dashing, dazzling, and altogether magical.” Roger Ebert put it on his “Great Movies” list and he especially praised Sabu’s acting as “perfectly pitched to the needs of the screenplay.”
Sadly, although he wasn’t aware of it at the time, this would prove to be his last huge hit.
17. He Fell For A Star
Hollywood really rolled out the red carpet for young Sabu. The It Boy met First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt shortly after arriving. Even better—for Sabu, at least—he met his favorite actress, Carole Lombard. It was clear Sabu had a mega-crush on the glamorous blonde, and the two evidently became friendly. They’d ride Lombard’s scooter together—but might there have been more than just friendship at work?
18. There Was QUITE An Age Gap
According to Hollywood rumors, Sabu didn’t just have a schoolboy crush on Lombard. The teenager was truly, madly, deeply in love with the screen siren. When asked about his infatuation, Sabu insisted they were just pals before saying that she was his very favorite actress. If something was going on, it would have been very scandalous, if not criminal. Lombard was 30 at the time. Sabu was just 13.
19. He Was The First Mowgli
However, he didn’t have to say goodbye too soon. Korda’s next project revolved around Sabu and was so high-profile that it would turn Sabu into a star overnight. The film was the first ever adaptation of The Jungle Book—and filming would take place not in India, but in Hollywood. However, there was a dark side to this decision.
20. The Studio Made Some … Choices
Naturally, The Jungle Book, had to be set in the jungle…no surprise there. However, instead of going to India, to film in the jungles there, the team decided to make do with the forests available in California. All the “natives” who acted with Sabu were also white actors who’d never been to India. And though there were many real animals in the movie, like tigers, elephants, and a bear, it also featured two huge rubber snakes.
21. He Was Happy With The Outcome
The Jungle Book did well commercially. It collected good money from rentals and re-releases, but it didn’t win any awards though it had four Academy Award nominations. Sabu was happy with the result. And he’d made up his mind. He signed a contract with Universal, and began his life in Hollywood. Sadly, as we’ll see, Sabu’s experiences would run the gamut from glitz and glam to all-out despair.
22. He Landed His First American Hit
Sabu’s first film in Hollywood was Arabian Nights. It was a commercial hit and even earned four Academy Award nominations. But for critics, it was a dud. Some reviewers felt unhappy with Sabu’s small supporting role. David Lardner of The New Yorker complained that the industry was wasting his potential by giving him weak roles since Elephant Boy.
23. He Became A Stereotype
His next two films were nothing to talk about. Both White Savage and Cobra Woman had the same “exotic” theme and Sabu had similar roles of the hero’s sidekick and comic relief in both. Perhaps he felt the monotony himself, so he decided to take a short break from films. But he had no plans to relax; in fact, his next act was the definition of danger.
24. He Changed Course Completely
Sabu knew there was no easy way to become an American citizen, so he chose the quickest and most direct way he could find: He enlisted. WWII hadn’t ended, and America needed all hands on-deck, so Sabu (who had always been interested in flying) began training as a heavy bomber gunner. He flew forty-two combat missions, and was as good an officer as actor. However, there’s a heartbreaking side to this story too.
25. He Was A Pacifist
Shortly before he enlisted, a journalist once asked Sabu who he thought would win WWII. Apparently, the boy’s face immediately darkened and he assumed the aspect of a much-older man. He gravely said, “No one.” And so, while Sabu enlisted to gain citizenship and, by all accounts was a highly skilled and decorated soldier, it’s safe to say he had reservations about his role in the combat.
26. His Career Plateaued
Sabu tried to make a comeback in films only to discover a heartbreaking reality. The audience just wasn’t into the same kind of films he’d been a part of, and filmmakers didn’t give him to option to shake off his stereotype. Hollywood didn’t seem to have space for him. His next few films were mediocre fare. And then, one project stood out for a surprising reason…
27. He Fell In Love
Sometimes, the best things happen when you least expect them. Sabu was filming Song of India in 1948, opposite Gail Russel, when she got sick. The up-and-coming actress Marilyn Cooper came to fill in for Russell for a few days. It was love at first sight for Sabu. He fell head over heels for Cooper. After a whirlwind romance, 24-year-old Sabu and his lady love Marilyn Cooper tied the knot. In fact, they were so head-over-heels for each other that the got married within the same year of their first meeting.
28. He Had A Workplace Romance
With such a compelling behind-the-scenes love story, you’d think that Song of India, the movie that Sabu and Cooper co-starred in, would have been a smash hit. Welp, unfortunately you’d be wrong. The movie was a total flop. And sadly, just as Sabu’s personal life triumphed, his professional life hit rocky waters.
29. He Went To Europe
While his Hollywood films in the late 40s were nothing to write home about, Sabu did manage to salvage something out of the period by traveling to Europe and working in some relatively better films there. Critics appreciated both The End Of The River and Black Narcissus and praised Sabu for turning in solid performances.
30. He Faced A Problem
Sabu was happy with Cooper. However, soon after their wedding, controversy reared its ugly head to make trouble in his otherwise peaceful home life. It appeared as if Sabu had a secret in his past…
31. He Went To Court
A dancer, Brenda Marian Julier, who worked with Sabu on Black Narcissus, filed a paternity suit against him. She claimed he was the father of her daughter Michaela. And her case held water. The girl was born in 1948, just a year after the film wrapped up. Awkwardly, this was also the same year that Sabu married Cooper. Do I sense a courtroom drama brewing?
32. The Trial Raged On
While the jury ruled in Sabu’s favor initially, an appeals court ordered a new trial. Evidently, Julier was standing her ground and digging in her heels. The new trial lasted an entire year before Sabu decided to change tactics. In the end, the actor agreed to an out-of-court settlement. And the details of that settlement? Well, let’s just say they’re very telling.
33. The Paper Trail Is Spicy
While Sabu didn’t explicitly admit that he was Cooper’s baby daddy, the actor did agree to some pretty suggestive terms. He pledged to pay for Julier’s costs and to provide child support until Michaela turned 21. Since Julier had recently tied the knot herself, and her husband wanted to adopt the child, she was happy with this outcome. So, was Sabu the dad? Your guess is as good as mine…
34. He Became A Father
Sabu may not have admitted to being Michaela’s dad, but he soon welcomed two children with his wife. Jasmine Sabu grew up to work in films too, but as a screenwriter and animal trainer. Tragically, she passed at the age of 44, in 2001. Paul Sabu was born three years after Jasmine and is an Emmy-winning singer-songwriter.
35. He Did Well
Sabu had certainly achieved the American dream. He was one of the richest stars in Hollywood in the late 40s and 50s. He was the first Indian to get a star on Hollywood’s “Walk of Fame,” and he was friends with President Reagan. Sure, his film career was dwindling, but he was trying to revive it, and who knows…it just might have picked up if fate didn’t deal another cruel blow at him.
36. He Saw Another Tragedy
Remember Sabu’s older brother who came with him from India? The two boys had always been very close, with Sabu depending on his older sibling to manage his career. The two also managed a furniture store together, and disaster struck when a young boy broke into the shop planning to pilfer some money that he’d seen Sabu’s brother bring in. Little did the boy know, this decision would change everything.
37. His Family Had A Dark Fate
Sabu’s brother resisted the attack, leading the young boy to panic and shoot him. Tragically, Sabu’s brother passed on the spot. The horrific and violent loss left Sabu completely devastated. And unfortunately, fate wasn’t through with the star just yet…
38. He Faced More Trying Times
Soon enough, Sabu encountered even more drama in his personal life. His house caught fire, but that was just the beginning of another nightmare. The authorities quickly caught the arsonist, and the man soon admitted that he’d indeed set the house on fire. However, when it came to why he lit the flame, the man’s answer had everyone’s jaw on the floor.
39. The Culprit Was Close To Home
Get this, the arsonist claimed that he had burned down Sabu’s home as part of a conspiracy. The man claimed that Sabu’s friend had asked him to light the fire. And that wasn’t all. He also claimed that the friend didn’t want to harm Sabu—no, the opposite. The friend saw that Sabu needed the insurance money and decided to “help” his buddy out. And the scandal wasn’t over yet…
40. He Starred In A Real-Life Courtroom Drama
At first, it looked the plan went well. The insurance company paid Sabu’s claim, giving him a much-needed windfall. However, after the revelations about the real cause of the fire came out, all Sabu’s cash disappeared. The insurance company realized that they’d been the victim of a fraudulent scheme and they sued the legendary Indian actor with all their might.
41. He Got A Surprising Offer
Had it ever crossed Sabu’s mind to try his luck in India? Perhaps it hadn’t, until the day he woke up to a surprise offer from an Indian director. Mehboob Khan was making Mother India, which would go on to become a huge hit, and wanted Sabu for the role of Birju, a young boy in the film. Unfortunately, Sabu would have to turn it down, for a heartbreaking reason.
42. He Couldn’t Work In India Then
India denied Sabu a work permit. Since he couldn’t go there, he had to turn down Birju’s role, which went to another actor. The entire experience must have made Sabu feel bitter. His replacement became hugely successful because of the film. And to make things even worse, Mother India also became India’s first Academy Award nominated film.
43. He Did Work There Later
Although he didn’t get a work permit for Mother India, Sabu eventually did go back to India and even worked in a film with Indian actress, Shashikala. Unfortunately, that film never saw the light of day, so no one knows whether Sabu would ever have made it in his native country, speaking a language he’d given up a long time ago.
44. He Hit Rock Bottom
In the later years of his life, Sabu’s career floundered. In a particularly tough time, he moved to Europe and worked with a circus.
45. India Wasn’t Very Fond Of Him
Perhaps it was because he always played a wide-eyed, naïve native, looking up to white men. Indians were unhappy with the way he’d depicted their country, although it wasn’t his fault those were the only roles offered to him. The press wrote unflattering things about him and tabloids published news about him romancing his on-screen costars off screen.
All in all, Sabu realized that going back to India wasn’t going to be a very pleasant experience for him, at least at this point.
46. He Had An Unexpected Ending
Sabu passed suddenly in 1963, at the age of just 39. The cause of his demise was utterly tragic. The actor had passed of a heart attack. Ironically, he’d gone for a checkup just two days before his passing and the doctor had told him that if all his patients were as healthy as Sabu, he’d be out of a job. His final resting place is Forest Lawn, in the Hollywood Hills Cemetary.
47. He Was A Pioneer
Whether you blame Sabu for playing to the stereotype or celebrate him for rising from an elephant-handler to a sought-after actor, you can’t ignore his contribution to the English/American film industry at a time when hardly any people of color were a part of it. He worked with what he had, and he did the best job he could. Director Michael Powell remembers him as “kind, direct, strong and intelligent.”
48. He Worked With Disney
Sabu’s last two films were Rampage, co-starring the noir icon Robert Mitchum, and a Disney film titled A Tiger Walks. Both movies came out after his passing. I can’t help wondering, would Sabu have made a comeback as a voice actor for Disney movies if he lived longer?
49. He Always Loved Animals
Sabu was one of the celebrities who loved visiting Ralph Helfer’s Africa USA Exotic Animal Ranch in Soledad Canyon. He went there regularly on weekends to play with the animals and to help around with them and do their chores. He may have become a big star, but animals were definitely his first love.
50. His Face Was On A Stamp
The United States celebrated Sabu’s achievements with a touching gesture: They proudly displayed his famous face on a postage stamp. In turn, Sabu responded by helping the war cause: He traveled through the country selling bonds, often times with a baby elephant in tow. I guess being the Elephant Boy trumps being a decorated officer?
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16