This is how stars are born.
Eleven-year-old Selar Shaik was looking after elephants in the stables of the Maharaja of Mysore in southern India when Osmond Borradaile ran into him in 1935. The Canadian cameraman, who later won two Oscars and the Order of Canada, was scouting locations for Robert Flaherty, the documentarian famous for Nanook of the North.
Selar had the sunny smile and effervescent personality they needed to carry a docudrama that Flaherty and co-director Zoltan Korda (brother of producer Alexander) wanted to make about India. Selar was renamed Sabu, and the resulting black-and-white film, Elephant Boy (1937), made him a star.
Sabu’s most famous film, and the easiest to obtain on home video, is The Thief of Baghdad (1940). But this week, Eclipse Series 30: Sabu!, on Criterion’s no-frills DVD label, brings three more: Elephant Boy, The Drum (1938) and The Jungle Book (1942). All three are worth watching.
It should be noted up front that, even as Indians were pressing for independence from the British rulers, these British films painted the colonial power as wise, noble and protective of the people: the Great White Father. Ironically, the villain in The Drum – the anti-British Ghul, who kills his brother and usurps his throne on what is now the Pakistan-Afghanistan border – is played by Raymond Massey, brother of Vincent Massey, who in 1952 would become governor-general of Canada.
In Elephant Boy, for which the Urdu-speaking novice had to learn his English dialogue phonetically, Sabu seeks to lead the British to a herd of elephants. Korda directed the interior scenes in an English studio, from a script written (based on Rudyard Kipling’s Toomai of the Elephants) to incorporate exterior footage Flaherty had already shot in India. The laurel goes to scenes of Sabu using his elephant as an escalator to steal melons from a rooftop.
In The Drum, a rip-roaring Technicolor adventure set in India but shot in Wales, Sabu plays a prince cast out by the demonic Ghul. Along with a noble British army captain (Roger Livesey, later to star in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), the prince must prevent Uncle Ghul from massacring the occupying forces in what Ghul calls “a holy war.” Contemporary resonances, anyone?
The Jungle Book – filmed in Hollywood because of the Second World War – starts slowly, with 10 minutes of Technicolor shots of monkeys and other creatures jumping about, but soon enough there are human villains, pythons, crocodiles, wildfires and a ruined city groaning with forbidden treasure. Sabu plays Mowgli, raised by wolves, fearful of a tiger and about to learn that humans can be avaricious. The rousing score is by Miklos Rozsa, who received one of the movie’s several Oscar nominations.
Sabu’s star waned, though he continued to appear in movies and had a significant role in the classic Black Narcissus. He died of a heart attack in Hollywood in 1963, at 39, just after making the Disney film A Tiger Walks.
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