A Story of Sabu

In 1936, in the jungle outside the Indian village of Karapur, a camera assistant was recording footage in search of locations for an upcoming film production. Moving gracefully through the trees in the footage was an elephant, a 12 year old boy perched calmly on the animal’s shoulders. When the footage made its way to producer Alexander Korda, he ignored the scenery he’d been searching for, and immediately sent for the young elephant rider.

The boy was Selar Shaik Sabu. Born on January 27, 1924, and orphaned by age 9, he grew up with his older brother amongst the elephants his father had raised. Presented with a contract to appear in the film, the pair were whisked away to England where Sabu stared in the film, Elephant Boy, an adaptation of a story from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. In exchange for his work, Sabu and his brother were given British housing and enrolled in quality schools. Korda cast Sabu in several subsequent movies, including The Drum, The Thief of Bagdad, and as Mowgli in another Kipling adaptation, The Jungle Book.

Sabu in military uniform

Meanwhile, in the United States, Tarzan movies were all the rage, and cinemas searched abroad for content to sate the local appetite for jungle-themed movies. With Korda’s films at the top of the list, Sabu came to the attention of Hollywood. The brothers moved to the United States permanently after Sabu worked on Universal’s Arabian Nights, and became citizens in 1944. During World War II, Sabu served in the US Air Force, earning several medals of distinction.

Post-war, Sabu’s roles were less rewarding than those he’d had in the earlier Korda productions. Often relegated to stereotypical roles, or stock ‘exotic’ characters, Sabu struggled to find substantial films to work on. However, while staring in 1949’s Song of India, Sabu met Marilyn Cooper, an actress with a minor role, who captured his heart. The pair were married soon after, and had two children.

Sabu's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

After years of unsatisfying work, Sabu was able to break away from the typecasting that plagued his later career to work on the acclaimed Black Narcissus, and he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. On December 2, 1963 – reportedly mere days after his doctor praised his perfect health – Sabu suffered an unexpected heart attack at home in Southern California and died. His final film, A Tiger Walks, was released months later to positive reviews.

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