Sometimes sheltering from the storm requires little more than escapism and wonder.

Indian actor Sabu* enthralled audiences in Britain and the United States from the 1930s to the 1960s. Plucked from a childhood tending elephants by documentarists Robert and Frances Flaherty, his films are shot through with a unique spirt of adventure. The first Indian to enjoy an international film career – and one of the few Muslims to hold such celebrity – Sabu is one of RADIANT CIRCUS’ celluloid superstars.

Largely confined to storybook sagas, Sabu’s acting career started centre screen (ELEPHANT BOY), before becoming sidelined as a sidekick (ARABIAN NIGHTS) and descending into high camp (COBRA WOMAN) and exploitation (JAGUAR). With his films often dismissed for their orientalist excess and the star himself derided as a studio plaything – or worse, an apologist for colonial rule – Sabu is unfairly overlooked.

Michael Lawrence gives great reappraisal in his book, SABU, arguing that the actor’s onscreen efforts transcended the limitations of the films he starred in. Spend a lazy Sunday with Sabu’s films and you’ll find a charismatic performer seemingly aware of his star status, effortlessly holding your attention with charm, wit and a killer smile.

It was this knowing humanity that propelled Sabu’s international celebrity into the stratosphere, separating him from the manufactured starlets of the studio age. It also keeps his screen persona fresh and compelling to this day, his body of films – even the poor ones – a vibrant contrast to the modern mainstream’s anaemic actors and bland, photorealistic CGI.

Sabu’s spectacular fantasies for Alexander Korda’s London Films (ELEPHANT BOY, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, JUNGLE BOOK) are beautifully handcrafted daydreams, each given full-blooded dimensionality by their athletic star. Despite the critical and commercial success of Disney’s live action THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016), watching Sabu being pulled through the water by an obviously mechanical Kaa is something much more magical.

Sadly, these films were also to be the highlight of his career: Sabu died of a heart attack in 1963 having experienced an incremental decline in popularity from Korda’s big budgets to stock footage TV and the travelling circus.

Wrapping Sabu in so much film theory, Lawrence runs the risk of objectifying his star: there is very little biographical insight. However, with so many storms brewing on the horizon, he also makes a compelling argument for seeking shelter in the strange and foreign lands of Sabu’s films. As Michael Powell put it:

“Magical tricks and colour and vivid spectacle help to make a fantasy work, but it is the human beings in the fantasy who make it immortal.”

Michael Powell quoted in SABU, Michael Lawrence, BFI/Palgrave Macmillan (2014).



*Sabu’s real name has been unclear. The commonly cited Sabu Dastagir is now thought to be a mistake on his immigration papers. More recent works credit him as Selar Shaik Sabu. 

Featured image: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940).