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‘Elephant Boy’ Sabu Dastagir, the first Indian actor to make it big in Hollywood

Sabu Dastagir did not act in any Hindi film. He was once considered by Mehboob Khan to play the lead role in Mother India but it ultimately went to Sunil Dutt.

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New Delhi: Long before Indian actors such as Aishwarya Rai, Irrfan Khan and Priyanka Chopra stared to pursue parallel careers in the West, there was an Indian who had made it big in Hollywood. He was Sabu Dastagir — popularly known as ‘Sabu’ — who was the first Indian star to set foot in Hollywood.

Not only was he the first actor from India in American cinema, Sabu was also inducted into the prestigious Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. He gained massive popularity in the US and Britain for his films during the 1930s–40s, when India was still under colonial rule. Sabu died on 2 December 1963, at the age of 39.

The elephant boy — from real to reel 

Sabu’s career in the world of films started when he was barely 13. It is believed that he was discovered either by Frances Flaherty, writer and wife of American filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty, or the latter’s cameraperson, Osmond Borradaile, while looking for a location to shoot the film, Elephant Boy, in 1934 or 1935.

Sabu was born on 27 January 1924 in Karapur, Mysore. His father, a mahout for the Maharaja of Mysore, died early and Sabu spent a great amount of his time in the elephant stables.

Sabu was cast in the lead role of a mahout in the Elephant Boy, which was adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s short story ‘Toomai of the Elephants’ — about a young elephant-handler. The film became a huge hit and Sabu’s performance was widely appreciated by critics who described him as a “complete natural“.

He went on to grab major lead roles in several British and American films such as The Drum (1938), Thief of Bagdad (1940), Jungle Book and Arabian Nights (1942), Cobra Woman (1944), Song of India (1949), and many others.

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Footnote in Hindi cinema

Sabu did not act in any Hindi film, and much of his popularity rested in Western movies that depicted the East as an exotic and wild land.

While he was loved and adored by western audiences for his movies, Sabu’s cinematic legacy remained largely overlooked in his own birthplace. His role as Prince Azim in the 1938 film The Drum received backlash from Indian audiences, with many calling the depiction of Indians offensive and part of the British propaganda.

Sabu was once considered by Indian filmmaker Mehboob Khan to play the lead role in 1957 classic Mother India, a role that ultimately went to actor Sunil Dutt. Sabu, who by then was a US citizen, was unable to obtain a work permit in India.

Not just an actor, but a war hero too

Sabu not only made it big as an actor in the West, but was also a distinguished war hero in the later part of his life. After becoming an American citizen in 1944, he joined the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. He served as a tail gunner and ball turret gunner on B-24 aircraft for a bombing group. He was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and other military awards for his service.

Sabu died of a heart attack in Los Angeles a month before his 40th birthday. He was married to American actor Marilyn Cooper with whom he had two children.

His last film was A Tiger Walks in which he played an Indian animal trainer who helped pacify a mistreated Bengal tiger. The movie was released three months after his death in March 1964.

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