Sabu Dastagir – The first Indian actor to make it big in British cinema & Hollywood

Sabu Dastagir (1924 – 1963), also credited as Sabu was an Indian actor from Mysore who earned fame in British and US films during his teens. Most of his films were released in the second half of 1930s and 1940s, and as a teenager he was best known for doing adventurous and wildlife roles, mostly adapted from international bestselling books. 1940 British film, The Thief of Bagdad is his most successful film. Elephant Boy (1937), Arabian Nights (1942), Jungle Book (1942), White Savage (1943) and Cobra Woman (1944) are his other famous films, and he mostly played lead roles.

Sabu Dastagir was born as the son of a Muslim Mahout in Mysore Kingdom. His father served Mysore kings. He was spotted by documentary film-maker Robert Flaherty, when he was only 13. He was casted in the lead role of a mahout in the animal-oriented film, Elephant Boy in 1937. After the release of his second film, The Thief of Bagdad in 1940 he shot to instant fame, and then he became a part of a series of adventurous films, where animals play important roles. His career declined after World War II, and did supporting roles in movies like Black Narcissus. In 1950s his career was highly unsuccessful, where he became a part of several B-grade European movies. He was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, three years prior to his death, aged only 39.

Sabu Dastagir – Some interesting and less-known facts

A screen grab from his debut film as a child artist – Elephant Boy

1. His brother Shaik Dastagir who managed his professional career was killed in a robbery of his furniture store, just three years before Sabu’s death. Shaik Dastagir was then going through business losses.

2. Sabu became an international teenage star in the 1940s.

3. He married Marilyn – a less-known actress in 1948.

4. He had two kids with Marilyn Cooper of whom his son Paul Sabu is a musician. His daughter Jasmine Sabu was an animal trainer and screenwriter. Jasmine died relatively young.

5. He became an American citizen in 1944, after which he joined the United States Army Air Forces and has been associated with a few missions. He also failed to get good roles in Hollywood, as he used to get in British production ventures.

6. He was part of over 40 air missions across the Pacific during World War II.

7. He was offered the iconic role of Birju in Mehboob Khan’s 1957 film Mother India. He was denied a work permit, and the role later went to Sunil Dutt, which cemented his position in the industry.

8. Interestingly Sabu never worked in Indian films.

9. The lead role of Abu in the 1940 fantasy “The Thief of Bagdad” and Mowgli in “Jungle Book” (1942) are his most successful roles.

10. He tried real estate business and also performed with elephants as part of the Harringay Circus when he had a decline in his filmy career.

11. He passed away a few days before his 40th birthday (short of around 2 months). Interestingly he was healthy during a routine medical check, and his physician told in a humorous way that doctors will be out of work if patients are as healthy as Sabu. He died of a heart attack on 2 December 1963.

12. His last film A Tiger Walks was released in 1964 three months after his death.


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A freelance writer and blogger by profession since October 2011, interested in writing over a wide range of topics. Hope you enjoy my writings. I belong to one of the beautiful places of the world, Kerala, nicknamed as 'God's own country'.

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