South Harrow – Elephant Boy (1937)

Elephant Boy (1937) | South Harrow

In 1937, Danemead House, Northolt (rebuilt in 1939 as Danemead Grove) was, briefly, home to Sabu who had recently arrived from India to film extra footage for the Zoltan Korda-directed ‘The Elephant Boy’. The Gaumont British Pictures temporary film studio was off Eastcote Lane, nearby. Elephants were delivered by train to Northolt station and led up Eastcote Lane for Sabu to work with them.

‘Sabu’, the boy actor at the entrance to ‘Manawatu’ in Burkes Road, 1936. Beaconsfield Historical Society.

13 year old Selar Shaik Sabu or Sabu Francis was raised Muslim in Karapur, Mysore, in British occupied India, the son of a mahout (elephant driver). (Repeating a classic chapter in the story of immigrants everywhere, British Customs wrote down his name as his brother’s name – ”Sabu Dastagir” – by mistake and it stuck, making Sabu truly desi to London.) Discovered by the documentary film-maker Robert Flaherty, he was cast in the adaptation of a Kipling story ‘Toomi of the Elephants’.

Sabu at school in England.
Once shooting was transferred to the UK, Sabu soon developed a lifelong friendship with the Korda brothers and with director Michael Powell. Sabu quickly learned to speak English like a product of the public school system. He won over audiences around the world with his wit, charm and good looks. (Sabu wasn’t shy about striping to the waist, and why should he have been?)

Sabu moved to the USA and became a citizen, where – after a brief spell as a playboy – he settled down with American Marilyn Cooper to raise a family. He starred in many forgettable but fun ‘Easterns’ in Hollywood. In 1944 Sabu joined the war against global fascism, signing up for the United States Army Air Forces. He served as a tail gunner and ball turret gunner on B-24 Liberators in missions over the Pacific.

Sabu is less well known in his home country than Hindu nationalist leaders who spent the War forming alliances with Imperial Japan, Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, and who strutted around in uniforms and in ceremonies which they designed themselves, riding in a chariots drawn by 51 bullocks through 51 gates, while accompanied by 51 girls in saffron saris, with 51 brass bands playing. Muslim-born Sabu, by contrast, was a bona fide war hero and the first international Indian and South Asian film star.