On 15 August 1947, the Republic of India gained its independence from Great Britain. The Asian country had been trying to gain its freedom from the British empire for almost 100 years; which saw it go through one of its most violent periods and gave rise to one of the most legendary pacifists in history.
During the time leading to India’s independence, British artists began to point out the incoherence found in the way Victorians were trying to hold on so strongly to a powerful nation that would never succumb to their sociopolitical expectations. Inversely, others tried to glorify British presence in India by specifying how much the country gained from Western civilization. Writers like Rudyard Kipling wrote lengthy poems and books about the benefits of colonization; strange, given that nowadays most of his literature feels like a reminder that these lands should’ve been left untouched by Englishmen.
With the advent of cinema, British filmmakers had to find a way to carry 19th century thinking into the modern era. After the first World War, they also found themselves competing with the spectacles being made in Hollywood and in the ‘30s, they began to emulate what was being done across the Atlantic. The first British Technicolor movie events all dealt with the far East. Films like The Four Feathers told Eastern stories from soldiers’ perspectives and even fantasies like The Thief of Baghdad referred to the region as a place outside of “proper” societal conventions.
This insistence to portray the East, and especially India, as fantastical places threatened only by the jungle, paganism and resistance to Western traditions, found a perfect embodiment in Sabu: the fresh-faced Indian boy who became a global superstar, thanks to his work in a series of British films during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Born in 1924, Sabu Dastagir was discovered by documentarian Robert J. Flaherty when he was 13 years old. Sabu was the son of an elephant driver and the perfect choice to star in an adaptation of Kipling’s Toomai of the Elephants (one of the stories from The Jungle Book).
So, the young boy was flown to a film studio, had his last name dropped and learned his English lines phonetically to star in Elephant Boy, the first of three movies contained in Eclipse Series 30: Sabu!. As it’s become the norm with the Eclipse Series, the films in the boxset have no bonus features and less than perfect transfers (it’s all about the movie, not the extras). However, this is the first time the boxset is dedicated not to a writer or a filmmaker—but to an actor. As if this wasn’t strange enough, you then realize that all the films in the set were directed by Zoltán Korda, making you wonder why the series wasn’t dedicated to him, instead.
All doubts become clear the minute you start watching Elephant Boy and a wide eyed, smiley Sabu greets you to tell his story. In the film he plays Toomai, a young boy who dreams of becoming a hunter. He finds his opportunity when his father is hired by British businessman Petersen (Walter Hudd) to help tame a group of wild elephants. Toomai becomes laughing stock of the group because of his age, but obviously before the movie is over he proves to them that he is better than the rest. The film was directed by Flaherty and Korda, and is the perfect showcase for their talents. Flaherty’s love of nature shines in the elephant scenes (you wonder how were they able to get so close with the complicated equipment used in that era), while Korda specializes in light melodrama.
Elephant Boy feels rather harmless and from a merely entertaining point of view, it might be. However the film seems to take pleasure in displaying the shadow of ignorance cast over Indians who recur to mythology to rule their lives. The British businessmen are shown as the only people who can benefit from taming these wild beliefs. On the surface, though, it looks like a slight coming-of-age story the likes of which we’ve seen countless times before. The freshness lies in the elephants and of course in Sabu, who takes hold of the screen with incredible sincerity, leading us to wonder if he was aware of the stereotypes he was helping perpetuate.
This is highlighted even more drastically in The Drum, where Sabu’s naturalistic acting all but overshadows the stiffness and mannerisms of the entire British cast. In this movie, Sabu plays a young prince who joins the British army to overthrow his evil uncle (Raymond Massey in brown face) from the throne he stole from him. Where Elephant Boy showcased why Indians had to be rescued from their wild ways, The Drum proved that they could help each other and coexist. More than that, it showed how the British army was willing to help the natives deal with their conflicts, as long as they remained loyal to the crown.
What remains curious through this entire boxset is how the films seem to lack any sort of malice. Seen now though, they reek of xenophobia disguised as empathy. If the filmmakers were willing to work with Sabu, why couldn’t they have shot on location, as well? Certainly, the jungles weren’t friendly enough to host a film crew, but why not try to develop the movie industry in India by building studios there? Sabu, after all, was excelling at two tasks: he was showing that British people could be kind to Indians and simultaneously he was giving people back home something to aspire to. If he was a movie star, why couldn’t they be stars, too?
The artifice contained in these movies has an undeniable kind of charm, never more obvious than in the exciting Jungle Book which has Sabu play the legendary wolf-boy Mowgli. The film has a less threatening colonialist tone than the others, even if the entire framing device is having storyteller Buldeo (Joseph Calleia) entertain British tourists by sharing his jungle adventures.
Jungle Book shines for its bright Technicolor cinematography and its inventive use of puppetry and visual effects. Sabu, who was a veteran actor by the time the movie was released in 1942, no longer possessed the excitement he had displayed a decade earlier, his acting in this one seems more planned, almost intentionally stilted. India’s independence was still five years away and perhaps the young man had realized that he’d been living in the same kind of fantasy that his movies portrayed.
It’s hard not to see these movies through the eyes of post-colonialism; judging them as mere curios instead of propagandistic entertainment. Perhaps one ends up seeing too much and accusing them of succumbing to the only way in which they knew how to be, back then. After all, movies have always been part of a larger sociological apparatus: reflections of the times in which they’re made. Eclipse Series 30: Sabu! then, should be a reminder that what once was harmless can now look like a celebration of slavery.