Caution: Colonialist Charm Ahead: ‘Eclipse Series 30: Sabu!’

Three films starring Sabu Dastagir portray India as a fantastical place threatened only by the jungle, paganism, and its resistance to Western tradition.

On 15 August 1947, the Republic of India gained independence from Great Britain. The Asian country had been trying to gain its freedom from the British empire for almost 100 years. During that time, it experienced one of its most violent periods and gave rise to one of the most legendary pacifists in history, Mahatma Gandhi.

During the time leading up to India’s independence, British artists pointed out the incoherence of Victorians trying to hold on so strongly to a powerful nation that would never succumb to their sociopolitical expectations. Others tried to glorify the 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 have 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 on portraying 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 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 films 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 film, 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 when you start watching Elephant Boy and a wide eyed, smiley Sabu greets you to tell his story. In this 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 the laughingstock of the group because of his young age, but before the film ends, he proves to them that he is better than the rest. Flaherty and Korda directed Elephant Boy and it is the perfect showcase for their talents. Flaherty’s love of nature shines in the elephant scenes (you wonder how they were able to get so close to the giant beasts with the complicated equipment used in that era), while Korda specializes in light melodrama.

Elephant Boy seems 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, Elephant Boy looks like a slight coming-of-age story we’ve seen countless times before. The freshness lies in the elephants and 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 film, Sabu plays a young prince who joins the British army to overthrow his evil uncle (Raymond Massey in brownface) from the throne he stole from him. Where Elephant Boy showcases why Indians had to be rescued from their wild ways, The Drum proves they could help each other and coexist. More than that, it shows 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 box set is how the films lack malice. Seen now, though, they reek of xenophobia disguised as empathy. If the filmmakers were willing to work with Sabu, why couldn’t they also have shot on location? 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, excelled at two tasks: he showed that British people could be kind to Indians and simultaneously gave people back home something to aspire to. If he was a movie star, why couldn’t they be stars, too?

The artifice in these films has an undeniable charm, never more obvious than in the exciting Jungle Book, which has Sabu play the legendary wolf-boy Mowgli. This film has a less threatening colonialist tone than the others, even though 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, a veteran actor when it 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 he realized he’d been living in the same fantasy his films portray.

It’s hard not to see these films through the eyes of post-colonialism; judging them as mere curios instead of propagandistic entertainment. Perhaps one sees too much and accuses them of succumbing to the only way they knew how to be back then. After all, movies have always been part of a larger sociological apparatus: reflections of the times they’re made. Eclipse Series 30: Sabu! then should be a reminder that what once was deemed harmless by some can now look like a celebration of slavery.

RATING 6 / 10