Before the Slumdogs, the Mahoutboy Millionaire


In the understandable hoo-ha over Danny Boyle‘s Slumdog Millionaire, it is easy to forget that there were others before the kids of Dharavi who set hearts aflame in Hollywood.

Krishna Vattam, the longetime Deccan Herald correspondent in Mysore, remembers one of them from our very soil, who sailed from the foothills of Chamundi to Beverly Hills.



As I was reading about the street children in Bombay, who were cast in leading roles in Slumdog Millionaire, I went down memory lane, recalling a rags-to-riches true story way back in the 1930s, of a Mysore mahout boy set in reel life from real life.

The old residents of Mysore will recall an incident, which, thanks to a strange stroke of fate, transformed the life of this 11-year-old boy who became India’s only international star at that time.

Britain’s reputed documentary maker Robert Flaherty with his wife Frances, were in Mysore with a film team, wanting to do a feature film based on Toomai of the Elephants—a story by Rudyard Kipling.

They were keen on choosing a ‘native’ boy for the lead role of Elephant Boy.

While walking around what was then a small town, the Flaherty couple, saw some children playing football, and others quarrelling among themselves in a friendly manner.

One afternoon they stepped into the Palace elephants’ stable, where elephants were being maintained by the Palace. It was lunch time and the senior mahouts were away, leaving the young boy in charge of the stable.

The little boy was wearing only a lungi and around his head a white turban was wrapped.

On seeing the white skinned visitors, he excitedly performed acrobatic stunts while handling and fondling the gentle giants with much ease. His manner charmed and captivated the Fleherty couple, and they felt that their search was over.

They were convinced that this was the boy they were looking for.

Writing about the couple’s encounter with this lad, Robert’s biographer Paul Roather, recalled:

My most treasured memory of this day is of Sabu. He made his appearance slowly astride on an elephant, and there they stood in the middle of the very large compound for the world to see. The manner in which he handled the ponderous, lumbering elephant was enough to stir one’s confidence and trust in him.

“I have found a gold mine,” wired Flaherty to Alexander Korda, the producer of the Elephant Boy, who was in London.

A large part of the film was shot in 1935 and 1936 in the jungles around Mysore, with which Sabu was familiar.

Since there was a delay in the completion of the production of the film, the team was asked to go over to Britain and the rest of the film was shot in the Denham studio in London. The Elephant Boy was a box office hit and the performance of Sabu was universally praised and Sabu  became an instant star.

The New York Times review recorded:

Sabu, the Indian boy is a sunny faced, manly little youngster. His naturalness beneath the camera’s scrutiny should bring blushes to the faces of precocious wonder children of Hollywood.

Born in Karapura, the famous site of the khedda of yesteryear in Heggadadevanakote taluk of Mysore district, on 24 January 1924, Sabu was an illiterate boy, who lost his mother when he was in the cradle and his mahout father when he was just seven years old.

He was the youngest stable boy in the Maharaja’s ward.

The Elephant Boy was a big box office hit and Korda signed him up with a long-term contract. Here was an Indian juvenile star, who had earlier not travelled beyond Mysore.From then on, Sabu became the ward of the British government and was given an excellent schooling. With this grooming, Sabu learnt perfect English, which gave him the added confidence to interact with other celebrities in both Britain and America.

His third film The Thief of Baghdad was a smash hit.

When the Kordas moved to America, Sabu also joined them and became an American citizen in 1944 and embraced the Episcopalian faith.

When Hollywood super stars like Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan stepped out of the studio to fight against the Nazis in World War II, Sabu also joined them as a gunner and was honoured for his courage and valour. He married an actress named Marilyn Cooper and had two children—Paul Sabu, who established a Rock band unit while Paul’s sister, Jasmine, owned a horse farm in California.

Sabu died young, at only 39, after a heart attack and his body was interred in the famous Forest Lawn Cemetery  among other film personalities. He had achieved name and fame and was a celebrity in his own right.

Sabu returned to his home town, Mysore, in 1952 to shoot a film and this former mahout boy from the Palace elephant stable was the guest of the Maharaja Sri Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar.

His memory is kept alive, thanks to the occasional screening of the 28 films, in which he acted in, especially The Elephant Boy, and other hits like The Thief of Baghdad (1940), Jungle Book (1942), Arabian Nights (1942).

This article originally appeared in Deccan Herald, and is reproduced here with the kind courtesy of the author

Author photograph: courtesy The Hindu

Sabu photographs: courtesy Film Reference, Movie Diva,,, geocities, Flickr (some frames digitally altered)

Photo mosaic: kind courtesy Ashish Bagchi