The Rudyard Kipling coming-of-age story, The Jungle Book, is terribly compelling source material, convincing many filmmakers over the years to try their hands at adapting it. The most famous adaptation is Disney’s 1967 animated film, Bear Necessities and all, and the company now has another star-studded version set to come out next year. That film may be set to turn its 10-year-old Indian-American actor into a star, but that wouldn’t be the first time the role of Mowgli would help launch a career.
One of the earliest adaptations of Kipling’s novels was the Korda Brothers 1942 technicolor film by the same name. It starred a young man in the title role of Mowgli, Sabu Dastagir, whose story parallels his reel life debut in several ways.
Discovered by a stroke of luck by filmmaker Robert Flaherty who was making a film version of Kipling’s Toomai of the Elephants, Sabu was first cast as Toomai in the 1937 film Elephant Boy. Orphaned at six, Sabu was first a stable boy and then a mahout, elephant keeper, in the employ of the Maharajah of Mysore, when he was discovered.
At 13 when Elephant Boy was released Sabu was signed on by the Korda Brothers for a long term contract. With them he would go on to make The Drum, The Thief of Bagdad – his most acclaimed role – until Jungle Book in 1942.
His straight-into-the-camera opening narrative in Elephant Boy is an insight into what may have charmed Flaherty to cast this local boy.
Sabu moved to the US and became a citizen in 1944. He later served in the US airforce, flying several missions for them. Following the war, he returned to Britain to play small parts in two more films, Black Narcissus and The End of the River, both in 1947.
Back in the US he acted in a few relatively undistinguished Hollywood films and died of a heart attack at 39, shortly after completing his first Disney film A Tiger Walks, that was released in 1963.