Sabu Dastagir was born in 1924 in Karapur, Mysore, Kingdom of Mysore, then a Princely State of British India, and raised as a Muslim, Sabu was the son of an Indian mahout (elephant rider). While most reference books have his full name as "Sabu Dastagir," research by journalist Philip Leibfried suggests that was his brother's name, and that Sabu was in fact Selar Shaik Sabu or Sabu Francis. His brother managed his career. His brother was killed in a robbery of his furniture store, a failing business jointly owned by the two men.
When he was 13, Sabu was discovered by documentary film-maker Robert Flaherty who cast him in the role of an elephant driver in the 1937 British film Elephant Boy, based on "Toomai of the Elephants", a story by Rudyard Kipling. In 1938 producer Alexander Korda commissioned A. E. W. Mason to script The Drum as a starring vehicle for the young actor. Sabu is perhaps best known for his role as Abu in the 1940 British film The Thief of Bagdad. Director Michael Powell said that he had a "wonderful grace" about him. In 1942 he once again played a role based on a Kipling story, namely Mowgli in Jungle Book directed by Zoltán Korda where he plays a feral child whose animals are in danger by human villagers. He starred alongside Maria Montez and Jon Hall in three films for Universal Pictures: Arabian Nights (1942), White Savage (1943) and Cobra Woman (1944).
After becoming an American citizen in 1944, Sabu joined the United States Army Air Forces and served as a tail gunner and ball turret gunner on B-24 Liberators. He flew several dozen missions with the 370th Bomb Squadron of the 307th Bomb Group in the Pacific, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his valor and bravery.
His career declined after World War II as he was unable to secure equivalent roles in Hollywood that British films had offered. He occasionally did gain significant parts, such as his supporting role in the British film Black Narcissus (1947). Through most of the 1950s he starred in largely unsuccessful European films. In 1952, he starred in the Harringay Circus with an elephant act.
His last completed film, A Tiger Walks, was released in March 1964, three months after his death.
On 2 December 1963, Sabu died suddenly in Chatsworth, California, of a heart attack at the age of 39. He is interred at the Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery. His wife said in a television interview that two days before his death, during a routine medical check, his doctor told him: "If all my patients were as healthy as you, I would be out of a job."
- Savage Drums: Sabu Dastagir, Lita Baron, H. B. Warner, Sid Melton
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- Jungle Hell: Sabu Dastagir, David Bruce, K. T. Stevens, George E. Stone
- Buy Jungle Hell: Read Movies & TV Reviews - Amazon.
On 19 October 1948, Sabu married little-known actress Marilyn Cooper, (whose only film part, as Princess Tara in Song of India in 1949, was not credited), with whom he had two children. Their marriage lasted until his death.
Their son Paul Sabu established the rock band Sabu in the 1980s, and their daughter Jasmine Sabu was an animal trainer on various films; she died in 2001.
Sabu was the subject of a paternity suit that resulted in a published opinion by the California Court of Appeal, Dastagir v. Dastagir, 241 P.2d 656 (Cal. App. 1952). Sabu was sued by an infant girl born in 1948, through her mother, an unnamed, unmarried English actress, who claimed to have had an affair with Sabu, and that he was the infant's father. The suit was tried by a jury, which returned a nine to three verdict in favour of Sabu.