An orphan, the son of a mahout, Sabu Dastigir was riding a real elephant around Mysore when he was signed to star in Elephant Boy (1937),
an adaptation of the Kipling tale "Toomai of the Jungle." Wearing only a dhoti and turban, his last name deleted to make him seem more savage, he became a media sensation. He was transplanted to England as a ward of the state and enrolled in school, but he found little time to study when he was receiving almost as much publicity as Johnny Weissmuller.
After a starring role in the pro-colonial Drum
(1938), he was cast in The Thief of Bagdad (1940),
set in the mythical past, an "Arabian fantasy in technicolor." In the 1924 silent version, Douglas Fairbanks plays a thief who wins a princess, but Sabu would not win any princesses. Instead, the spunky, enterprising thief Abu falls in love with Prince Ahmad (John Justin), who has been deposed by an evil uncle. The two escape together, steal a boat, and plan to sail downstream from Bagdad to the ocean, where they might find a safe haven in the wilderness. But then Prince Ahmad falls in love with a princess from another kingdom, and insists that they stay in Bagdad. The rest of the movie involves the prince ignoring, endangering, or simply abandoning Abu to make time with the princess. In the throws of unrequited love, Abu often looks hurt but never complains.
After starring in a loose adaptation of Kipling's Jungle Book
(1942), in which Mowgli befriends both a native girl and a British officer but falls in love with neither, Sabu moved to Hollywood and signed on with Universal, where he starred as a dhoti-clad Jungle Boy in three Technicolor romances, all set in distant lands where no one had ever heard of Hitler. Sabu was in a rather precarious position. Although he (or rather, his body) was the top-billed star, he was irrelevant to the plots, about swarthy adventurer Jon Hall wooing cool, mysterious Maria Montez.
Sabu became a darling of World War II beefcake photos. His torso, v-shaped, barrel-chested, bronze-skinned, sculpted but softening slightly at the stomach, is often displayed in a bright light against a black backdrop, so that every muscle will stand out. The only problem is, he has no one to desire; in movie after movie, his same-sex loves go unrequited.
He courts Jon Hall's character aggressively -- hugging, grabbing, taking his arm, pressing against his chest, unbuttoning his shirt, mussing his hair, offering him flowers, chasing away other suitors with a barking "Get back, he's mine!" Hall's characters respond with amusement and affection, but no longing.
Sabu is captured once, and once he and Hall are captured together, but otherwise Hall is tied, struggling, about to be drowned or fed to cobras, and the jungle boy comes swinging down on a rope or galloping up on a white horse to save him.
And Sabu's characters never expresses any heterosexual interest. In Arabian Nights,
Ali (Sabu) enters a harem to deliver a message, and the sex-starved girls engulf him, groping and fondling. He screams "Please stop! Stop it!" with shrieks of terror. They back off, bewildered, as if no man or boy had ever resisted their advances before.
At the end of each movie, Sabu practically shoves Hall's characters into the arms of Maria Montez. Then, after the final clench, they offer to adopt him. It seems absurd to emphasize Sabu's muscular physique, have him approach Jon Hall with blatant homoerotic desire, and then claim that he is just a little boy, not yet able to understand "adult" desires.
After the war, when Sabu was too old to play teenagers, he played heavily muscled, usually half-naked Jungle Men who get girlfriends. He appeared briefly in his own comic book title. Later in the 1950s, he invested in a real estate business and took whatever roles he could find that did not require wearing a loincloth.
Days after filming A Tiger Walks
in 1964, Sabu died of a heart attack. He was in perfect health and only 39 years old. He left a legacy of superbly homromantic movies, and influenced two generations of dhoti-clad Jungle Boys, from Gunga in Andy's Gang
, Hadji on Jonny Quest
, Haji of the Elephants,
and Raji on Maya,
to the various Mowglis
of the 1990s.