Though a mite childish, the exclamation point that follows Sabu’s name in the title of the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse set dedicated to the young Indian actor is shrug-inducingly appropriate. It fits, furthermore, not because the juvenilia of the box’s contents needs to be acknowledged outright, but because Sabu is one of the great interjections in film studies—an out-of-leftfield (or out of the jungle, if you prefer), toothy-grinned, and mouth-agape footnote in the history of British cinema that both authenticated the feral pageantry of the Kordas and aestheticized the weird, stumbling climax of the British Raj. The exclamation point, likely to be taken by some as the soft equivalent of snarking quotation marks, is so far the only example of titular punctuation in the Eclipse catalogue. And yet Sabu is so far the only actor to which the DVD line has devoted a package. (It must be said, however, that all films herein are directed by Zoltán Korda, providing the collection with a spiritual focus that, for example, George Bernard Shaw on Film strangely lacked.)
Perusing these three titles (the most accomplished that Sabu would participate in during his brief career, save The Thief of Bagdad, in which he starred, and Black Narcissus), I consider less the opportunities provided to the once-orphaned elephant driver and more the premorse arc of his life, which ended with a heart attack at the age of 39. This denouement bleeds suspicion, but Hollywood is an index of failure’s non-sequitur avatars—corporeal and sudden as much as institutional and gradual. And the tragedy, though arterial on the face of it, belongs to posterity. Sabu is a jejune insect, caught in cinema’s translucently golden amber, with no latter-day decline or attempted comeback to beautifully confuse his legacy of novelty. He left the wonderland of film to become a real estate salesman after fighting, admirably, in World War II; this suggests a dearth of frustration unaligned with the veneer of disappointment covering John Prine’s “tour of duty” metaphors (“Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone”).
What would, for example, Nicholas Roeg have made of a sixtysomething Sabu in the mid ‘80s? I imagine the now stately looking Indian gentleman portraying an aggressively fictitious version of himself—a coke fiend, perhaps, who switched to alcohol after the money became low and the modest Hollywood star of a wife (Marilyn Cooper) departed for younger, more relevant blood. He’d swill himself into torpidity while characters around him behaved demonically for the bulk of the film’s running time. But, toward the close, the expired meme would be aroused from half-deadness to deliver a bitterly erudite riff on his non-celebrity. And, of course, in doing so he would reveal that the entire film had in a sense been from his weary perspective.
I imagine this monologue a response to an honest, if feckless, error made by another character in passing, perhaps a reference to his being a “retired” or “washed up” actor. After this remark, the camera would bolt toward Sabu’s face, mimicking the synaptic burst provoked by the mistake. “Real estate,” he might murmur into a half-empty glass, the slurred vowels vibrating against a thick, dark pool at the bottom. “Real est-ATE!” He’d half-shout, pressing a palm confidently to the bar surface. The peripheral patron noise would silence and heads would turn toward the leathery, brown-skinned ghost who they’d assumed had drank himself past his vocabulary. “I didn’t retire from acting four years ago, I retired from real estate,” he’d correct, drawling slowly. Breathing heavily, he’d settle down, then—into the story. The camera would dote upon his still-youthful eyes—sometimes, quite inanely, through stretchy reflections in shot glasses, or maybe a jukebox shell—and his long, soft hands. “I was a good broker,” he’d continue. “Trustworthy and helpful without the aggression of a fee-obsessed jackal. You know. The good broker canon. When I quit, Marilyn was delighted at first. It was luxury, she thought, to be a starlet not yet 50 with a retired husband.
“Yes, she was young—almost 15 when we married. But remember, my life began when I came to the west…to shoot Elephant Boy. In that sense I was two years her junior, and I had only just undergone the turbulence of adolescence as a gunner in World War II. I hadn’t known how bodies truly interacted with one another before that—not in love or in war, aside from pantomimes of both. And I often wondered how the rest of the world had ever learnt about sex and honor, staying at home.”
His chest would heave and he’d go bug-eyed. “I could have been the one to stay home, too, at the very beginning, and learnt nothing…” His eyes would widen. “The other boys spoke better English but the elephants listened to me. So that documentarian, Flaherty, who I later talked out of surrendering his camera to the monkeys to see what footage might come of it, he chose me, and taught me how to speak as naïvely as possible. This came quite naturally. So real estate was foreshadowed even then. Which was just as well, since no one would have slapped an honest real estate agent on the wrist for—pardon the expression—having a child bride.” He clears his throat. “I wasn’t Chaplin for god’s sake. Or Flynn. Though when I read about their exploits, much later, it struck me as far less strange than the land of connubial arrangements I’d been plucked from in my self-taught youth.”
He might lurch forward here, or the screen might cutaway to stunned reactions from the barflies, now more sober than they’ve been on a Friday since their teens. One blond-haired man in a salmon-colored polo shirt would turn to his date and mouth, “Did he just say ‘child bride’?” A piercing floodlight would be placed behind his head, haloing his skull and overwhelming his face with shadow. Sabu would trudge on.
“Real estate. I sold architectures of living, receptacles for the drama that creates homes and then breaks them. I had to look upon empty things as though they were bustling and vibrant. Was this so different from my job in the films I shot with the Kordas? Have you seen the crude lights Georges Périnal used to gussy up the costumes in The Drum? Or the sets Jack Okey designed for The Jungle Book?” The screen would quickly show the blonde in the polo again, darting his eyes back and forth with ignorance. “Those movies certainly don’t work because of any suspension of disbelief, though I think Coleridge would have quite liked our Jungle Book.
“They work because the audience wanted to mimic my delight in the artifice of it all. I was always fascinated with machinery. Handmade tools and living things were my magic. I didn’t have to pretend that anything was real; the mechanisms that provided those films with their almost erotic spectacle were right in front of my awestruck face, trembling and naked. The taut midriff of the Technicolor camera. The slender angles of the matte paintings we used to cheaply suggest depth. The first time I had sex, the experience washed over my mind with a blank coolness. I had only felt anything like it before while performing in front of a bluescreen.
“And this was before Disneyland, remember, though there are very few animals there, unless you count the common roaches, termites, visitors, etc. It was also before Disney bestowed Anglophonia upon all of Kipling’s creatures. I merely carried on with a hissing rubber snake—and it didn’t even look masturbatory! It was an act of self-discovery, maybe, but the symbolism wasn’t quite as palpable enough to deserve an autoerotic cult. It’s no wonder to me that the films haven’t endured. I hadn’t known, then, how to embed such modern things in my icon. I didn’t even read Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’ until years later and was stunned to find that it’d been published while we were making Elephant Boy. Film’s ethical retardation hasn’t lessened any, either. Directors have just come up with flashier ways of appearing ahead of their time. Images can trick you like that, just as they can trick you into believing in magic carpets. The latter deception sold more tickets in the ‘30s.
“I just played scenes, tried not to over-break the fourth wall, tried to always teeter on the edge of fucking up my purely functional lines to give my character a loveable gawkiness…and to drive Korda—whichever one was within earshot—a little batty. I hadn’t really known how to bite the hand that fed me, then, either. If I’d been discovered by Fritz Lang, or maybe Preston Sturges…” He’d giggle. “…Things would have been different. I wish, too, I could say that I’d wanted to work more with Michael Powell, but I didn’t know the difference between him and Korda then—aside from Korda’s more gently paternal instincts. That softness is on the screen, and it’s disgusting. Korda’s propaganda gets a bulge in the crotch over the royal uniforms. Powell’s tears down the stupidity of postwar snootiness by dramatizing the best arguments for it. Though even he would have put Raymond Massey in brown face if he’d directed The Drum.”
Sabu might stand here, wobbly and uncertain. We’d see, in close-up, his hand grip the barstool behind him for support. “Even though Flaherty only shot one of them, those films are documentaries. They’re uncanny records of the globe-scaling opium trip of my early life. Remember in Elephant Boy, when the elephants dance by way of some crazy editing technique that spins their trunks back and forth and causes them to click their heels arrhythmically? The world looked like that to me some days. Mystical and unmanageable. It also looked burnt-red and patricidal, like The Drum. It looked pink and blue and smelled of frying sausages, like The Thief of Bagdad. And it was dangerous and greedy and orange and green like a mango with half of its flesh torn off, like Jungle Book.
“I sold you these environments until you couldn’t stand them anymore. Or,” he’d fire a scowl at the floor, “not you. Your parents. Your grandparents. And not long after I’d started selling other properties, more practical ones, the British Empire toppled. My birth in India, my incubation in London, and my hatching in California now seems like an arbitrary path marked by a many-armed god throwing darts at a map. My convolutedness was once an asset…” He would stagger, almost falling, but then regain composure as his throng of listeners holds its breath. “Now it just makes me normal. Keeps me in check. Without any claims to my obsolete celebrity, I can be just another vaguely ethnic drunk whose wife left him for a lawyer and whose kids never call.”
Slowly, Sabu would sit back down on the barstool, pressing the fingers of his right hand to his temples. The clenching silence would be broken, eventually, by a dumbfounded woman in the back of the room, clinking a lighter open. For a few seconds after, no one would move, and then cautious conversation would begin. “Pour me another royalty check,” Sabu would say, swiveling back toward the bar.
As usual, Eclipse has delivered a set of varying audio-visual quality. The Jungle Book, unsurprisingly the best preserved, seems alive with color; the matte backgrounds devised by Jack Okey and J. McMillan Johnson create eerily organic environments in which the film's many trained animals can frolic, and upconverted to 1080p the film grain is only occasionally distracting. The Drum, a largely forgotten Sabu vehicle, has fared the worst, with a reddish tint often overwhelming the screen; second-generation stock used for cross-dissolves likewise succumbs to a mutiny of scratches. In between these two is the black-and-white Elephant Boy, which looks fairly clean, though there's an irksome difference in look and feel between the Korda-directed soundstage scenes and the Flaherty-directed location shots. The monaural soundtrack is adequate, though the tonalities waver during music-heavy moments.
Goose eggs! Michael Koresky's liner notes elucidate Sabu's narrative with aplomb, however.
One of the most fascinating and entertaining asides in British cinema, Sabu is just meta-colonial enough to maintain relevance.