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

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20 Responses to “Before the Slumdogs, the Mahoutboy Millionaire”

  1. nagarajarao@tarikere Says:

    I had read news about Mysore boy having good training in taming elephants, drew the attention of british people and acted in engligh movie and put up good show. Thanks to vattam who reminded the people, especially when Dharavi people were boasting of thier boy.

  2. Tathagata Mukherjee Says:

    nice bit of info!

  3. Alok Says:

    …which once again begs the question, why, oh why, did Danny Boyle cast that twangy twerp Dev Patel for a 1/3rd of the male lead. The three Jamals go from being adorable and plucky to mildly annoying but acceptable to cringe-inducingly idiotic. His performance could have been forgiven if he had made at least the slightest attempt to get an accent coach..

  4. jeevaratna Says:

    Original Story of elephant boy was Robert Flaherty’s own brainchild and it was only due to the insistence of Mr. Alexander Korda – founder of London films, that some elements of Mr. Kiplings ,”Toomai of the elephant” got incorporated to the final story.

    As a matter of fact, Sabu was a chance discovery by the films ace cinematographer Mr. Osmand borradaile, who found him when the boy had come to collect pension after the death of his father.

    The Film was shot mainly in Kharapur forest and Melkote.

    Much of the Films success was also due to the role played by the magnificent Royal Elephant – Irawatha (ಐರಾವತ – ಪಟ್ಟದ ಆನೆ). It was reputed as the largest elephant in India at that time. Here is snap shot of sabu with Irwatha.


  5. Adarsh Says:

    this was interesting

  6. sanjayC Says:

    Interesting. Check out Sabu in Wikipedia.
    I remember reading about a wrestler from Mysore who in the early part of the 20th century made it big as a professional wrestler in the USA. Does anyone know more about this

  7. Manju Says:

    thanks for the flashback, seems like we were going straight 70’sand then back80′ and then again back 90’s and then again straight 00’s and now back again 09, thx to BJP and mutthleak.

  8. Sajesh Says:

    Wow.. that was something. Many thanks for sharing this piece.

  9. Vikas Akalwadi Says:

    Thanks to Shri Vattam, for beautifully narrating this incident for the benefit of people of our generation !!

  10. Dakshin Says:

    Yes. I also remember reading the same thing about a mysore boy acting in a holloywood film. Thanks Mr Vattam for reminding us in this.

  11. Halbhavi Says:

    Nice to know about this Mysore Boy who made it big in Hollywood.

  12. Pelican Says:

    Thanks indeed to Mr. Vattam. That was a refreshing read. I remember watching a short-film on Sabu, that was aired on TV about a year or so ago. It was either on the Discovery channel or one of the movie channels. It’s a one hour movie.

  13. Guru Says:

    Thanks Mr. Vattam.

    Just wondering if this was the inspiration to Sri to write a novel – ( Not able to remember the name), in which a snake charme boy from bangalore boy make it big in hollywood..

  14. Gururaj B.N. Says:

    Ace photographer Mr. T.S.Sathyan has, in his reminesances “Kalakke Kannadi” written at length about Sabu. It gives more personal details, as Mr.Sathyan had seen him too while he was still a nobody.

  15. Not A Witty Nick Says:

    This reflects how transient our memories are, Sabu is suppposed to have been a mane maatu, till a few decades back, but now we hardly have heard about him!

    Internet Archive Project has his later movie — Jungle Book, which the producer made to milk the success of Elephant Boy:

    It’d have been awesome if he had won an Oscar back then.

  16. Yella OK Says:

    At the same time sad to note another “slumboy” Shafiq of “salaam bombay” living life as in an ordinary manner as an autorickshaw driver after all the limelite he got for that movie.

  17. amreekandesi Says:

    Thanks for sharing a very interesting piece of news!

  18. bomma Says:

    Came across this while searching for the ‘Mysore Wrestler’ from one of the comments above:

    Thought it was a brilliant piece. I am sure others have many other details to fill in here.

    A thought:
    Cant the IT labour firms who have gained so much from Karnataka in terms of cheap land; cheap, talented and ruly labour; hospitality etc. give back something by sponsoring traditions such as wrestling in Mysore?

    May also have some direct benefits: probably serve as an example of manliness and physical fitness which seems to be missing among many spoiled software employees, give them some confidence to move up the ‘value chain’ as opposed to being labourers etc.

  19. naperville mom Says:

    Brilliant piece! Have to see The Elephant boy now. Thanks for sharing:)

  20. Krishna Vattam Says:

    Nagaraja Rao: Nice to read your comments. Thanks.

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