Jungle Boys, Babus and Camp Orientals The Liminal Personae by Jyoti Argade

By Jyoti Argade

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Extra resources for Jungle Boys, Babus and Camp Orientals The Liminal Personae of the Film Star Sabu

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One day, a crowd of Indian men gathers around the old banyan tree in the center of town. Posted on its trunk is an announcement that Her Majesty’s Government of India needs mahouts for a keddah, or elephant hunt. To meet the colony’s infrastructural demand for constructing roads, bridges and buildings, the government requires a squadron of one hundred elephants. Petersen Sahib (Walter Hudd), a government official, has been placed in charge of the task. Impressed by the tricks Little Toomai performs on his elephant, Kala Nag (Iravatha), the white sahib chooses the boy and his pet pachyderm, among others, to accompany him on an imperial elephant hunt in the wild.

As a “low-caste” Dravidian son of a mahout, Sabu’s origins also stemmed from the lower echelons of a colonized society. Described as a “primitive, penniless, illiterate, youngster born in the Karapur jungles” and found in a stable (Tabori 194), like the Aborigines, Sabu was often underclothed, objectified and carted from one publicity event to the next as an exotic commodity. Both Flaherty and Korda earned commissions from their eleven-year-old Indian boy’s public appearances in the media, at zoos, and in parades during the film’s production and in the year after The Elephant Boy’s release.

Together, these American and British filmmakers commissioned their own displays of India using tropes of Empire, ethnological exhibitionism and displaced visions of India that framed Sabu’s entry into the modern world. In Professional Savages, a heart-rending monograph on the spectacular display and exploitation of North Queensland’s Aborigines in circuses, fairgrounds, colonial exhibitions, theatre spaces and museums, Roslyn Poignant argues that European and American constructions of Aborigines in the popular imaginary stemmed from an “entanglement with fact and fiction” (7).

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