Said Amir Shah


Said Amir Shah was a London-based silk merchant and warehouseman. He ran a business with his brother Fazal Shah on White Church Lane, and held a shop at 36 Montague Street. He also worked as a contractor for film companies, finding Indians (predominantly former lascars and hawkers) for crowd scenes, and in 1942 founded a company named Shah Film Corporation with John Kartar Singh and Herbert Bundy as his co-directors. A highly resourceful individual, during his time in Britain Shah was involved in a number of anti-colonial organizations and activities. Indeed, V. K. Krishna Menon reportedly cultivated Shah because of his connections, especially with working-class Indians in the East End of London.

Government officials first became aware of Shah through his involvement with the London branch of the Indian National Congress in the 1930s. After a brief period of involvement with the East End branch of Menon’s India League, he went on to become a prominent figure in the Committee of Indian Congressmen (led by Amiya Nath Bose and Pulin Behari Seal), under whose auspices he created an Indian National Muslim Committee which was strongly anti-Pakistan. He also aided lascars in their struggle for workers’ rights, acting as a court interpreter for those involved in criminal cases, and was an active member of the Hindustani Social Club.

In addition, Shah was a leading figure in the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin; in the 1940s he held the post of treasurer, and, according to government reports, he was responsible for opening various provincial branches of the organization in Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. Shah campaigned for a mosque to serve the Muslim community in the East End of London, and was instrumental in the foundation of the East London Mosque in 1941. He made a speech at its inauguration ceremony, and played a leading role in its management and affairs subsquently. He was the main agitator on behalf of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin in its struggle against the trustees for control over the mosque in 1943.


L/PJ/12/468, India Office Records, African and Asian Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras, pp. 278-80


This Indian Political Intelligence file comprises documentation and correspondence relating to Indian Muslim organizations and activity in Britain during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. It includes reports on the activities and establishment of mosques in London, including the Shah Jahan Mosque, the East London Mosque, and the Regent’s Park Mosque.


Ayub Ali (through East London Mosque), Surat Alley (through Hindustani Social Club), Mulk Raj Anand (through Hindustani Social Club), Tarapadu Basu (attended Jamiat protest meeting against ELM trustees), Amiya Nath Bose (through Committee of Indian Congressmen), G. S. Dara (accountant for Shah Bros), Dr Dutt (through India League), Sir Ernest Hotson (through East London Mosque), Kundan Lal Jalie (through East End connections), C. L. Katial (through India League), Kalundar Amirullah Khan (through Committee of Indian Congressmen), Sahibdad Khan (through East London Mosque, Jamiat-ul-Muslimin and Hindustani Social Club), V. K. Krishna Menon (through India League), Firoz Khan Noon (through East London Mosque), Hassan Nachat Pasha (Egyptian Ambassador – through East London Mosque), Ahmed Din Qureshi (through Hindustani Social Club), S. M. Sayeedulla (through East London Mosque), Pulin Behari Seal (through Committee of Indian Congressmen, Krishnarao Shelvankar (through Jamiat and ELM dispute), I. G. P. Singh (attended Jamiat protest meeting against ELM trustees), John Kartar Singh (formed Shah Film Corporation with Shah, and through Hindustani Social Club), Hassan Suhrawardy (through the East London Mosque), Sir Frederick Sykes (through East London Mosque), C. B. Vakil (through India League).

Shah Film Corporation

Precise DOB unknown: 

It is now clear that from 1941 onwards, SHAH has been trying to work himself up to a position of leadership in Moslem circles in this country. It is highly improbable that he has any religious motives in the matter, but desires to strengthen his hand as uncrowned king amongst Indian merchants, peddlers and seamen in the East End and in Provincial towns. In October 1941, when the East London Mosque was opened, he commented to the effect that it was not the Mosque he wanted, but it would have its uses. Shortly afterwards he was one of two members of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin co-opted onto the Board of Trustees of the Mosque and the Mosque Fund, and thereafter campaigned strenuously to obtain control, through the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, of the Mosque and the Fund.


First, this extract points to the fact that Muslim South Asians in Britain during the early twentieth century identified in terms of their religious faith as well as in terms of a broader Indian identity. Further, it suggests the presence of a burgeoning Muslim working-class community in the East End of London – a precursor to the significant Bangladeshi community that inhabits the area today. Finally, Shah’s connections with and leadership of ‘Indian merchants, peddlers and seamen’ coupled with his involvement with the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin and the East London Mosque suggest an intersection of the political and religious spheres for Muslims in 1940s Britain – and an attempt on Shah’s part to mobilize this community for the right to practise their faith within the public sphere.

Archive source: 

L/PJ/12/455, India Office Records, Asian and Afridan Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

L/PJ/12/468, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

L/PJ/12/646, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

Involved in events: 

Inauguration of the East London Mosque, 1941

Dispute between the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin and the Board of Trustees of the East London Mosque, 1943

Opening of the East End branch of the India League, 1943

City of birth: 
Amritsar, Punjab
Country of birth: 


Montague Street
London, EC2Y 8BB
United Kingdom
51° 31' 3.3312" N, 0° 5' 52.818" W
White Church Lane
London, E1 7QR
United Kingdom
51° 30' 55.7388" N, 0° 4' 8.1732" W
Precise date of death unknown: 
Dates of time spent in Britain: 

1930s - 1940s

Devika Rani


The actress Devika Rani was Rabindranath Tagore’s grand-niece and the daughter of the first Indian surgeon general M. N. Chaudhuri. Devika Rani lived in London in the mid-1920s, studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and the Royal Academy of Music. She also studied architecture and textile design and was for a while apprenticed to the studio of Elisabeth Arden. She met Himanshu Rai in London in 1928. He had originally trained as a lawyer but had become a film director and asked Devika Rani to design his next film, A Throw of Dice (1929). They married in 1929. The film was edited in Germany where Devika Rani met film directors such as Sternberg, G. W. Pabst and Fritz Lang, which heightened her interest in film-making. She subsequently joined UFA studios in Berlin, where she assisted Marlene Dietrich on the set of Der Blaue Engel (1930). She also briefly worked with Max Reinhardt. One of the early BBC broadcasts to India included a Devika Rani recital (15 May 1933). Rai and Devika Rani starred together in the film Karma (1933), which was completed at the Stall Studios in London. The film was the first Indian Talkie in English and Hindustani to be released in England, Europe and India. The film had its premiere, attended by the former Viceroy to India, Lord Irwin, in London in May 1933, and was well received by the critics and a big hit with the public. After the successful premiere of Karma, Devika Rani was asked by the BBC to act in an early television broadcast in Britain and was also chosen to inaugurate the first BBC broadcast on the short wavelength to India in May 1933.

Devika Rani and Rai returned to Bombay and set up the Bombay Talkies studio in 1934. It was hailed as one of India’s best-equipped studios and enlisted the work of cinema practitioners like the German director Franz Osten, and the cameraman Carl Josef Wirsching. The studio also launched the careers of many cinema icons of the immediate post-independence era, such as Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. After the death of her husband in 1940, Devika Rani became the manager of Bombay Talkies. In 1945 she married the Russian artist Svetoslav Roerich and sold her shares in Bombay Talkies. In 1953 she was awarded the Padamshree and in 1969 the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cinema.

Published works: 

Selected filmography:

Prapancha Pash (1929) [costume design]

Karma (1933)

Jawani Ki Hawa (1935)

Achhut Kanya (1936)

Janmabhoomi (1936)

Jeevan Naiya (1936)

Jeevan Prabhat (1937)

Savitri (1937)

Durga (1939)

Anjaan (1941)

Hamari Baat (1943)

Date of birth: 
30 Mar 1908
Secondary works: 

Rajadhyaksha, Ashish and Willemen, Paul,  Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, 2nd edn (London: British Film Institute, 2002)

Wadia, Avabai, The Light is Ours: Memoirs and Movements (International Planned Parenthood Federation, 2001)

Varma, Madhulika, 'Obituary: Devika Rani', The Independent (26 March 1994)

City of birth: 
Country of birth: 
Current name city of birth: 
Other names: 

Devika Rani Choudhury

Date of death: 
09 Mar 1994
Location of death: 
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
01 Jan 1925
Precise 1st arrival date unknown: 
Dates of time spent in Britain: 






 Sabu became in the 1930s Britain's first leading film star of Indian origin, who achieved international fame as well. His first big break came when the veteran documentary film maker Robert Flaherty cast him as Toomai, the lead role in the Alexander Korda-produced Elephant Boy (1937) based on Kipling’s story ‘Toomai of the Elephants’.

Sabu was born on 27 January 1924 in Karapur, Mysore. He was orphaned at an early age – his mother died when he was very young and he was raised by his father, a mahout, or elephant driver, who died in 1931. The six-year-old Sabu became the ward of the Maharaja of Mysore, where he worked first as a stable boy, then as a mahout. Elephant Boy had a troubled two-year gestation, with Flaherty being replaced by Zoltán Korda as director and Sabu brought to England for further filming. Although the film received mixed reviews, it made Sabu an instant star and the film was a big box-office hit. The film was the official British entry at the Venice Film Festival and won the award for best direction. While in London, Sabu was taken on a tour of the British capital, broadcast over the BBC, televised at Alexandra Palace, sat for a sculpture by Lady Kennet and a portrait by Egerton Cooper. Alexander Korda quickly signed him up to a long-term contract. He starred for Korda in The Drum (d. Zoltán Korda, 1938) based on the novel by A. E. Mason, in which he plays young Prince Azim.

He went on to star as Abu in The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Sabu remained in Hollywood for the duration of World War II. He made a final film for Korda and London Films, The Jungle Book (1942), in which he played Mowgli. He remained in Hollywood after his contract expired; signing with Universal Pictures. He adopted US citizenship in 1944 and joined the US Air Force, flying several missions as a tail-gunner towards the end of the war. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

He returned to Britain in 1946, where he joined the director/producers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger for his last two British films. In Black Narcissus (1947), in which Sabu gives his most nuanced performance, he plays a young general. The End of the River (1947) gave him another leading role. In 1952/53 he returned briefly to the UK, to perform an elephant act at the Haringey Circus. Sabu spent the rest of his career making relatively undistinguished Hollywood films and building a successful career in property. He died of a heart attack at the age of 39, shortly after completing the film A Tiger Walks (1963) with Disney

Published works: 

Select Filmography:

Elephant Boy (1937)

The Drum (1938)

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Arabian Nights (1942)

Jungle Book (1942)

Black Narcissus (1947)

End of the River (1947)

Date of birth: 
27 Jan 1924

Robert J. Flaherty, Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda, Merle Oberon.

London Films

Secondary works: 

Chowdhry, Prem, Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema: Image, Ideology, Identity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)

Flaherty, Frances and Leacock, Ursula, Sabu the Elephant Boy (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1937)

Jaikumar, Priya, Cinema at the End of Emipre: A Politics of Transition in Britain and India (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006)

Whittingham, Jack, Sabu of the Elephants (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1938)

City of birth: 
Karapur, Mysore
Country of birth: 
Other names: 

Selar Shaik Sabu, Sabu Dastagir

Date of death: 
02 Dec 1963
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
01 Aug 1936
Dates of time spent in Britain: 

c. 1936-40


London, Beaconsfield (school)

Tags for Making Britain: 
Subscribe to RSS - cinema