Exploring a lesser known aspect of Satyajit Ray: The masterful filmmaker was also a science fiction enthusiast

From founding the Sci-Fi Cine Club in Kolkata to plans to direct a Hollywood sci-fi film, and developing the character of Professor Shanku, Satyajit Ray enjoyed an almost umbilical connect with the science fiction genre.

Ashoke Nag January 23, 2022 08:40:37 IST
Exploring a lesser known aspect of Satyajit Ray: The masterful filmmaker was also a science fiction enthusiast

Satyajit Ray

To celebrate the centenary year of Satyajit Ray, arguably the most remarkable filmmaker born on Indian soil, Firstpost will explore the lesser known aspects of his life in our column Ray-esque.

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Movie virtuoso Satyajit Ray’s affair with the science fiction world was immeasurably deep-rooted. In the mid-60s, an unprecedented and a completely unanticipated development crystallised in Kolkata. Satyajit Ray and his friend Adrish Bardhan brought to life the Sci-Fi Cine Club. Bardhan used to publish the science fiction journal  Ascharjya. It was later rechristened Fantastic.

“Father was very impressed with Adrish uncle’s involvement with Fantastic, and his achievement in bringing out a sci-fi magazine. There was no instance of such a pulp magazine doing the rounds in those days. Father was personally a sci-fi bookworm. This brought him close to Adrish uncle. This teaming up with Adrish Bardhan is akin to father’s joining hands with [famed Bengali poet] Subhash Mukhopadhyay to revive our family magazine, Sandesh,” says Satyajit's son Sandip Ray.

When the Sci-Fi Cine Club concept was completely frozen, Satyajit, according to Sandip, floated the idea of sending out word to various personalities across the world about such a club heading to fructify in Kolkata. “Responses from these famous figures, father felt, could be printed in Sci-Fi Cine Club brochure. That would, naturally, add value to this unique outing,” expresses Sandip.

The legendary sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke was, in any case, a close friend of Satyajit Ray. Satyajit had also corresponded with another sci-fi literary great, Ray Bradbury, earlier. “Clarke must have also lent a helping hand in sourcing addresses of various names associated with sci-fi. Letters went out to Clarke, Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, the emperor of cartoons and animation Walt Disney, and quite a few other famed names. And everyone wrote back overjoyed and overwhelmed about the Sci-Fi Cine Club in Kolkata. They, in fact, underscored that such a film club was unparalelled even abroad at that time. Needless saying that father was also an internationally established name by then,” effuses Sandip.

“Walt Disney was then in his sunset years. But he still wrote back to father saying he was thrilled about this project in Calcutta and India. In fact, he had added that Walt Disney Productions had embarked on a movie venture revolving around India. It was titled Jungle Book,” says Sandip with a smile.

“Father, in turn, went about designing the brochure and cover and the logo of the Sci-Fi Cine Club. Interestingly, in that era, Calcutta had seen offices of all the major Hollywood distribution studios – MGM, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Columbia, Paramount, Universal and the like – located in the city. And what is of increased interest is that all these studios were equipped with well-stocked film libraries. “Father had sourced catalogues from all these studios, which listed the movie titles available at these archives. And the studios would meticulously send out catalogues to father every time they were updated,” informs Sandip.

According to him, the Sci-Fi Cine Club took off with the movie, Village of the Damned, adapted from sci-fi writer John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos. “This was a low-budget British film, but was stupendous in its appeal. The movie saw a sequel titled Children of the Damned, which the Sci-Fi Cine Club also screened."

The overseas consulates based in Kolkata also chipped in with a helping hand. Thus, the Cine Club would sometimes showcase Russian and Czech Sci-Fi films. “The club also showcased films by the Czech film maker Karel Zeman. Zeman used to fall back on the animation technique to create films like The World of Jules Verne,” Sandip recalls.

“Father had also interacted with the distribution offices and requested them to inform him if some sci-fi films came their way, and help the Sci-Fi Cine Club to screen the movie before it was released commercially. The functionaries of all the studios respected father tremendously, and were his fans. So they agreed in one go. Therefore, the film repositories of these Hollywood studios acted as a bulwark for the Sci-Fi Club,” underlines Sandip. He goes on to say that the incredible Sci-Fi film, Fantastic Voyage, made its maiden screening at the Sci-Fi Club before it was unfurled at regular commercial theatres.

The famous 1953 Paramount Pictures film, War of the Worlds, based on HG Wells’s unforgettable novel, was, in the same breath, shown at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts, which is otherwise renowned for its stage plays and art exhibits. The club also saw Russian films like The Amphibian Man. The club unveiled at least seven to eight movies yearly.

This indescribably out-of-the-box film club saw its membership list burgeoning, and found movie shows being screened in various venues, including cinema houses in Kolkata. In fact, well-known Bengali author Premendra Mitra also joined Ray and Bardhan at the helm of the cine club.

Exploring a lesser known aspect of Satyajit Ray The masterful filmmaker was also a science fiction enthusiast

Exploring a lesser known aspect of Satyajit Ray The masterful filmmaker was also a science fiction enthusiast

Exploring a lesser known aspect of Satyajit Ray The masterful filmmaker was also a science fiction enthusiast

Significantly, the Sci-Fi Cine Club was born even before movie great Stanley Kubrick brought to life his pathbreaking film, 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. The screenplay of this movie was, incidentally, scripted by Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke.

Kubrick’s Space Odyssey actually opened the floodgates for science fiction films. The world had not seen a whole lot of sci-fi movies before that one. “Regrettably, the Sci-Fi Cine Club in Calcutta saw the flow of films drying up gradually. Sometimes, if a sci-fi title was available, the distributing office said that the print was in extremely bad condition. Father was extremely meticulous about the print quality. What is unquestionably unfortunate is this movie club folded up after a short span of existence. One did not see a second one of its ilk coming up in Calcutta or across India in future. The Sci-Fi Cine Club was one of its kind. And father went all out to turn the Sci-Fi Cine Club into a success story. This, in many ways, is unimaginable because he was, in step, in the midst of concentrating on the entire gamut of filmmaking, including drafting the screenplay, designing the sets and props and costumes, editing the film, creating the movie posters and scoring music, writing books and stories, and illustrating them,” Sandip underscores. “He worked tirelessly.”

“In that sense, one feels the Sci-Fi Cine Club was an undoubtedly important phase or chapter in father’s life. Reams have been written on father’s detective character Feluda, and his creativity surrounding the sleuth. But a very limited focus has been trained on his sci-fi interests and work. Ironically, however, father’s first literary creation is his sci-fi character, Professor Shanku, who came to life in October 1961 with the novella Byomjatrir Diary (Diary of a Space Traveller) in the Ray family journal, Sandesh, which saw its revival in the same year. The novella was spread across three editions of Sandesh from October to November, 1961. And strangely, in a way, his first short story, Bankubabur Bondhu (Bankubabu’s Friend), which followed in February of 1962, was also a science fiction.

“Father had read up Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger and his other fantasy novels. It’s a misconception that Conan Doyle had only penned his famous detective stories centering on Sherlock Holmes. In fact, Professor Shanku is a mélange of Professor Challenger and my grandfather (the great ‘Nonsense’ poet and writer) Sukumar Ray’s literary creations Heshoram Hoshiyarer Diary, which, in essence, is a satirical creation drawing blood from Professor Challenger and Nidhiram Patkel (an inventor). Father was tremendously fond of Conan Doyle’s writings."

“In fact, my grandmother (Suprabha Debi) first brought father in touch with Heshoram Hoshiyarer Diary when he (Satyajit Ray) was a young adult. Learning, in time, that it was a spoof on Professor Challenger, father voraciously began reading the Professor Challenger series. Another favourite author of his was Jules Vernes. In fact, together with Conan Doyle and HG Wells and their generation of authors, some of these paperback and hardcover novels can still be found on the bookshelves of father’s library. Even in his early years, father had lapped up HG Wells’s Time Machine and War of the Worlds and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” drives home Sandip. Later, he delved into sci-fi writers like Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, John Wyndham, and Theodore Sturgeon. In fact, father’s love for science fiction, undoubtedly, took precedence over detective novels. One can air without batting an eyelid that sci-fi was his first love,” observes Sandip with authority.

Satyajit’s unflagging passion for sci-fi and his indescribably fertile imagination come through from the sweep of inventions that his literary scientist Professor Shanku fashioned: The Annihilin Gun, which was a non-violent weapon, and simply made people, objects or creatures disappear (incidentally, Shanku believed in non-violence), highly advanced computers like the Remembrain, which regenerated lost memory, and Intellectron, Miracurol (a cure for all forms of diseases), Fish and Coffee Pills, and Botica Indica, all food substitutes in miniaturised form. Professor Shanku O Bhoot (Professor Shanku and the Spook) saw a contraption which enabled one to communicate with spirits... All far ahead of their time. The diary format of the Professor Shanku novels or novellas were inspired by Satyajit's father Sukumar Ray’s Heshoram Hoshiyarer Diary.

Once the Shanku stories took off, Satyajit began subscribing to journals such as the Science Digest and Scientific American. He often fell back, too, on his volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. One would also chance upon him sometimes at Mohan Tiwari’s Bookstore (close to Kolkata’s New Market), picking up the latest issue of the science magazine Omni, together with movie periodicals like American Cinematographer.

“Father’s first Professor Shanku novel had a touch of amusement. It found Professor Shanku coming up with inventions like the Snuff Gun which, if fired at someone, triggered uncontrollable sneezing. The unflagging professor first experimented it on his household help Pralhad. One can well visualise Pralhad’s state! But the Professor Shanku writings soon took a serious turn. Their length also expanded, and they became multi-track. That is when The Adventures of Professor Shanku took off. This explains his gradually subscribing to or picking up journals revolving around science and technology. He had to stay abreast of the latest scientific developments."

Exploring a lesser known aspect of Satyajit Ray The masterful filmmaker was also a science fiction enthusiast

Cover of a Professor Shanku novel

"Although, since his books were essentially aimed at young adults, he ensured that they were not invested with a surfeit of technological content. Ultimately, of course, his readership ended up stretching across the breath of youngsters to matured adults. That was, indeed, an amazing phenomenon. He finally churned out 38 Professor Shanku creations, with two remaining incomplete because of his poor health condition, spelt by his two massive heart attacks, before he passed away in April 1992.

Father was not armed with Google and the internet when he was reeling out his writings. He had to painstakingly source information and data, be it for his films or literary output,” expresses Sandip with a wry smile.

In fact, the legendary sci-fi author Arthur C Clarke would invariably send across his latest novels to father,” Sandip says. Satyajit’s relationship with Clarke could have taken root from the early '60s. A pointer to the close equation with Clarke is established by the fact that the master filmmaker informed the world-famous sci-fi writer that he had penned a science-fiction movie screenplay titled Alien, and "probably sent him a summary of this film script," according to Sandip. This was in the mid-'60s. Satyajit had initially dubbed his intended film Avatar, but changed it to Alien on the requests of officials at Columbia Pictures, the major Hollywood production house, which was, as things stood then, tipped to produce the movie.

Exploring a lesser known aspect of Satyajit Ray The masterful filmmaker was also a science fiction enthusiast

Sketch of Alien by Satyajit Ray

Clarke, as known, was tremendously excited learning about the plot of Satyajit’s planned project, and urged him to immediately proceed with making of the film. Satyajit Ray had also travelled to Hollywood with a draft of the screenplay, and met functionaries of Columbia Pictures. A mimeographed version of the movie was also left with Columbia Pictures. After discussions with them, he had even begun zeroing in on Hollywood actors who, he felt, could play in the film. The rest is, of course, history as they say because this unique foray by Satyajit Ray into a science-fiction film fizzled out under controversial circumstances, which are expansively documented by the maestro himself in full-fledged articles titled 'Ordeals of the Alien.' Interestingly, the springboard of Alien was Ray’s maiden short story Bankubabur Bandhu.

Exploring a lesser known aspect of Satyajit Ray The masterful filmmaker was also a science fiction enthusiast

Cover of Bankubabur Bandhu

Satyajit Ray’s special relationship with Clarke is also heightened by an incident that materialised when Satyajit was journeying through London during the world-renowned director Stanley Kubrick’s shooting his masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1967-68. Since Clarke and Kubrick had collaborated to script the screenplay of this masterly movie, Clarke was the only other individual to be present on the sets other than the actors. Kubrick was extremely strict about not allowing anyone else on the sets. On learning that Satyajit Ray happened to be in London, Clarke discussed with Kubrick whether he could invite Ray to the studios to watch the shooting. Kubrick, of course, readily agreed, but he requested Ray not to click any photographs on the sets. “Actually, father always had a still camera slung around his neck when he was travelling. Father stood by Kubrick’s wish, except taking a shot of Kubrick sitting in his studio office room. Father narrated this extraordinary experience to us after returning to Calcutta,” says Sandip with a reminiscent smile.

“One must add that while Clarke was his closest friend in the sci-fi world, father exchanged letters with other sci-fi writers of world renown, like Ray Bradbury. Bradbury had, in fact, watched father’s films, and wrote back saying that he was immensely impressed,” informs Sandip in conclusion.

Therefore, the master movie director enjoyed an almost umbilical connect with the science fiction genre.

Ashoke Nag is a veteran writer on art and culture with a special interest in legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

All photos by Satyajit Ray Society.

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