Travails with the Alien traces how Satyajit Ray wrote the sci-fi script that 'inspired' Spielberg's ET

HarperCollins India’s latest book Travails with the Alien – The Film that was Never Made and Other Adventures with Science Fiction is not an easy book to read, and for many reasons.

First things first, it recounts–through a series of letters, interviews, articles and media stories–the heart-breaking tale of how a beautiful film planned by one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers was grounded. Second, it shows how, more than half a century after Satyajit Ray had written the fascinating science fiction adventure film, we still do not have a decent movie in the genre in our country.

But most of all, it reminds us once again that artists–even the greatest ones the world has ever known–have always been dependent on those with deep pockets for the true realisation of their full creative potential, and how, more often than not, they have been exploited by those very people.

Travails with the Alien traces how Satyajit Ray wrote the sci-fi script that inspired Spielbergs ET

Travails with the Alien tells the heart-breaking tale of how a beautiful sci-fi film planned by Satyajit Ray was grounded

In the 1960s, Ray wrote the script for what was to be a pioneering film in the genre of science fiction in India. The working title of the film was 'The Alien' (interestingly, 'Avatar' was an alternative title). Based partially on one of his own short stories, the film would have told the story of an extra-terrestrial being who comes to Earth in a spaceship and lands in a lotus pond in the remote village of Mangalpur in West Bengal. There, he befriends a young boy and changes the life of several people in the village. Sounds familiar? Well, read on.

Encouraged by noted sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke, who read the screenplay and found immense promise in it, Ray sent the script to Columbia Pictures in California, who showed great interest in the project, and Peter Sellers was roped in to play the role of a Marwari businessman in the film. An erstwhile professional diver named Mike Wilson expressed his interest in coming on board as producer, and in good faith, Ray took him in.

What happened over the next few years, and how, after several trips to the US, UK and France, a frustrated Ray had to finally give up all hopes of the film ever taking off, is the central theme of the book. Travails with the Alien also talks about the shock Ray received some 15 years later, on watching two films by Steven Spielberg – Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial. While the plot of E.T. had many similarities to that of The Alien, the description of the alien beings in Close Encounters was downright identical to his sketches and descriptions of the alien in his own script. Ray was frustrated, yet again, but was too dignified a human being to take any legal action. But, in his own words, what these two films did was to ruin his chances of ever reviving The Alien as a project.

The book has a slightly complex structure, so a little guidance would perhaps help readers find their way through it. Essentially, the book is broadly divided into four parts. The first contains a few articles by Satyajit Ray himself – on science fiction as literature, sci-fi as a genre of cinema and his comments on the works of Francois Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451) and Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey). The segment also carries a few interviews of Ray on the subject of sci-fi, along with details of his role as the president of the Sci-Fi Cine Club set up in 1966 by science fiction enthusiasts – the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

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Ray had documented in a detailed manner the ordeal he had had to face to make The Alien take flight

The second segment (which I personally thought ought to have come third) carries an English translation of Ray’s short story Bonku Babur Bondhu (Bonkubabu’s Friend) by Indrani Majumdar, on which the script of the film was based. It also carries a script he wrote for his son Sandip Ray’s television short of the same name.

The third segment of the book–and easily the most interesting one–carries Satyajit Ray’s original script of The Alien, a fascinating screenplay that’s a treasure trove for any cinephile or science-fiction addict. This is followed by a series of sketches and notes Ray made on the treatment, further followed by a detailed documentation of the ordeal he had had to face to make The Alien take flight. It is this section that is particularly heart-breaking.

The book rounds off with two short stories–both English translations by Ray himself–one of his own sci-fi fantasy, and the other of a similar fantasy written by his father Sukumar Ray.

As I read through the book, gobbling up the pages one by one, I felt I was living through the ordeal Ray had faced. The humiliation of waiting in hotel rooms in an alien land for days on end, with complete radio silence on further developments on the project, must have been indeed frustrating for the man. And to see one’s own work being passed off in someone else’s name must also have been excruciatingly painful. But just like the dignified Ray, this book also offers a balanced perspective of the issue, with arguments by Arthur C Clarke and Steven Spielberg himself pointing to the possibility that perhaps the latter’s films were a classic case of ‘unconscious plagiarism’. In one particularly interesting letter to the editor of The Times in London clarifying his own stance on the much talked about issue, Clarke remarks – ‘…encounters between children and friendly E.T.s are an old concept in science fiction; notable examples are Theodore Sturgeon’s Mewhu’s Jet (1946) and Robert Heinlein’s novel Star Beast (1954)’.

What the book does lack though is a dedicated section on Professor Shonku – because no book on Satyajit Ray’s adventures with the genre of sci-fi is complete without a detailed study of his own creation of what is essentially the most prominent character in science-fiction literature in India. The fact that not many people know about Professor Shonku and his adventures is a sin that the book misses the opportunity to remedy. Other than this obvious and rather glaring flaw, the book is a fantastic entry into the list of prized possessions of anyone with a love for the arts. An absolute must-read.

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.

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Updated Date: May 10, 2018 18:28:15 IST

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