This book documents the failed journey of Satyajit Ray's The Alien

Updated: 05 May, 2018 07:14 IST | Shunashir Sen | Mumbai

A new book documents the failed journey of The Alien, a film that Satyajit Ray wanted to make but wasn't able to, and which later bore striking similarities to Steven Spielberg's E.T.

Bonkababu's friend
A sketch by Satyajit Ray accompanying Bonkubabu's Friend. Pics/harpercollins india

It is a reflection of how they were of a different vintage when you consider that despite meeting each other only once in their lives, filmmaker Satyajit Ray and science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke maintained a bond with each other, corresponding via letters, till the day Ray died over 25 years later. The roots of their friendship lay in a shared love for sci-fi, a genre Ray dabbled in actively with his literary exploits. And whenever he did, the master auteur would seek the response of Clarke, in who he found the most able confidant he could hope for. But, there had once been a point of slight friction. It had concerned The Alien, a film that Ray hoped to make in Hollywood. The movie eventually failed to see the light of day, however. And now a new book — Travails With the Alien (HarperCollins India) — documents the reasons why it failed to take off, and how it almost caused a dent in the bond between the two geniuses.

Here's what had transpired: In 1962, Ray had written a short story called Bonkubabu's Friend. In it, an alien accidentally lands in a small village in Bengal. Once there, it has a brief encounter with Bonkubabu, a school teacher who is the butt of all jokes. But the alien teaches the mild-mannered teacher how important it is to stand up to injustice, giving him the gumption to finally give his bullies their just desserts.

Taking off from this plot line, Ray conceived of a motion picture. The characters in the proposed film included Joe Devlin, an American engineer, Gaganlal Bajoria, an opportunistic businessman, and Haba, an impoverished child in rural Bengal who befriends the three-fingered alien. The director discussed this script with Clarke that only time they met, in London in 1966. The latter had the most encouraging response and recommended a man named Mike Wilson as Ray's co-producer.

Satyajit Ray
Ray scouting for locations for The Alien 

A reel problem

Now, Wilson managed to convince the filmmaker to give him partial rights to the script. He then got Columbia Pictures on board to back the movie. The two even had conversations with Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando for the roles of Bajoria and Devlin. But unbeknownst to Ray, Wilson was a pot-smoking party lover who was a bit of a hustler to boot. This did not go down well with the suits at Columbia. They wanted him out. Yet, Ray's hands were tied — Wilson had the partial rights, after all. And he intended to stick to them like a man hanging off a cliff grabs desperately on to the only branch he can for hope.

To cut a long story short, Columbia gradually lost patience. Sellers turned out to be somewhat of a flake when it came to keeping his word. The conversations with Brando never really took off. Wilson finally turned into a hermit, metaphorically letting go of that branch. But it was too late by the time he relinquished his rights. The Alien was already doomed to be a stillborn venture. And not being a man to wallow in the disappointment of failed ambitions, Ray went about concentrating on The Big City, the other film project he had.

Sandip Ray
Sandip Ray

Too close for comfort

Then, about 10 years later, in 1977, Steven Spielberg made Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Ray raised an eyebrow. Next, Spielberg made E.T. five years later. This time, Ray really sat up. An extra-terrestrial with three fingers befriending an innocent child? It seemed to borrow too heavily from the script for his unmade film to not raise suspicion. Ray thus expressed his anguish to Clarke. The sci-fi guru told the aggrieved director to "write a polite letter to Spielberg pointing out the similarities and await his reaction". But, an Indian magazine later reported that Clarke had told Ray to "sue" his American counterpart. This irked the former, and he sought to clear the air with his friend. That was the only point of conflict they ever had. But being of their vintage, and class, they resolved their differences with frankness and understanding, to resume their friendship with none of the earlier warmth lost. And if there was anyone who remained irked, it was Spielberg, who had to fend off numerous questions regarding the similarities his films had with The Alien's original plot.

But what sort of an impact did this entire episode really have on Ray? Did it disillusion him at all? We ask Sandip Ray, the director's son, who also wrote the foreword for this book, this question. "My father was definitely hurt when he saw Close Encounters and E.T., though it must be said here that he always had respect for Spielberg's technical abilities as a director. But he wasn't one to look back in disappointment. Also, he liked to micro-manage everything in his movies. And he was never sure whether he would have that luxury in Hollywood. So, that apprehension also played a part in him finally letting the matter lie," he tells us over the phone from Kolkata, at which point the call dies on us, since he had been talking on his cordless landline and it possibly lost charge, meaning our incomplete conversation mimics The Alien, the sci-fi film that is destined to remain on paper.

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First Published: 05 May, 2018 07:10 IST

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