“A lotus pond in the village of Mangalpur in West Bengal. The camera holds on a part of the surface of the pond with lotus leaves and limp lotus stalks, lit by soft moonlight.
A point of light appears as a reflection in the water, grows bigger and bigger until the pond itself is lit up. The chorus of frogs, crickets and jackals grows in volume, and is joined by a humming sound. In a blaze of light something descends on the pond, shattering its placidity.”
This was the opening of the most famous film Satyajit Ray never made.
The year was 1967. The Alien was supposed to be Ray’s sci-fi foray into Hollywood.
Stars like Peter Sellers, Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando were interested, alongside local talents like Aparna Sen and Subhendu Chatterjee. Columbia Studio would bankroll it. It was to be a grand new adventure for a master filmmaker, a huge leap for Indian cinema. Instead it turned out to be a great misadventure.
“I knew all along that I was being taken for a ride,” Ray said in an interview years later. “But the funny thing was that the desire to experience the whole thing was also irresistible.”
The “whole thing” is now a book – Travails With The Alien. “The screenplay has been published before, twice in fact,” says its editor, Ray’s son Sandip. “But we had so much other stuff, background stories, visuals, letters, we thought we should do a book. At least for the record.”
More than a record, it’s really a documentary not just about the ill-fated Alien, but also about another facet of Ray, little known outside Bengal. “People know him for his Feluda detective stories but his first love was science fiction,” said Sandip Ray. “He was an addict from childhood.” In the 1940s he published two pieces in Amrita Bazaar Patrika – Shades of Grey and Abstraction. He wrote Professor Shonku stories for his magazine Sandesh. He was part of the short-lived but exciting Science-Fiction Cine Club in Kolkata.
The book is also a peephole into another world, one still connected by letters, sometimes handwritten on ruled yellow sheets torn from a notebook, sometimes typed on formal letterhead, a world of gentlemen’s agreements and “trunk calls” from Lake Temple Road, Calcutta to Peter Sellers’s agents in London.
“I put in not just the letters but also the envelopes,” said Pinaki De, who designed the book. Stanley Kubrick writes to Ray in an envelope with a 2001 Space Odyssey seal on it. Steve McQueen’s letter comes with a beautiful insignia on top. “I looked at everything as an artefact,” said De. “I kept the folds, the small dots, the creases. I haven’t mended anything. There’s a kind of intimacy in it.” He said he put this book together the “Ray way”, seeing himself as an “editor visualiser” instead of a designer, arranging the objects physically on a dummy, the way Ray would have done, rather than digitally.
As you go through those letters, those scripts with notes on the margins, the doodles and sketches, the newspaper clippings, you experience the ups and downs of a filmmaker, hopes raised and hopes dashed. At one moment Peter Sellers is gung-ho about playing a Marwari businessman in The Alien and then he develops cold feet. Ray replies as only Ray could.
Dear Peter, if you had wanted a bigger part
Why, you should have told me right at the start,
By disclosing it at this juncture
You have surely punctured
The Alien – balloon
Which I daresay will be grounded soon
Causing a great deal of dismay
To Satyajit Ray.
“It left a bitter taste definitely,” said Sandip Ray. But it was not just Sellers who doomed it. The project had come about because Ray had met Arthur C Clarke on the sets of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He had shared an idea, its springboard his Bengali story Bonkubabu’s Friend. Clarke encouraged him to write a draft and then sent along his friend Mike Wilson.
Wilson was a flamboyant figure, a skin-diver who had found a chest of silver Mughal coins in a sunken galleon, and the producer of James Banda, a Sri Lankan James Bond. He called Ray “Maestro” and drove him around Hollywood in a Rolls with a built-in cocktail cabinet. He also “forgot” to tell Ray about the advance he got from Columbia and put his own name on the script as a co-writer. Ray found mimeographed copies of the script piled up at their chateau in California. “My father was a great judge of character. But perhaps this was one case where he failed,” said Sandip Ray.
There were other attempts to get The Alien afloat again, once by Merchant Ivory. Then in 1982 Steven Spielberg released E.T. where, just like in Ray’s script, a small child makes friends with a stranded extra terrestrial who can make plants bloom. Arthur C Clarke noticed the similarities and alerted Ray. Ray said in an interview that neither E.T. nor Close Encounters of the Third Kind would “have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies.”
Spielberg hotly denied it, saying he was just a high school student when that script was making its way around Hollywood. Film journalist Aseem Chhabra broke that story in America. He remembers talking to Ray who sounded “dejected”, saying “What (Spielberg) has done is ruin my chance of making the film, because then people will say it came from Spielberg.”
The controversy survives to this day, feeding into wounded Bengali pride, the bitter-sweet nostalgia of what might have been, something Bengalis are prone to. But Sandip Ray says his father moved right along. “He was not one to look back. It was an unpleasant lesson but he learned that he was fine where he was. He didn’t speak about The Alien much anymore. He just looked ahead.” Hollywood too made peace with him. Spielberg and Martin Scorcese were among the prime movers behind his honorary Oscar in 1992.
It would be a mistake to read the book to rake up old wounds. It is really about something far more fascinating. At a time when Western sci-fi wanted to travel to the moon and beyond, Ray is bringing the alien to humble Mangalpur. This is not a war of the worlds the way sci-fi had been in the imagination of colonizers. It’s a friendly alien. It’s sci-fi but very Bengali and very Ray. Ray was always fascinated by the alien who arrives in our midst, said Pinaki De whether it is the train in Pather Panchali or the long-lost uncle in his final film Agantuk.
The Alien’s story still feels astonishingly contemporary. He lands in Mangalpur, his spaceship is mistaken for a submerged temple. The businessman rushes in wanting to develop marble paved temple tourism. The American engineer, the sceptical journalist, the Santhal tribals, the Christian missionary, the friction between science and religion, and wide-eyed humanity of the little boy – all of this could still make for a wonderful film.
“It’s not that I have not thought about making it,” admitted Sandip Ray. “But when I read it again I loved it so much I thought I should just let it be. He should have been the one to make it. I think we should just leave it the way it is.”
“It descends on a bunch of broad lotus leaves, causing a startled frog to leap clear. Then it slithers off the leaves and sinks into the pond, sending up bubbles.”