Bengali director Sandip Ray’s latest movie features one of Satyajit Ray’s best-known literary creations. Not the detective Feluda, but Professor Shonku, the scientist and eccentric genius who was introduced by Sandip Ray’s father in 1961.

Sandip Ray’s Professor Shonku O El Dorado is based on the story Nakur Babu O El Dorado, in which Shonku takes off on an adventure with a man who can see into the future and make people see things that are not immediately visible. Produced by leading Kolkata studio SVF, the movie will be shot in Bengal and Brazil, and is aiming for a release later this year.

Shonku, to be played by thespian Dhritiman Chatterjee, has never been filmed before, unlike Feluda, about whom several movies and television serials have been made. Inspired partly by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger and Hesoram Hushiar, a character created by Ray’s father Sukumar Ray, Shonku is every bit as fascinating as Feluda. He is a polyglot (he knows 69 languages), graduated from college at the age of 16, and started teaching when he was 20. Shonku works out of a laboratory at home where he uses locally available ingredients for his groundbreaking inventions. He keeps a low profile and refuses to share his formulas or inventions because he doesn’t want them to fall into the wrong hands. His main companions are his manservant, Prahlad, his cat Newton, and a talkative neighbour, Abinash Babu, who remains unimpressed by his scientific prowess.

“Professor Shonku is the most challenging project so far,” said Sandip Ray, who has filmed nearly all the characters from his father’s repertoire. “Not only because of the special effects that would be required, but also because the world of Shonku is richly detailed, his inventions tough to recreate.”

Professor Shonku O El Dorado (2019).

‘A huge responsibility’

Since Shonku has as much of a dedicated following as Feluda, Sandip Ray took his time in developing the script and casting. “Baba has made it extremely difficult for all of us by sketching each and every one of his characters,” Ray said. “I cannot take any liberties with their physical appearances, neither is there creative licence for me to make Shonku behave or even speak any differently. It is a huge responsibility. Shonku has had his own fan clubs. There are readers who are well versed with all his inventions, his adventures.”

Among these readers is Amitanghsu Acharya, a researcher, developer and an avid Ray fan. Acharya cites the story Golok Rahasya, in which Abinash Babu discovers a ball that turns out to be a tiny planet filled with viruses. If left unchecked, the extra-terrestrial life forms will destroy Earth, but they plead with Shonku to be allowed to live.

In Ek Sringa Rahasya, the scientist travels to a forbidden corner of Tibet, prompted by a scientist’s diary that reads: “Today I flew with a 200-year-old lama. I write this in full possession of my senses.”

Shonku isn’t the only one of Ray’s literary characters that deals with science, supernatural phenomena, aliens and artificial intelligence. Ray’s short stories, many of which he illustrated, include yarns about humanoids, unicorns, dinosaurs, robots and time travel. The far-sighted short story Anukul, which Sujoy Ghosh adapted as a short film in 2017, imagines a world in which robots are taking over jobs performed by humans. The titular humanoid robot is hired by an ageing professor to do his housework. A vociferous reader and an insomniac, Anukul is intelligent enough to be able to read the Bhagwad Gita and debate questions of right and wrong and morality and justice.

Sujoy Ghosh’s Anukul.

The Shonku movie will mark the first successful attempt to explore Satyajiy Ray’s fascination with science fiction on the big screen. Ray’s filmography includes period dramas, adaptations of novels, fantasy fiction and original family dramas, but the science fiction genre eluded him, and not for want of trying. Ray tried unsuccessfully in the 1960s itself to direct a film titled The Alien, inspired partly by his 1962 tale Banku Babur Bandhu, in which an alien lands in a Bengali village and befriends the nondescript Banka Babu.

The story behind the failure of the project is every bit as fascinating as any one of Ray’s completed films. Details of The Alien fiasco are available in Marie Seton’s biography Satyajit Ray Portrait of a Director, published in 1971, and Andrew Robinson’s Satyajit Ray The Inner Eye, published in 1989. HarperCollins India will be publishing Travails with the Alien: The Film That Was Never Made and Other Adventures with Science Fiction over the next few months.

Robinson based some of his account on Ray’s essay Ordeals of the Alien, published in The Statesman newspaper in 1980. Seton met Ray while efforts were on to get The Alien off the ground, and her interviews reveal his vision of the character: “a large head, sunken cheeks, small mouth, nose and ears”. Seton writes, “In Ray’s early sketches, the alien had no ears.” When it emerges out of its space capsule, it looks like a “cross between a gnome and a famished refugee child; large head, spindly legs, a lean torso”.

Ray started working on the script in February 1966, while completing the Uttam Kumar starrer Nayak. The Alien “centered upon a geography Teacher who was in a somewhat depressed mood until he came upon a spaceship that has landed on earth by mistake”, Seton writes. “Perhaps the most unusual aspect of The Alien as science-fiction is the near absence of threat of danger and violence from the visitor from outer space. The Alien is unarmed except for the possession of psycho-physical weapons… The Alien is a benign force apparently capable of performing miracles.”

‘The Alien’ and Hollywood

The idea had emerged in 1964 from a correspondence between Ray and science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke, who was living in Sri Lanka at the time, Andrew Robinson writes. When Clarke and Ray met in London, Clarke introduced Ray to Mike Wilson, an American filmmaker who was also living in Sri Lanka at the time. Wilson roped in the American studio Columbia, which agreed to finance the movie. It was to be shot in Santiniketan, and made both in Bengali and English.

The broad plot, as detailed by Robinson: a spaceship lands in a pond in a Bengali village and is mistaken for a submerged temple that has resurfaced. A village boy, Haba, befriends the extra-terrestrial. The crooked industrialist Bajoria hires an American engineer named Devlin to flush out the pond and build a temple there. Meanwhile, the alien uses its magical powers for both good and mischievous purposes, at one point even fiddling with the placement of the moon.

Robinson reports that Ray wrote the first draft in February 1967 in his Calcutta house. Wilson was around at the time, and he contributed to the draft in terms of making a few changes to the lines spoken by Devlin, and specifying the songs he should sing in the film.

Ray wanted to cast Peter Sellers as Bajoria. Wilson arranged a meeting in Paris between the director and the British actor, and Sellers agreed to play the part.

On June 1, 1967, Ray arrived in Hollywood. “In pursuit of international finance, he [Ray] found himself whirled off for three weeks into panoramas of Hollywoodesque life quite new to his experience,” Seton wryly observes.

Seton had warned Ray about Mike Wilson’s dubious track record, but he needed to secure the money to ensure that the film would be bilingual and would have special effects created in Hollywood. “An ability to wheel and deal was not one of Ray’s skills, but he had some respect in it for others,” Robinson writes. “Nevertheless, he was taken aback to discover mimeographed copies of his screenplay in the cottage in Hollywood bearing the legend ‘copyright Mike Wilson and Satyajiy Ray’.” Wilson told Ray that the double copyright was for his protection.

Ray came away from Hollywood with the impression that The Alien was doomed. Despite his misgivings, following a letter from Sellers, Ray travelled to London in October 1967. Columbia’s UK division had by now assumed control of the project. A studio representative met Ray and asked him if Wilson had given him the advance payment for writing the screenplay, which amounted to $10,000. “Ray had received not a cent of it,” Robinson writes.

‘E.T.: The Plagiarised Movie?

Ray found himself on shaky ground in the absence of a formal contract with Wilson. When, upon the advice of the Columbia UK representative, he asked Wilson to leave the project, he got what he describes in his article in The Statesman as a “sizzling reply”. In July 1968, Sellers wrote to Ray, saying that his role was too small and he didn’t want to be in the film anymore.

Wilson eventually disappeared from the scene – he apparently became a monk and assumed the name Swami Siva Kalki. “For the next ten years or more, Ray was variously encouraged to revive the project – by Ismail Merchant, by Sellers’s ex-agent, by Columbia and others (including Wilson!) – and he continued to treat it as possible,” Robinson writes. “It was not until the appearance of Steven Spielberg’s two films Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. (as well as another film with the same title as Ray’s) that he gave up hope. E.T. in particular, which began life as a Columbia project, has much in common with Ray’s concept of the Alien: the benign nature of the creature, and the fact that it is ‘small and acceptable to children and possessed of certain supernatural powers – not physical strengths but other kinds of powers, particular types of vision, and that it takes an interest in earthly things,’ Ray wrote in the mid-1980s.”

Arthur C Clarke noticed the parallels between The Alien and E.T, and told Ray as much in January 1983. Clarke suggested to Ray that he inform Spielberg of the similarities. “But although Ray remained firmly of the view that E.T. ‘would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available through America in mimeographed copies’, he was not interested in pursuing the matter further,” Robinson writes.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).