An Indian screenwriter, filmmaker, graphic artist, music composer, author and widely regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century, it’s been 26 years since Satyajit Ray bid the world goodbye.
On this day, which marks his death anniversary, we dive into the untold story behind India’s first-of-its-kind sci-fi film that Satyajit Ray was to direct but which never saw the light of day.
For decades, the mystery of extraterrestrial beings has captivated the human mind. Most sci-fi films in the 1980s portrayed them as a bloodthirsty species who would land on earth with the sole purpose of destructing humankind. It was Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial that reversed the trend.
The film which was declared an immediate blockbuster surpassed the popular Star Wars series to become the highest-grossing film of all time (a record it held for eleven years until Spielberg’s Jurassic Park surpassed it in 1993).
It chronicled the beautiful story of a lonely boy, Elliott (Thomas) and his friendship with the extraterrestrial, dubbed “E.T.”, who was stranded on Earth. Over the course of the film, Elliot kept the creature hidden from his mother and the government, to finally help him return to his home planet.
Before you start drawing any parallels between the story of ET and the Bollywood film, Koi Mil Gaya, you should know about the biggest controversy surrounding Spielberg’s E.T.
It was alleged that E.T was a plagiarised story from a screenplay Satyajit Ray wrote back in 1967, titled ‘The Alien’.
While the screenplay never reached its culmination to become the film it could have been, its copies continued to make rounds in the United States much after the project was abandoned.
Ray first spoke about the idea of India’s first sci-fi film to his friend and fellow sci-fi author, Arthur C Clarke. The screenplay was based on his own 1962 Bengali science fiction story, Bonkubabur Bandhu, published in his family magazine, Sandesh.
Bonkubabur Bandhu was the story of an alien landing in Bengal and befriending a boy. The story revolves around a spaceship that lands in a pond in rural Bengal where the villagers begin worshipping it as a temple, which they think had risen from the depths of the Earth. The alien, however, bonds with a young village boy named Haba through his dreams and in the course of its short stay on the planet, plays a number of harmless pranks on the villagers.
When Ray spoke to Clarke about the screenplay he had written, Clarke thought it was promising. On his encouragement, Ray sent the script to Columbia Pictures in Hollywood.
It was only a matter of time until Columbia Pictures came on board as the producer for this planned US–India co-production. Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando were set to be cast in the lead roles.
However, a major setback was set to hit Ray, where he would come to terms with the harsh realities of the cinema world. Without his knowledge, Mike Wilson, who also happened to be Ray’s representative in Hollywood had copyrighted the screenplay, and fee appropriated the script of ‘The Alien’ as a co-writer, without having played any part in its creation. Actor Marlon Brando too dropped out of the project. While an attempt was made to bring James Coburn in his place, Ray had lost hope in the project and eventually returned to Calcutta to pursue his other films.
And thus, despite the many trips Ray embarked on to the USA, UK and France, the film was never made.
But the heartbreak and shock came to haunt Ray again, more than 15 years later, when he watched Steven Spielberg’s film E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. He realised that not only did the script bear uncanny resemblances to The Alien, but even the design of ET resembled the sketches he had drawn in the screenplay that was shared with Columbia Pictures. Further, Columbia Pictures had co-produced Spielberg’s E.T and was also alleged to be responsible for creating copies of Ray’s screenplay.
As Aseem Chhabra, a journalism student from Columbia University who interviewed Ray about the controversy at the time put it, “Reading the script, I realised Clarke was right and that there were similarities between E.T. and The Alien. Ray’s alien was introduced to us for the first time as we noticed his slow-moving three-fingered hand, similar to E.T.’s slow-moving four-fingered hand. Ray’s alien had healing powers, just like E.T. And both the aliens could make plants bloom. There were other similarities as well.”
In an interview with India Today magazine in February 1983 Ray had asserted, “E.T. would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout the United States in mimeographed copies.”
While Spielberg denied this claim and said, “I was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood,” even his friend and renowned Director, Martin Scorsese, alleged that it was influenced by Ray’s script.
Spielberg had once shared that ET was based on an imaginary alien companion he had made up as a kid who was also ‘a friend who could be the brother he never had and a father that he didn’t have any more’.
But whether Spielberg plagiarised Ray’s script or the concept of ET was inspired by the imaginary friend Spielberg created after his parents’ divorce in 1960 is still a mystery. Ray, however, did not want to take any legal action as he believed that Spielberg made good films and was a good director.
While we mourn the lost opportunity to witness his genius on screen, let us remember him fondly on his death anniversary. The Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa, put it best when he said,
“Not to have seen the cinema of Ray, means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”
You can still experience a literary sense of the unmade film through Ray’s book ‘Travails with the Alien: The Film That Was Never Made and Other Adventures with Science Fiction’ for the full script, a detailed essay and an original short story.
I am going to take Kurosawa up on that advice. My coming week will be a binge-watching marathon of Ray’s films. What about yours?
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)