Oftentimes, the best stories (read, the really interesting, spicy ones) are not the ones that are told within the pages of a book or on the screen. This is one of them.
London, 1966: Two legends meet for the first time
Satyajit Ray met fellow sci-fi author and one of the ‘Big 3’, Arthur C Clarke, for the first time, on the sets of 2001: A Space Odyssey. They’d already been corresponding for over a couple of years when Ray first wrote to Clarke asking him for his wishes for a science fiction film club that he and a few friends wanted to start in Calcutta.
A little bit of a background here. Satyajit Ray wasn’t just a huge sci-fi fan, but also a good sci-fi author in his own right. Just the previous year, in 1965, the first collection of sci-fi stories featuring his eccentric scientist and prolific inventor, Trilokeshwar Shonku, and containing the first Professor Shonku story, 1961’s Byomjatrir Diary (Diary of a Space Traveller), had been published. The first of many to come — for Ray would continue writing about the sci-fi adventures of Professor Shonku until the late 1980s, with the 39th story half-written at the time of Ray’s demise. Most of these stories had been – and would be – published in a children’s magazine, Sandesh, started by his grandfather, writer and publisher Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury.
In London, the subject of the conversation between Ray and Clarke turned to Ray’s desire to make a sci-fi film. He outlined a story to Clarke, in which an alien visits Earth but – and this was possibly a first – isn’t hostile, antagonistic, or intent on conquering Earth, but is quite friendly and playful, and forms a bond with a child. This was a far cry from the way aliens were portrayed till then.
He outlined a story to Clarke, in which an alien visits Earth but – and this was possibly a first – isn’t antagonistic
Clarke found it promising, but that was about it. And we can presume that the conversation ended with Clarke wishing Ray all the best, and with mutual promises of keeping in touch.
Returning to Calcutta, Ray started to think seriously about the sci-fi project, and towards the end of 1966 started working on ideas, using as his base a science fiction short story he’d written for Sandesh in 1962 called Bankubabur Bandhu (Banku Babu’s Friend), about a benign alien that lands in a forest near a small village in Bengal and how it establishes contact with one of its humblest residents, Banku Babu. The bulk of the story consisted primarily of dialogue between various villagers about strange lights in the sky and their mocking of Banku Babu about his contact with a strange creature. While it was a neat short story, the characters of the alien creature and Banku Babu were not developed enough to merit a film.
Meanwhile in Sri Lanka
Arthur C Clarke, who had, by now, been living in Sri Lanka for over a decade, told one of his good friends and skin-diving teacher, Michael J. Wilson, about Satyajit Ray and his idea for a science fiction film he hoped to make. Wilson, who’d by then made Sri Lanka’s first colour film and was also involved in a film project featuring a secret service agent called ‘James Banda’, was immediately interested. He got in touch with Ray about making this a big Hollywood production in English, assuring Ray that he’d not face any problems making the film.
Wilson got in touch with Ray about making this a big Hollywood production in English
Ray told him there wasn’t a script ready yet, but he had no objection to it being a Hollywood film. However, he stipulated that it would have to be made in three languages – English, Hindi and Bengali, with the film shot in rural Bengal, not Hollywood. Mike Wilson agreed.
Calcutta, February 1967: ‘I’ll make coffee for you, Maestro’
Undaunted by the fact that there wasn’t much ready in terms of a script or a treatment, and without an invitation, Mike Wilson flew to Calcutta, checked into a hotel and announced to a surprised Satyajit Ray that he would stick around until a script or a treatment was ready. On being told by Ray that writing, for him, was an intensely private affair and that he discouraged any company, Wilson told Ray, “I shall sit by and make coffee for you when you need it, Maestro.”
Sit by he did, but Ray didn’t get any coffee. Instead – much to the chagrin of Ray’s wife, Bijoya – Wilson was addicted to drugs and alcohol and indulged in them with a friend of his. In her words, she “suffered them in silence only with the hope of getting this film made.” Meanwhile, Ray worked on the script of The Alien – for that is what the movie would be called – and soon had it ready. As a friend of Arthur C. Clarke, Wilson kept tossing ‘ideas’, all rejected and/or ignored, and the final script incorporated at best two suggestions, by most accounts, that Wilson made: that the colour of the alien spaceship be golden and the word ‘chick’ replaced with ‘broad’ in the dialogue of a key American character.
Wilson told Ray, “I shall sit by and make coffee for you when you need it, Maestro.”
The extra-terrestrial creature was described as “a cross between a gnome and a famished refugee child: large head, spindly limbs, a lean torso. Is it male or female? We don’t know. What its form basically conveys is a kind of ethereal innocence, and it is difficult to associate either great evil or great power with it; yet a feeling of eeriness is there because of the resemblance to a sickly human child.” (Sounds familiar?).
Knowing that a big name or two was required in the cast if money was to come from Hollywood, Ray thought of casting Peter Sellers as the businessman Bajoria. He had been impressed with Sellers’ work in Dr. Strangelove, and knew that Sellers had already played an Indian in The Millionairess; having heard Sellers’ LPs, Ray was confident that he would be able to pull off an Indian accent. Within minutes of knowing that Ray had Sellers in mind, Wilson was on a call with Sellers’ agents enquiring if Sellers would be interested.
Still in Calcutta, February 1967: The story of The Alien is ready
The Alien would centre around a small humanoid alien, an extra-terrestrial – looking like the description above – which lands its spaceship in a lotus pond in a village in Bengal. Emerging from the ship, and filled with child-like curiosity, the alien hops around the village exploring its flora and fauna. After encountering a boy called Haba, it forms a psychic connection with him, with both becoming friends in the process.
The villagers wake up the next morning to discover that the paddy has ripened overnight, the first of many such tricks that the alien plays (none of which involve chrysanthemums or making them bloom). Haba draws their attention to a golden spire that has emerged from the waters of the pond, the tip of the ET’s spaceship. The ‘miracle’ of the ripened paddy convinces the villagers that the structure in the pond is a submerged temple, and they promptly start worshipping it. However, a young journalist from Calcutta, Mohan, living in the village writing about development in rural India, finds this preposterous. Neither can Joe Devlin, a no-nonsense American engineer from Montana, who is there on a contract to sink tube-wells.
Devlin’s employer Bajoria, a wealthy and unprincipled industrialist, meanwhile sees this as a great opportunity to enhance his image as a philanthropist. He makes plans to salvage the spire, restore the temple in his name, and turn it into “the greatest place of pilgrimage in India.” Bajoria persuades Devlin to pump out the water from the pond. Later, after a session of whisky-drinking and hashish-smoking, Devlin bumps into the alien but is too stoned to comprehend his encounter.
The alien continues its ‘miracles’ or rather, pranks: making a mango-tree owned by the meanest villager bear fruit out of season and causing a corpse to open its eyes while on the funeral pyre. These events convince the villagers they have been cursed, and that the object in the pond is responsible.
The next morning Devlin and Bajoria, accompanied by Mohan and a salvage crew, converge on the pond. Devlin swims out to the spaceship, which suddenly begins to throb, hum and pulsate with light. After he beats a hasty retreat the spaceship takes off, with the alien, his friend Haba, and various specimens of earthly flora and fauna on board. The film ends with Mohan realising he has a story to write and Bajoria, chastened and overcome by the experience, taking comfort in piety. And Devlin ends up being revered by the villagers for having saved them from the alien’s magic.
Just as the script was ready, word came in that Sellers was in Paris and that he was interested in the role and would like to meet Ray. So off went Messrs. Ray & Wilson to meet Peter Sellers, who was basking in the recent success of Pink Panther.
Paris, April 1967: Inspector Clouseau joins the party
Sellers knew no French, but spoke ‘Franglais’, which had the waiter in stitches, recalled Ray later in his writing about the whole The Alien saga (see the sources at the end of this piece). On asking Sellers if he was familiar with his work at all, Sellers replied in the negative saying that his agent thought highly of Ray and that was good enough for him. But it wasn’t good enough for Ray.
Wilson swung into action and by next morning a print of Charulata arrived in Paris for Peter Sellers to watch
On being asked by Ray if he could arrange for a screening of his films, Wilson swung into action and by next morning a print of Charulata arrived in Paris. It was duly screened for Sellers, at the end of which Sellers exclaimed, “Why do you need me? I’m not better than your actors, you know!” But by then, Sellers had read the script and agreed to be a part of The Alien. With Wilson saying that he had to go back to Sri Lanka to check on James Banda, Ray returned to Calcutta to await further word from Wilson.
And it came a month later, direct from Hollywood.
Hollywood, June 1967: ‘Copyright Mike Wilson and Satyajit Ray’
It was an elated Ray who read the cable from Mike Wilson that said Columbia Pictures was interested and would back The Alien. Furthermore, Ray was to have a free hand and both Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen were keen to play the role of Devlin, the American engineer. The graphics and design would be done by none other than the legendary Saul Bass himself. Peter Sellers, meanwhile, was in Hollywood too, shooting for a film in which he played an Indian (The Party), and anxious to have a second session with Ray. So Ray landed up in Hollywood, and found himself straying into – in his own words – a Carollian Wonderland, starting with his cottage at the posh Chateau Marmont where he’d been booked, something the frugal Ray found wasteful. Wilson, sensing this, reassured Ray, “You can’t afford anything but the best, you know, you made the Apu Trilogy!”
Ray was to have a free hand and both Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen were keen to play the role of Devlin, the American engineer
The first meeting with Sellers happened at famed sitar player Pandit Ravi Shankar’s house. Shankar was playing the sitar that day for Sellers’ benefit, as Sellers wanted to know how to at least play the instrument on screen realistically enough for The Party. On the way back, Sellers once again insisted that he was interested in the film, and the fact that his role would be smaller didn’t matter. This reassurance was perhaps needed, because Ray was having his doubts if Sellers would be ok with not having a starring role as he was used to, reminding Sellers that he would have to share the honours with three others – the Bengali journalist, the American engineer, and the wordless elfin extra-terrestrial creature from outer space.
Sellers didn’t seem to outwardly mind, but Ray, after seeing him on the sets of The Party, started having doubts about whether he was really the right choice.
The Alien project didn’t quite take off as well as Ray expected – or rather didn’t take off at all – but Columbia was surely interested. The first doubts started emerging with Columbia executives asking, ‘Did Ray need Mike Wilson? Who was he? And how did Ray end up teaming with Wilson?’
Ray had been asking himself the same questions ever since his friend Marie Seton had warned him earlier about teaming up with Wilson. But wheeling-and-dealing was not amongst the many skills in Ray’s repertoire. So if having Wilson on board meant that he’d get to make The Alien on his terms, so be it, thought Ray.
Ray had been asking himself the same questions ever since his friend Marie Seton had warned him earlier about teaming up with Wilson
But the doubts about Wilson were magnified when Ray found a whole stack of copies in Hollywood of his script for The Alien, bearing the legend, ‘Copyright Mike Wilson and Satyajit Ray’ (in that order!). Unbeknownst to Ray, Wilson had gone ahead and obtained the copyright on Ray’s script, and included his name in it. On being confronted with this, Wilson again reassured Ray saying, “Two heads were better than one, Maestro” and that the double copyright was for his (Ray’s) benefit to make doubly sure his interests were protected.
Any and all work on The Alien took a backseat as Wilson lived the Hollywood life, when possible whisking Ray also off to parties, including one that was held in a mansion that once belonged to Greta Garbo. The mansion was now owned by Jennifer Jones who wanted to work with Ray, while her husband, the producer David Selznick, wanted to make an Indian version of Anna Karenina, in which Ray would play Vronsky opposite his wife!
Ray met stars and actors of the 40s — Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, William Wyler, King Vidor, and even his friend Jean Renoir later. A lot of people, but none of who had anything to do with The Alien. Ray returned to Calcutta, leaving Hollywood “firmly convinced that The Alien was doomed”.
Meanwhile, mimeographed copies of The Alien script were in circulation in Hollywood.
A McGonagallese interlude in Calcutta
Once back in Calcutta, Ray returned to a project he’d put on the back-burner in favour of The Alien, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. But a letter from Peter Sellers arrived, which rekindled lost hope. It was a letter introducing Ray to the work of the 19th century Scottish poet, William McGonagall, ‘the greatest Bad Verse writer of all time’. Part of the letter was written in McGonagallese about what he thought of Pather Pancheli, a movie Sellers had just seen.
The Alien wasn’t dead. Not just yet.
London, October, 1967: ‘A son-et-lumiere to end all son-et-lumieres’
In 1967, Satyajit Ray landed in London in the hopes of meeting Peter Sellers again. He never would. In the meanwhile, Columbia UK had taken over the project from Columbia US, Marlon Brando had dropped out and James Coburn was being looked at as a possibility to play Devlin.
Wilson had already arrived in London a week earlier and set himself up in a suite at The Hilton, with a separate one booked for Ray. He kept himself to his rooms, but on the one occasion he ventured into Wilson’s suite, Ray recalled later in an article he wrote for The Statesman, “The scene that met my eye through the pall of smoke could have been a set piece out of Petronius. The carpet was strewn with bodies, male and female, and Subbulakshmi sang over the whir of a movie projector and the Bengali dialogue of what turned out to be a 16 mm print of my own film Devi; flicking fitfully on a bare wall on one side of the room, a son-et-lumiere to end all son-et-lumieres.”
“The scene that met my eye through the pall of smoke could have been a set piece out of Petronius”
By now, Ray was worried more about Mike Wilson sober than Mike Wilson drunk, as he’d started bugging phone calls and carrying around a tape recorder to record all conversations with Columbia. On the one occasion that Ray was able to meet an executive from Columbia, he was shocked to find out that the studio had already made a payment of $10,000 as advance for the screenplay. It had been accepted on Ray’s behalf by Wilson, and needless to say, Ray had seen not a penny of it. Wilson also had set himself up by this time as an associate producer, even though there was no agreement to this effect at all.
But anxious to be in Ray’s good books, Wilson arranged for a special Rolls-Royce to take Ray to the airport, with a built-in cocktail cabinet specially commissioned for the journey. Wilson slapped a sheaf of papers on Ray’s knees, saying, “If you would just sign here, Maestro.” Ray refused. Telling Wilson to send the papers to Calcutta where he could read them, Ray returned home.
Calcutta, June– August, 1968
The papers from Wilson never arrived, but who did arrive was an executive from Columbia Pictures, with a message that the studio would continue with The Alien provided that Mike Wilson was no longer a part of it. The executive wanted Ray to write to Wilson and ask him to pull out. Ray wrote the letter, only to get a ‘sizzling reply’ that called Ray a slanderer and a thief. But what shocked him most was not that but another letter from Peter Sellers in which he wrote, “…though the part may appear more or less complete to you it does not seem to me and I don’t see how I could contemplate playing it as it is.”
Dejected, Ray wrote to Sellers, in verse:
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 now be grounded soon
Causing a great deal of dismay
To Satyajit Ray.
He never got a reply from Sellers.
But that wasn’t to be the end of The Alien saga.
Columbia was still interested, but Wilson had to pull out. Seeing no other alternative, Ray wrote to the one person who could help, Arthur C Clarke. Outlining what happened, he wrote of the unease that he couldn’t reveal to Wilson, and personal fascination with the sinister turn of events. He concluded with a heartfelt plea, ‘I’m depending a great deal on you Arthur…’. Silence ensued.
Meanwhile, mimeographed copies of The Alien script were still circulating in Hollywood.
Calcutta, October, 1969: Swami Siva Kalki says, ‘Keep Seetha’
Unexpectedly, after almost a year of no activity on the subject, a brief note arrived from Clarke, informing Ray that Wilson had shaved his head and gone off to meditate in the jungles of south India.
Soon a letter arrived from ‘Swami Siva Kalki’, the name Mike Wilson took on when he became a monk. In the words of Ray, “He was relinquishing his rights to the screenplay, although obviously too close to sainthood to spell it out in mundane terms. This is the way he chose to put it. ‘Dear Ravana. You may keep Seetha. She is yours. Keep her, and make her and the world happy.’”
But by then, much water had passed under the Howrah bridge and Ray was no longer interested in The Alien, disillusioned by the whole experience. But over the course of the next decade or so, he did continue to think of it as possible someday, sometime in the future – encouraged as he was at frequent intervals, by people such as Ismail Merchant, Peter Sellers’ex-agent, by Columbia, and strangely, even by Swami Siva Kalki!
If it had been made, it would have been a watershed in sci-fi movies – not least because, as Bijoya Ray his wife puts it, “Until now, all the films and stories dealing with aliens portrayed them as evil beings whose sole purpose in coming to Earth was to hurt it. But in this story, for the first time, an alien arrives on our planet, to help the world, and not hurt it.” That and the Satyajit Ray magic.
Then in 1982, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was released. That was when Ray finally gave up any hope of ever making The Alien.
Was Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial “inspired” by Ray’s Alien?
Ray, of course, was among the first to note the similarities. Starting with the startling commonality that E.T. had 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 superhuman powers – not physical strength….and that it takes interest in earthly things,” said Ray.
Another interesting point to note is that E.T. started off as a Columbia project.
And Ray himself has said that, “E.T. would not have been possible without my script of the Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies.”
Another person who noted the ‘striking parallels’ was Arthur C. Clarke, who called Ray from Colombo in January 1983, suggesting he write to Spielberg politely and point out the resemblances. “Don’t take it lying down,” Clarke said, according to Ray. But Ray was not interested in pursuing the matter further, saying “Artists have better things to do with their time.”
When this issue was raised by the press, Spielberg said he was too young to have been influenced by The Alien script. What’s more, on a visit to Sri Lanka, Spielberg told Clarke ‘rather indignantly’, “Tell Satyajit that I was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood.” A statement that according to Andrew Robinson, Ray’s biographer, “does not really resolve the doubts”.
But to at least resolve the doubts about whether Spielberg really was in high school when Ray’s mimeographed script was circulating in Hollywood, Star Weekend Magazine dug up the records and dates. And they reveal that Spielberg graduated from Saratoga High School in 1965. He would soon end up working as an unpaid intern at Universal Studios in 1968, just about the time copies of The Alien were circulating around. That year, 1968, was also the year Spieberg would direct his first movie for Universal Studio, the short film, Amblin’.
It’s an issue that refuses to go away. And as late as 2010, Martin Scorsese said in an interview, “I have no qualms in admitting that Spielberg’s E.T. was influenced by Ray’s Alien. Even Sir Richard Attenborough pointed this out to me.” Well, there you have it. Or do we?
As Kurt Vonnegut would say, ‘So it goes’.
I have pieced together this consolidated saga from various sources, for each of the individual accounts seem to miss one detail or the other. Of course I have omitted some things that are extraneous to the subject at hand or tangential in their detail. But here are the sources that I primarily referred to, and which you can look up for some additional details: Manik and I: My Life with Satyajit Ray by Bijoya Ray; Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye by Andrew Robinson; Ray’s own article Ordeals of the Alien published in The Statesman, Calcutta; articles on this subject by Richard Boyle, who is in possession of Mike Wilson’s correspondence with Ray and other documents. Boyle has said he only postponed indefinitely the publication of his book, The Wrecking: The Story of Satyajit Ray’s Ill-Fated Science-Fiction Film Project, The Alien, because he was “advised that some of my vital comments regarding Spielberg would attract the attention of his rapacious Hollywood lawyers.”
So it goes. But well, that’s all for this week on New Worlds Weekly. Hope you enjoyed what you read above. If you did, let me know. If you didn’t – especially if you didn’t – or have some more nuggets or information to add to the saga, leave a comment below, or tweet to us with #NWWonFD. I’ll see you again next week, on Friday as usual. Until then, may the force be with you. Live long and prosper!
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Correction: An earlier version of this story said Ray's grandfather was Sukumar Ray, who started the children's magazine Sandesh. This is wrong, and humourist Sukumar Ray was, in fact, Ray's father. Ray's grandfather was Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, who started Sandesh. The error was introduced while editing and is sincerely regretted. Correction: An earlier version of this story said Ray was writing Professor Shonku stories till the 1990s. This should be 1980s and has now been changed. Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.