Thirty-six years have passed since the release of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi masterpiece E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial but the jury is still on the fence over the genesis of the film. It may come as a surprise to many but legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who breathed his last on this very day 26 years ago, had accused Spielberg of borrowing a number of basic ideas from his unrealised film The Alien.
Satyajit Ray placed himself on the global cinematic map with films like Pather Panchali, Charulata and Aparajito among others. But he also wished to make a foray into the world of science fiction. Ray, who shared a close friendship with Arthur C Clarke, spoke to him about his hopes to make a film on the relationship between an alien and a young boy. After having a chat with diver-turned-producer Mike Wilson, Clarke was the one who encouraged Ray to come to Hollywood and take the project forward. Ray had even zeroed in on Peter Sellers to play a small but significant part in the film titled The Alien.
But things took a turn for the worse from there. At first, Wilson forced Ray into giving him co-credits for the script even though his only contribution is said to be one small change in a dialogue and the suggestion that the colour of the spaceship be golden. While Columbia Pictures decided to bankroll the project, stars like Stevie McQueen and Marlon Brando were also roped in for various roles. Unfortunately, after many delays, the project was shelved and The Alien was never filmed. Ray later also found out that Columbia had been issuing multiple copies of his script to the public.
Things didn’t look any bright for The Alien and a dismayed Satyajit Ray returned back to India. He has also revealed in later interviews that multiple efforts were made by Columbia Pictures to revive the project but due to unforeseen problems, the project got stalled every time.
Even later in 1982, Ray got an astounding phone call from Clarke who had caught a screening of Spielberg’s ET in London. He was surprised with the similarities between The Alien and Spielberg’s ET and asked Ray to take action immediately.
Satyajit Ray recounts the episode in an interview with India Today Magazine in 1983, “You know at least two of the Spielberg-Lucas films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET, would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies. Some days back Arthur Clark telephoned me from London, saying that I should file a copyright case and should not take it lying down. Other than this personal complaint, I have no quarrel against the makers of science and space fantasies. I think it’s a genre full of possibilities, though I also have a feeling that Spielberg and Lucas are unnecessarily complicating the stories. The story should be simple, clear, without frills.”
However, Spielberg denied copying from Ray’s script, saying he “was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood.” It is even said that a major reason for ET underperforming at the Oscars that year was Ray’s accusation. Critics have also pointed out that though ET was released by Universal, the project had begun at Columbia Pictures.
But the two directors seem to have made peace by the end of it. It is reported that Spielberg along with Martin Scorsese, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant pushed for Ray’s honorary Oscar in 1992.
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