Travails With The Alien
In 1967, 15 years before Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial opened to applause that is yet to subside, Satyajit Ray had submitted to Hollywood’s Columbia Pictures the screenplay of a film about the friendship between a small boy and a benevolent alien. Ray had wanted the film to be an English-Bengali bilingual, called The Alien in English and either Avatar or Mangal-Kavya (Martian Tales) in Bengali.
Spielberg’s Elliott was Ray’s Haba, which literally means halfwit or imbecile. He was the orphan beggar-boy who was no one to anyone except a lumbago-afflicted grandmother, and who inhabited a “black-and-white world of geometrical forms” while drifting around fields and woods, an object of contempt and pity.
Ray’s E.T. was called, simply, ‘The Alien’, and it had chosen to land in a village called Mangalpur, which had been forsaken, in the opinion of its more knowledgeable residents, even by God. The alien had a large head, sunken cheeks, a small mouth, nose and ears, and three fingers — it was with the appearance of these digits, gliding across the screen, that it would have announced its entry in the film. It was cheerful, affectionate, and mischievous — it danced with fireflies in bamboo groves, it healed bleeding wounds, ripened wilting paddy, and made lotuses bloom. It even awakened the dead — just to play a prank on a horrified pallbearer.
But The Alien went beyond just this otherworldly idea — it also dealt with the human relationships whose explorations Ray was best known for: those for example, between the unwanted Haba whom the alien decides to take away in its spaceship that has, instead of control panels and switches, veins and arteries that makes it more like a living being; the newspaper reporter Mohan and his newly-wedded wife Kalyani; and the businessman Bajoria and the American engineer from Butte, Montana, Joe Devlin. In the climax that Ray envisaged, “Mr America” with the gun is cheered by villagers for saving them from the alien’s magic, even as Devlin himself — who has at last understood what’s been happening—is overwhelmed by uncontrollable laughter at the farcical absurdity of his situation.
The Alien was never made.
In an interview given to All India Radio the year E.T. released, Ray blamed Mike J Wilson, who had mediated his negotiations with Columbia. Several hundred cyclostyled mimeographed copies of his treatment of The Alien had been left with the studio, and several ideas had found their way into E.T. and Spielberg’s earlier Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he said, ensuring that his film could no longer be made—for he would be “charged with plagiarism, (even though) the reality (was) just the opposite!”
A couple of years earlier, Ray had recounted in a resigned but deeply amused tone the tale of “bizarrerie” that had unfolded over several months in 1967, which had left him “firmly convinced that The Alien was doomed”. He wrote of how Wilson had showed up in Calcutta with an introduction from Arthur C Clarke, and then taken him to Paris (where they negotiated with Peter Sellers for a role in the film), Los Angeles (where “no one walks because you can be held up for vagrancy if you do”) and London (where Columbia USA decided to transfer the film). In Hollywood, Wilson had Ray ride a Lincoln convertible, stay at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard where Maurice Chevalier used to keep a permanent suite, and party in a mansion that was once occupied by Greta Garbo and her lover John Gilbert — all apparently paid for by a handsome advance that Wilson had wangled out of Columbia. Ray decorated his story richly with anecdotes, which included making a note of Sellers’s remarkable ability to seamlessly switch attention from his second wife Britt Ekland to the cleavage of an “Amazonian blonde” who, by the way, was accompanied by a cowboy with a gun in a holster.
For some months in 1967-68, buzz of The Alien streaked across Hollywood’s starry sky like a meteor. Ray wanted Sellers to play the businessman Bajoria, and one among Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, the American, Devlin. Talks with Sellers went some distance, and both Brando and McQueen showed an initial interest. A report by The Associated Press appeared in publications around the world under variations of the headline ‘Famous Director Of India Accepts Hollywood Challenge’, The Los Angeles Times reported on ‘Indian Moviemaker’s Implausible Ingredients’, The New York Times wrote about ‘Ray, A Famine And A Fairy Tale’, The Guardian published an interview about the ‘Alien In A Lotus Pond’, and The Times did a story about ‘Sellers Under The Great Ray’.
But The Alien vanished quickly, rather like the spaceship in Ray’s screenplay. In June 1968, Sellers walked away, and even though Columbia continued to express interest subject to a replacement being found, Ray dissociated himself from Mike Wilson, and the project lost momentum. Ray did contemplate reviving it in the early 80s, but E.T. had been released by then — and Clarke advised him against either assuming that The Alien had been plagiarised or bringing a lawsuit against the makers of E.T. Clarke later wrote in a letter to The Times that Spielberg had been dismissive about suggestions that he was inspired by The Alien: “Tell Satyajit I was a kid in High School when his script was circulating in Hollywood.”
The story of what might have been India’s first science fiction film, chronologically ahead of not just E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind but also Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and George Lucas’s first Star Wars film, is already known to a broad spectrum of Ray fans and students of Indian cinema. What Travails With The Alien does is to tell that story in Ray’s own words: through transcripts of interviews he gave, the full screenplay of The Alien that he presented to Columbia, the pictures that he took — and were taken of him — in those years, and the letters and telegrams that he exchanged with his interlocutors. There is also a prologue: Ray’s story Bonkubabur Bondhu (Bonkubabu’s Friend) that appeared in the Bengali children’s magazine Sandesh in 1962, and provided the idea at the heart of The Alien. It is a precious, extraordinarily compelling archive, a remarkable window to a cinematic effort to which is uniquely attached the names of, as Clarke put it, “two of the greatest geniuses the movies have