This is an extraordinary journey into the heart of Hollywood. It has its roots in Satyajit Ray’s passionate attachment to the stories of Jules Verne that developed into the exploration of modern science by Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov and his own adventures with the form before the arrival of Professor Shanku.
Quite by force of circumstances, it ran into a maze of nebulous encounters in the land of the rich and famous based on a draft treatment for the screen that he had given to the fantasy of a spaceship landing in a lotus pond in rural Bengal.
Eventually, it exploded into an unimaginable case of crafted plagiarism in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial that could never be proved. Ray had given up in despair and Spielberg, in a gesture that was presumably linked to his conscience, endorsed Martin Scorcese’s initiative to crown Ray with an honorary Oscar.
That, in a nutshell, is the bizarre saga of a film that was never made. But if the drama surrounding the unresolved question of intellectual property has remained part of public discourse for more than 50 years, that is a good enough reason for Sandip Ray to compile all the material at his disposal to quench the curiosity of many who may still wonder why The Alien was never made.
It is interesting to recall that, even till the early 1980s, Ray had hoped that the doomed project could be rescued from the clutches of people whom he had trusted. That was not to be. But he may have finally delivered that unforgettable acceptance speech lying on his bed in hospital with no bitterness about the lost opportunity. He had moved on with perhaps a mild regret that India could have got its first authentic taste of science fiction on the screen.
The book develops along a parallel stream of the many-splendoured attractions of science fiction, on the one hand, and a colourful access to the erratic worlds of stars, writers and self-styled mediators in the movie business.
Not many would know that Ray had grown up on a healthy diet of both poetic fantasy and cold facts in the science fiction. He was looking back at the futuristic magic of George Melies’s A Trip to the Moon and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis even when he was exploring the possibilities of adapting Italian neo-realism to his treatment of Bibhutibhushan’s Pather Panchali.
Or that he had actively contributed to the growth of a scientific consciousness through the Science Fiction Cine Club that he had promoted a few years after he had laid the foundation of the film society movement. To that extent, this book could open a new window to the life of a versatile genius.
The scientific temperament, reflected in a wide-ranging conversation that took place over All India Radio, may not have reached out to as many Ray observers as his detective skills. But it was the key to his understanding of the divergent worlds of sheer fantasy.
While it produced Banku Babur Bandhu, on which The Alien was based, the scientific bent of mind produced the compactness and clarity of his social and human documents and the technical wizardry in films ranging from Charulata to Goopy Gyne Bagha Bayen.
While all this is useful documentation, the book comes alive in the depiction of the heroes in the cruel game that was played on Ray. The shift in the tone of the narrative by Ray himself is palpable.
An old interview published in Aschorjo magazine in 1967 is full of the infectious optimism of the filmmaker who has been sweet-talked into making trips to the United States and London to tie up the details of the shooting around the time Asani Sanket and Goopy Gyne Bagha Bayen were being planned.
The trips were journeys of hope designed by his unofficial partner keen on taking photographs of the director during their walks down the Champs Elysee… with Ray returning the compliment.
If this visual documentation is aimed at giving credence to the project, it changes to a serio-comic recollection in the two-part contribution Ray made to The Statesman in 1980.
This is when Ray is thoroughly disillusioned but still regales his readers with an infectious sense of humour despite being called a “thief” by the man who had led Ray up the garden path with money collected from the studio on Ray’s behalf and eventually chose a life of shaven-headed sainthood at some unknown destination.
No less enjoyable are thumbnail impressions of other Hollywood stars, the chief among them being Peter Sellers who was supposed to play an English-speaking Marwari businessman.
One can only imagine the plight of a creative mind being driven round the bend by the star who was found appropriate for The Alien after playing an Indian in The Party, joining Ray in an informal screening of Charulata in London, sitting cross-legged to listen to Ravi Shankar and composing a verse in appreciation of Pather Panchali — only to declare finally “that though the part may appear more or less complete to you, it does not seem so to me”.
The jinx is extended to aborted attempts to rope in Steve McQueen. All this went into the facile drama of engaging in endless correspondence and interactions with Arthur Clarke who had accompanied Ray to witness a day’s shooting of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That seemed a cruel compensation for providing the credentials to an impostor that Ray had unhesitatingly honoured.
For the reader, however, there are abundant compensations — and delights — in the story soaked in betrayal, disillusionment and the follies and foibles of communicating with Hollywood. The best reward from the book is that the excellent prose comes with the typical Ray touches and can be relished with suitable proportions of enlightenment and enjoyment.
The editor’s job consisted of the strenuous task of assembling the diverse material — articles by Ray recovered from the shelves, a translation of a wide-ranging interview on All India Radio that was perhaps the best record of a scientific spirit, a translation of Banku Babur Bandhu published in Sandesh in 1962, treatments for a television series and the aborted project for Columbia Pictures, and letters and news reports that had been flowing in from abroad.
To this can be added the rare photographs of Ray and cameraman Subrata Mitra on a location hunt for The Alien in rural Bengal that were part of a documentary made by James Beveridge in 1967.
The bits and pieces now add up to what reads like a dark comedy that never cast a shadow on the prodigious work that has become much more than an archival treasure. It is now that the full story is being told and points to the lessons that Ray had kept to himself as he relentlessly pursued the creative ideas.
But this book may yet inspire a dramatic portrayal of the mediator-turned-monk who insisted on making coffee while Ray wrote his treatment for Columbia Pictures. The modern scriptwriter with enormous technical support can indeed turn the artful dodger into a classic anti-hero — naturally without the man making coffee or looking over his shoulders.
The reviewer is Principal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s Asutosh College of
Communication and Management.