The Short-lived Glory of Satyajit Ray’s Sci-Fi Cine Club

The film club, which ran for 3 years, was started by a group of science fiction crusaders in '60s Calcutta
The Short-lived Glory of Satyajit Ray’s Sci-Fi Cine Club

The SF Cine Club in Calcutta began its journey with much fanfare. The kind of attention unimaginable for a film club in India, let alone one that called itself 'a club of devotees of Science-fiction and Fantasy films'. Walt Disney, from Disney Land, California, wrote a congratulatory letter; the Prime Minister and President sent encouraging messages; sci-fi literary legends like Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) sent their best wishes. The Press Trust of India carried a report, it was in the city's leading papers and the news segment in the radio the next morning. In the inauguration ceremony, on 26 January, 1966, people queued up in the portico of the Academy of Fine Arts, to collect their membership cards — at an annual membership of Rs 6. The 600 attendees included representatives of the different foreign embassies, and personalities from Calcutta's culturati.

Brochures and souvenirs were handed out. All design-related work, from the hand-drawn insignia of the club, to conceptualising the cover design of the brochure, to selecting the type of font, was done by Satyajit Ray, whose feted masterpieces like Apu Trilogy ('55-59), Mahanagar (1963), Charulata (1964) and Nayak (1966), had by then established him as one of the greatest filmmakers in the world, and who was a life-long fan of science fiction and fantasy. Some of the first stories Ray ever wrote were science-fiction–including Professor Shonku, the absent-minded genius with a sense of humour, one of whose inventions is the snuff gun, that makes the victim sneeze 56 times nonstop. Ray had read the works of HG Welles and Jules Verne as a schoolboy, and was the President of the SF Cine Club. "A science-fiction addict for close to thirty years," he wrote in the brochure, "the SF Cine Club may very well be one of the first of its kind — here or abroad". It was the same year that Ray went to Hollywood to pitch his sci-fi script, the ill-fated The Alien. But that's another story, a comprehensive account of which is given in Travails with the Alien by Satyajit Ray: The Film that was never made and other Adventures with Science Fiction, the new book by Harper Collins India—which also features previously unpublished memorabilia of the SF Cine Club.

The opening film that played that evening was the British rural horror film Village of the Damned (1960), in which creepy, blonde children, born out of four inhabitants mysteriously impregnated by an invisible, alien force, terrorise the English village of Midwich. The second film to be screened was The Incredible Shrinking Man, which is about a man who, well, starts shrinking, after he gets exposed to radioactive smoke during an idyllic yacht ride with his wife. Quotidian things become super-sized threats as the protagonist becomes smaller; he fights a tarantula in his storeroom, and escapes the paws of his pet tomcat in the thrilling, inventive film. It was shown at the Priya Cinema in South Calcutta on a Sunday morning in March.

Atomic era, following WW II, the ongoing Cold War, and the prospect of man landing on moon no longer seeming impossible, the '50s were the golden age of American sci-fi movies. A number of films were based on sci-fi literature; Japan, that created Godzilla in '54, and other some Soviet nations like Czechoslovakia were also making their own sci-fi films. Ray, not new to the workings of a film club (he had co-founded the first film society of independent India in 1947), curated the screenings. He would get a list of strange and wonderful films from the different foreign embassies, and local offices of major studios like Metro Goldwyn & Mayer, Columbia and Paramount. He, along with some other members of the club, would watch those films and select the one to be shown next. Sometimes he would reject a film by watching 5 minutes of it.

Invitation cards for Sci-Fi Cine Club film-show of "Fantastic Voyage", designed by Ray, in 1968 Credit: Harper Collins India
Invitation cards for Sci-Fi Cine Club film-show of "Fantastic Voyage", designed by Ray, in 1968 Credit: Harper Collins India

Once, when the Consulate of Czechoslovakia offered 3 films—Devil's Trap (1962), Creation of the World (1958) and Men in Outer Space (1962)—the latter was chosen as the other two didn't have subtitles. When Fantastic Voyage (1966)— a psychedelic adventure in which a submarine of medical professionals take a trip into the body of a scientist to save him from a brain damage—came along, Ray approached Twentieth Century Fox for a screening. The film hadn't released in theatres in India at the time, but they happily premiered the film at the cine club. In '67, when Ray couldn't get hold of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965) and François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966)—two films, along with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey that got him thinking about how 'serious' directors are showing an inclination for sci-fi—he went to Bombay to get them. The screening of Hitchcock's Birds was a huge hit, playing to a 1600 member audience in Majestic Cinema.

The film club was the product of the efforts of a group of sci-fi crusaders in Bengal in the '60s. It was led by Adrish Bardhan, its secretary, who had approached Ray with the idea. Bengali sci-fi writer Premendra Mitra was the Vice President. Bardhan, who had a day job as the Personal Assistant to the Secretary of the Calcutta Chemicals, is credited to have coined the Bengali term for science-fiction, "kalpa-bigyan". He had been running Aschorjo, the little magazine dedicated to Bengali sci-fi by local authors, from a room in his ancestral house on 97/1 Serpentine Lane (which would also double as the office for the cine club) since 1963. Ray was the magazine's chief patron and contributor, and together they started producing sci-fi radio plays.

The Cine Club was meant as the final of the group's "three-pronged" effort to promote the sci-fi movement in Bengal. The region's ties with the genre go back as early as 1896, when Jagadish Chandra Bose wrote Palatak Toofan (Runaway Cyclone), in which a cyclone approaching Calcutta is stopped after it is captured in a bottle of Kuntal Kesari hair oil. As though a call for a revolution in a party manifesto, Bardhan, in the editorial of 1966 February issue of Aschorjo, wrote, "A Monthly magazine, radio and cinema: these 3 paths now will forge the victory of sci-fi." The issue carried an extensive coverage of the inaugural ceremony; a detailed synopsis of the SF Cine Club's next screening would appear in the last section of Aschorjowhich has been archived by the members of Kalpabiswaa Bengali sci-fi/fantasy webzine.

Spread of the brochure designed by Satyajit Ray on the inauguration of Sci-Fi Cine Club in 1966. Credit: Harper Collins India
Spread of the brochure designed by Satyajit Ray on the inauguration of Sci-Fi Cine Club in 1966. Credit: Harper Collins India

Many of the stories of the cine club are recounted by Ranen Ghosh, an acolyte of Bardhan, in a Norwegian journal about the sci-fi 'movement' in Bengal, that was published last year. He was an integral part of three Bengali sci-fi magazines, which came one after the other, Aschorjo, Bishmoy and Fantastic. Ghosh often wrote stories with multiple aliases, taking names of family members. He is one of the few active members of the cine club who is alive. He used to hold a "couple membership card" with his wife, and have attended most of the screenings, he tells me on the phone. Ghosh, 82, has began to forget details of those days, but he remembers the excitement he and his comrades felt on the day of the inauguration: "We are going to do in Bengal what nobody in the world has ever done… we, a bunch of mad, Bengali men."

How did the seemingly successful SF Cine Club lose its steam so abruptly, and shut down in 1969, 3 years after it had started? Ray got busier; apart from struggling to get The Alien made in Hollywood, he was working on Goopy Gayn Bagha Bayn (1969), Aranyer Din Ratri (1970) and Pratidwandi (1970) at the time. And Bardhan had his own battles to fight—Aschorjo was in financial trouble, and his wife fell sick. "I think Ray also lost interest in it after a point. Otherwise, he would have managed to keep it running," says Ghosh.

The audience, he says, also started dwindling. Many members who weren't accustomed to watching English-language films, wouldn't be able to grasp the films, which would often depend on crucial scientific explanation in dialogue. The problems were identified, discussed in the meetings (which Ray didn't have the time to attend), but never addressed. The "closed-door policy", writes Ghosh, contributed to bringing the curtains down on the cine club.

Ray's son, Sandip, in the book Travails with the Alien, remembers how his father would get 16 mm sci-fi films for special screenings every year for his birthday; one such film was the British monster movie Gorgo. "It was a memorable attraction for me and my friends," writes Sandip, who has fond memories of attending the cine club screenings with his father."Baba gave a lot of time to the film club," he says on the phone; it became increasingly hard to procure the films from local offices of major studios, that resulted in it shutting down. At the end of this month, he starts filming Professor Shonku o Eldorado. To be shot in India and Brazil, it'll be the first time that one of Ray's sci-fi stories will be translated to the big screen.

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