Tidbits From A New Book On The Sci-Fi Side Of Satyajit Ray

From Ray's response to Peter Sellers in bad verse, to a Bob Dylan ballad in a Bengali village, what we learn from 'Travails with The Alien'
Tidbits From A New Book On The Sci-Fi Side Of Satyajit Ray

The famous film-that-was-never-made story of Satyajit Ray's The Alien is well documented. Columbia Pictures in Hollywood was going to co-produce Ray's sci-fi film, about a village in West Bengal where a spaceship lands in a lotus pond. It was to be filmed in a Bengali village in the later part of 1960s, with major Hollywood stars being considered for two characters. Much later, in the '80s, when an article pointed out similarities, it cast the shadow of plagiarism on Steven Spielberg's ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The new book by HarperCollins, Travails with the Alien, doesn't probe into that matter, but it collates all the information, essays, documents–letters exchanged between Ray and Columbia Pictures, Peter Sellers, Arthur C Clarke, Steve McQueen, and Stanley Kubrick–to present a comprehensive account of Ray's doomed project. But in a larger sense, the book celebrates the lesser known side of the filmmaker, Ray the science-fiction addict and writer.

Here are some tidbits and fun facts from the book.


Several English speaking actors were in the running for the role of Joe Devlin, the American engineer who is in charge of a drilling operation in the village in The Alien. Marlon Brando, who Ray had met during the former's visit to Calcutta, was said to be keen on working with Ray. But Ray called it "a remote possibility as he is not suitable for the story."

In an interview given to Ashchorjo, a Bengali science-fiction magazine, in 1967, where Ray used to frequently contribute to, he said, "I was told in London that Brando is temperamental. He is not an easy actor to work with." He was more keen on Steve McQueen, who was in his words "admirably fit" for the character, and who reminded him "of the Humphrey Bogart of Casablanca." His next choice, after McQueen, was Paul Newman.

In a letter to Ray in 1968, Columbia (British) Productions Limited, suggested a list of actors. Apart from Brando and McQueen, it included Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, George Segal, Robert Mitcham, Richard Widmark, James Garner, Warren Beatty, Arthur Kennedy.


The book features the full script of The Alien, which written evocatively by Ray, gives us a glimpse of what could've been. A recurring motif is a song that the Devlin character keeps humming: Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country", whether it is after a hard day's work, when he is drunk on whiskey, or high on hashish which he gets from a sadhu. Or whether it is a sultry tribal girl the "brawny brooding American in his early thirties" is unable to get out of his head, the only words that seem to come to Devlin's lips are, "If you're travelin' in the north country fair…Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline…She once was a true love of mine."


After Ray returned from Hollywood to Calcutta, dejected that The Alien will not get made, a letter from Peter Sellers gave him a new hope. Sellers playfully wrote about his experience of watching Pather Panchali, in the manner of Scottish poet William Mcgonaggal, the "greatest Bad Verse writer of all time":  

..The film you are about to see

Is the film of a Trilogy

And is called Pather Panchali

In which there is a scene of two children in a field of barley

Watching a train go by

Under an azure sky

So beautiful you want to die..

It was indication that Sellers, who according to Ray had committed to the project on principle earlier, was still keen on working in it. Ray wanted him to play the Marwari industrialist Gaganlal Bajoria, who speaks for most part of the film in English. Apart from the fact that the choice made economic sense, the filmmaker had interesting ideas as to how he wanted tweak Sellers' usual "Bombay Welsh" accent to suit his character in The Alien.

But perhaps fearing a backlash in India, after his problematic caricature portrayal of an Indian in a film he did at the time, The Party, Sellers eventually pulled out of Ray's film. In a letter written to Ray, he attributed his decision to the part being "incomplete". This time, Ray, obviously hurt, wrote back in verse (to which Sellers never responded):

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.


Ray wrote a piece for Aschorjo magazine in 1966 about sci-fi films, after his visit to the sets of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in London. Tracing the origins of sci-fi in cinema to Georges Méliès's A Trip to the Moon and Fritz Lang's Metropolis, he thought it was a particularly exciting time for the genre. Of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, which won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, he wrote:

"No other science fiction film had ever received such an honour before. It is to the credit of the director of Alphaville that he presented a Paris of the future ruled by science by shooting his film not on artificial sets but in the streets, hotels, offices and other everyday places of today's city of Paris and through a clever use of light and camera angles. I have no hesitation in saying that it is an unforgettable film for its technical excellence."

About 2001: A Space Odyssey, in a later interview, he said that it has "scientific details that are technically valid and correct even in the eyes of a scientist." And while speaking about the impossibility of making a sci-fi film in India with the available resources, Ray was dazzled by the latest offering from Hollywood. "The other day, I saw a film called Blade Runner which is a futuristic version of Los Angeles in the year 2001. Fantastic. Quite unbelievable in technical terms."

He wasn't so enamoured about the works of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas; he said that they "are unnecessarily complicating the stories." and that "The story should be simple, clear, without frills." Although, during the controversy surrounding ET and Close Encounters, he said that Spielberg was "a good director who has made a good film".

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