Travails With The Alien




Book Blurb:

“Satyajit Ray was a master of science fiction writing. Through his Professor Shonku stories and other fiction and non-fiction pieces, he explored the genre from various angles. In the 1960s, Ray wrote a screenplay for what would have been the first-of-its-kind sci-fi film to be made in India. It was called The Alien and was based on his own short story “Bonkubabur Bandhu”. On being prompted by Arthur C. Clarke, who found the screenplay promising, Ray sent the script to Columbia Pictures in Hollywood, who agreed to back it, and Peter Sellers was approached to play a prominent role. Then started the “Ordeals of the Alien” as Ray calls it, as even after a series of trips to the US, UK and France, the film was never made, and more shockingly, some fifteen years later, Ray watched Steven Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind and later E.T.:The Extra- Terrestrial, and realized these bore uncanny resemblances to his script The Alien, including the way the ET was designed!

A slice of hitherto undocumented cinema history, Travails with the Alien includes Ray’s detailed essay on the project with the full script of The Alien, as well as the original short story on which the screenplay was based. These, presented alongside correspondence between Ray and Peter Sellers, Arthur C. Clarke, Marlon Brando, Hollywood producers who showed interest, and a fascinating essay by the young student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism who broke the Spielberg story, make this book a rare and compelling read on science fiction, cinema and art of adaptation.”


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The cover illustration of the book is done by Satyajit Ray himself, which first appeared for “Bonkubabur Bandhu” in his family magazine Sandesh, a quite renowned periodical in the then West Bengal, in February 1962. The book is published by HarperCollins India in association with Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives.


The book reads like a newspaper column you look forward to every weekend, fragments from the director’s life chronicled coherently through his essays, interview pieces, newspaper cuttings from the 1960s to 1980s, and several letters exchanged with personalities from Hollywood. It was interesting to note the science fiction enthusiast’s passion for stories

Satyajit Ray, along with a friend of his had revived the children’s magazine Sandesh, after years of it going out of print. His grandfather had started the magazine, which he published again with fresh ideas, sci-fi stories and facts suitable for teens, complete with his own illustrations. He was also actively involved with the Bengali science fiction magazine Aschorjo as its chief patron, and became the president of the Science Fiction Cine Club, which showed movies of the genre from around the world every week for members- one of the first of its kind in India and abroad.


The book is divided into four parts- thoughts on science fiction, the springboard Bonkubabur Bandhu, The Alien, and other notable essays by Satyajit Ray. The very first chapter is an essay that first appeared in Now magazine, on 21st October 1966, and is curiously titled ‘SF’. “Heaven knows the initials are not as widely familiar as one would wish.” begins Ray going on to discuss his personal inspirations, and the woks and contributions of two pioneers of science fiction writing- Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. More interesting essays follow which discuss works of Conan Doyle, films like A Trip To Moon, Fahrenheit 451, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Forbidden Planet, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde.


I have loved sci-fi movies as long as I can remember, but this book has presented an entire new world, which dates back to decades before my birth! So, I had reason to gush over the contents and search for more snippets of interviews online.  My favorite among the essays was the All India Radio Interview with Satyajit Ray. The essence of the conversations has been maintained throughout the translated piece. I laughed till it hurt reading about Professor Shonku’s first invention, Nasyastra, a snuff gun, that makes one sneeze 56 times non-stop. I was awed by how science lags behind imagination- Leonardo Da Vinci had sketched the helicopter, gramophone and many more devices which were invented much later. It was one of the most enjoyable interviews I have read.


Bonkubabu’s Friend- the short story has a very passionate Geography teacher, Bonkubabu, who is always with interesting stories to narrate to his students. “He would talk of life in Africa; of the discovery of the North Pole; of human-flesh-eating fish in Brazil; and about Atlantis, the continent submerged under the sea.” But the naughty kids always played pranks on him, tried to irritate and annoy him. When he joined his friends and neighbors gathered for tea and conversations in the village councilor’s house, he could neither understand the head and tail of the meaningless conversations nor could he tolerate the ridicule he was subjected to there. Once when ghosts were being discussed he was left with a torn kurta, missing shoes and soil in his paan. One day when he was returning home from his routine life, he met an alien near the bamboo grove which had come from the pink glowing upturned bowl like spaceship in the lotus pond. When the initial fear subsided they argued about the superiority of their race, and went about discussing all the interesting things the alien had up its sleeve. The story ended on a hilarious scene where Bonkubabu mustered up the courage to speak up for himself against those who ridiculed him delivering an elaborate monologue quite grandly. 
“Only idiots debate on matters they know nothing about.” - Bonkubabu


The Alien


The Alien was planned to be a bilingual film in a purely Bengali setting, the Bengali version was to be named Avatar. The story is interesting it focuses more on the social problems and philosophical thoughts. A spaceship lands into a lotus pond in a remote village in Bengal, in the dead of the night, with a single alien inside it who has come to collect samples from the Earth- a frog, a snake, some flowers and plants. It has x-ray, telescopic and microscopic vision and supernatural powers to bring the dead to life. Miracles happen around its vicinity when the spherical ship lands- lotus stalks straighten and the petals open. Besides the illiterate villagers who think it to be a temple of gold emerging out of the pond, there is a journalist doing a village population survey, his wife who is doing research on the family planning of village women, a Marwari businessman and an American engineer working together searching waterbeds for drilling tubewells since there is a drought in the area. The Marwari plans to draw out water from the pond to restore the temple, but the journalist senses something weird. There are some more twists and turns to the story as they discover what the thing really is. The climax comes when the Alien decides to take a human as a sample.

I haven't read many screenplays or dramas, except for Shakespeare. This one was interesting.



Another favorite piece which read almost like a thriller was the column by the journalism graduate Aseem Chhabra which detailed the controversies around the similarities between ET and The Alien. A very interesting article documenting the happenings around those times.

And if I may say so, “Heshoram Hoshiarer Diary” translated by Satyajit Ray, written by his father Sukumar Ray, read like a desi Bengali version of the Fantastic Beasts, of course there was no magic involved.

I recommend this book to all cinephiles, and all those who wait for their favorite newspaper columns every morning with their chai or coffee. 

I received the book from Writer's Melon in exchange of an honest review.

Comments

  1. That sounds very fascinating. Thank you for sharing the history. Is it because Indians at that time could not get the work out in the open at that time? Like lack of opportunities or was it confidence in script since those times sci-fi was unusual?

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  2. Nice review Prathikshya. I am not a fan of sci-fi but "Alien" looks very interesting.

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