How Satayajit Ray’s Hollywood science fiction film “The Alien” was sabotaged

How Satayajit Ray’s Hollywood science fiction film “The Alien” was sabotaged

By Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai/

At the Borella General Cemetery in Colombo, I stood in front on the grave of the visionary and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke.

Noted for co-writing the screenplay of the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur Clarke lived in Sri Lanka from 1956 until his death in 2008. Initially he was in Unawatuna, on the southern coast near Galle, but shifted to Colombo in later years. Held in high esteem both in Sri Lanka and overseas, he was offered a resident guest status by the Sri Lankan government in 1975.

Standing in front of the tombstone I was reminded of an old story connecting Sri Lanka with India, a story found in Andrew Robinson’s The Inner Eye – The Biography of a Master Film-Maker” (a biography of Satyajit Ray). It is an interesting and yet a sad story that spans several years and connects two master storytellers- Arthur C. Clarke from Colombo in Sri Lanka with ace film maker Satyajit Ray from Kolkata in India.

The story begins with a discussion between the two about a project proposal by Satyajit Ray. The project was to be a stepping stone in an exciting journey to fame and name but turned out to be a bitter experience for the acclaimed film maker and his author friend.

“It all began in 1964 with a letter from Ray to Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka asking him for his good wishes for a science-fiction film club he (Ray) and others had started up in Calcutta. Clarke replied expressing admiration for Ray’s films and a correspondence developed, which led to their meeting in London on the way back from a studio where they had together watched Stanley Kubrick shooting 2001.”

Arthur C.Clarke

At this meeting, Ray expressed an interest in making a science-fiction film. On his return to Colombo, Clarke narrated the idea to the Sri Lankan filmmaker, Lester Peries and an American friend, Mike Wilson, who agreed to co-produce the film.

That conversation was to build a bond of trust. “When a man like that (speaking about a Sri Lankan movie about a secret agent produced by Wilson) writes and tells you that he is ready to set up a co-production deal for you [with Clarke’s enthusiastic backing], you are inclined to take his word on trust,” Ray wrote later.

By 1966, Ray had the “bare bones of a story and some striking ideas”. It was based on a short story in Bengali that Ray had penned a few years earlier for the  children’s magazine Sandesh. The title of this story was- Bankubabur Bandhu (Banku Babu’s Friend).

In this story, a benign alien creature descends on a forest near an insignificant village in Bengal and makes contact with one of its humblest residents, Banku Babu. The story did not have much on the alien’s character or that of his friend Banku Babu  It was more about the alien’s first exploratory expedition on Earth,  giving a fascinating sense of the creature’s magical powers.

Ray had written the first draft of the screenplay in Calcutta in ten days in February 1967. He named the film “The Alien”. Though Wilson was present while the script was being penned, his contribution towards it was virtually nil. But this did not prevent Wilson from claiming co-authorship later on.

Steven Spielberg

In the same year and over a discussion in Paris, the famous actor, Peter Sellers, agreed to play a leading role. Sellers had seen Ray’s famous movie  Charulata and congratulated him on getting a good array of actors in Kolkata. But Sellers withdrew from the project.

A series of unfortunate incidents which unfolded in 1967 led Ray to believe that the project was doomed. Wilson was steering the entire project to fetch a name for himself and none else. Ray had also chanced upon a copy of the screenplay in Wilson’s cottage in Hollywood bearing the legend ‘Copyright Mike Wilson and Satyajit Ray’ (in that order).

Be that as it may,Wilson made Ray attend several gatherings and parties in Hollywood where he met several film stars and filmmakers from the 1940s and 50s era including an old friend, Jean Renoir, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, William Wyler, and King Vidor, who constituted Ray’s world in the early days.

In between, a Columbia Pictures executive revealed that Wilson had taken an advance of ten thousand dollars in Ray’s name. But Ray never received a cent.  Columbia Pictures asked Ray to get Wilson to withdraw from the project. An unwilling Wilson did withdraw but only after giving Ray a scathing reply.

At this point, Ray thought it was wise to ask good friend Arthur Clarke to speak to Wilson. In his letter to Clarke, Ray said: “I am depending a great deal on you, Arthur … I know the whole thing must sound terribly sordid to you – but that’s how it is. I’m sure your wise counsel would help enormously towards a satisfactory and sensible solution.”

Andrew Robinson’s book “Satyajit Ray. The Inner Eye”

Clarke’s reply, which reached Ray in October, mentioning that Wilson had broken off with him as well, and had gone off to meditate somewhere in southern Sri Lanka. But  Wilson did eventually write to Ray relinquishing all rights to the script.

In the next decade Ray was asked by various people to revive the project. Among them were Ismail Merchant, Peter Sellers’ ex-agent, Columbia Pictures and others (including Wilson). And Ray continued to treat the project as possible.

But the release of Steven Spielberg’s two movies,  E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind made Ray give up all hope. Spielberg maintained in his interactions with Clarke that he had never seen Ray’s script in his life. But seeing the uncanny resemblance of the storyline and the character of the Alien in Spielberg’s film with Ray’s storyline and character of the Alien, Arthur Clarke called up Ray in January 1983 and asked him to write to Spielberg as he had noticed ‘striking parallels’.

However, Ray declined to take it any further, though he maintained that both the films “would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies.”

Both Clarke and Ray finally agreed that “artists have better things to do with their time” than fight battles for their rights.

(The featured image at the top shows Satyajit Ray shooting)