The Alien: Ray's screenplay inspiration for two Spielberg sci-fi classics?

By Gautam Chintamani| Express News Service | Published: 09th September 2018 05:00 AM
Satyajit Ray while directing a film

Filmmakers, more often than not, are judged by the quality of their work that meets the audience, but there are instances when the films that never got made end up revealing a lot more about the artist behind. In 1960, Satyajit Ray, who by then was not just an established filmmaker but also famous for his science fiction writing, wrote a screenplay for what could have become India’s first sci-fi feature. The film was titled 'The Alien' and although it never got made, it nonetheless ended up becoming a part of filmmaking folklore.

The screenplay impressed Arthur C Clarke and buoyed by the enthusiasm from one of the world’s foremost science fiction authors, Ray pitched the script to studios in Hollywood where Columbia Pictures came onboard. Despite an international star such as Peter Sellers agreeing in principle to play a major role and several trips to the US, the UK, and France, the film had many starts but failed to make it beyond the discussion stage. 

The ‘non-making’ of 'The Alien' that was described as the ‘Ordeals of the Alien’ by Ray has been chronicled in a fascinating volume aptly called Travails With the Alien and offers a hitherto undocumented cinema history including not just the original screenplay but also the correspondence between the filmmaker and the other dramatis personae.

Among the other things such as telegrams and letters of producers who expressed their desire to produce The Alien, the book also contains an essay by a student at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism that revealed how one of the biggest filmmakers in the world, Steven Spielberg, was ‘inspired’ by Ray’s script. Since the mid-1960s, Ray’s screenplay had been orbiting Hollywood’s hallowed circles and legend has it that two of Spielberg’s features Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) borrowed heavily from Ray’s screenplay. 

Some years later Spielberg denied the charges but the similarities between key moments in his films and Ray’s vision are too uncanny. The book also contains Ray’s concept sketches and storyboards that make reading Travails With the Alien a fulfilling experience. Today, when an appearance of an actor in a foreign production is treated akin to breaching Hollywood, Ray’s production could have been the defining moment for an Indian. Intriguingly enough, even after the likes of an Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, an Irrfan Khan and a Priyanka Chopra becoming recognisable faces in the US, a mainstream Indian filmmaker is yet to helm a Hollywood production. 

Reading the original short story, which formed the basis for Ray’s script, along with the screenplay in its entirety and juxtaposing the two with exchange that Ray had with studio officials and icons such as Marlon Brando, reveals the mind of a master craftsman as well as the heart-wrenching process the (un)making of a film can be even for someone like a Satyajit Ray.

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