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Travails With The Alien by Satyajit Ray: Review

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Book: Travails With The Alien

Author: Satyajit Ray

Editor: Sandip Ray


Publications HarperCollins Publishers

Pages: 213; Price: Rs 699

This is all we have dreamed all our life: A Satyajit Ray movie with Marlon Brando playing the lead. Does it sound too good to be true? Yes, it does. And, to make it more brutal, it never happened. Travails With The Alien addresses an age-old controversy of Columbia Pictures ditching Satyajit Ray and plagiarising his concept to make Steven Spielberg’s E.T.

Travails With The Alien comes with the original script of The Alien, a science fiction movie that Ray planned to do with Columbia Pictures. The book has a number of his interviews where the filmmaker elaborately talked about the project that seemed all set to be materialised. The book, edited by his son Sandip Ray, has various specimens of Ray’s research and notes on the movie. It has letters from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury that show the kind of professional rapport Ray shared with these legends.

A big part of the book is dedicated to the works that establish Ray as a connoisseur of science fiction in India. He loved to call himself a “science fiction addict.” However, when Amita Malik took his interview in 1967, she mentioned that Ray was “far removed” from SF (science fiction), both as a filmmaker and a person. Everyone in India and abroad was surprised to know that he was working on a science fiction film. It’s strange how little people knew about the legend.

In one of his writings from the previous year, Ray seemed thrilled to talk about critically-acclaimed filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Francois Truffaut trying their hand in the same genre.

One of the most interesting episodes of the book is where Ray talked about his choice of Hollywood actors. He said Marlon Brando was extremely keen on working with him. However, Brando’s reputation of being temperamental put enough doubt on Ray’s mind. He was undecided if he should work with the distinguished actor. At one time, he also talked about working with a new emerging actor in Hollywood. Jack Nicholson was yet to make it big with Easy Rider in 1969. A fertile brain may even wonder if Ray was talking about Nicholson. The possibilities can only make us even more depressed.

Peter Sellers, whose acting skills Ray was extremely fond of, was set to play the role of a Marwari businessman. When he met Ray, he was already playing an Indian in a movie called The Party, a was keen on playing the Indian character in the filmmaker’s movie. During his meetings with Ray, he was quite enthusiastic about it.

Ray was happy to know that both Brando and Steve McQueen were interested in playing Joe Devlin, the character of an American engineer. Academy Award-winning filmmaker Saul Bass was scheduled to supervise the special effects.

Ray, with his cinematographer Subrata Mitra, did the recce of the village where the movie was planned to be shot. To be honest, the images of Ray and Mitra at the location are painful to see, simply because of the fact that they had no idea that all their efforts would be in vain.

Ray wanted to work with at least a couple of well-known Hollywood actors to make his film commercially viable. It was the first time Ray was working with such a huge budget that was coming through Mike Wilson, Ray’s representative in Hollywood. In one of the most critical chapters in the book, Ray gives chronological details of how the status of his Hollywood project had shifted from being promising to being disappointing.

Wilson took a large sum from Columbia that never reached Ray. He copyrighted the screenplay under his name as a co-author, even though he played no role in drafting the screenplay. Eventually, Columbia refused to make the movie if Wilson was any way associated with the project. Meanwhile, Sellers had his excuses to refuse to play the role. Ray’s reply to the actor is a charm to read.

There are a number of aspects that make the book a collector’s edition. And, the greatest of them all is the complete script of the film that was never made. Ray must have been aware of the enormity of the opportunity to make a Hollywood movie. Even though the script is extremely smart and intriguing, Ray succeeds in making it completely Indian. In every scene, the reader can find the simplicity that was present in all his masterworks.

There are moments when you are bound to get goosebumps. Was it a mere coincidence that he wanted to name the Bengali version of the film Avatar? The sketches of the alien look uncannily similar with so many other such characters in Hollywood. Ray’s version of spaceship had veins and was a living creature itself.

Some ambitions are meant to be doomed. And, only a few of those unrealised dreams become legends. This is definitely one of those.