23 April, 2019

#BookReview :: Travails with the Alien by Satyajit Ray

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 the art of adaptation.

I have been a huge fan of Satyajit Ray since I could read on my own and has been an influence on my reading habits ever since. Mystery has been my favourite genre because I started reading with Feluda. My interest in SciFi is primarily because of Professor Shonku while my interest in supernatural is mainly thanks to Tarinikhuro.  Besides being a prolific author, Satyajit Ray was a talented screen writer, lyricist, music composer, graphic artist, calligrapher and one of the best filmmakers the world has ever seen. 

‘Travails with the Alien’ is his journey of trying to get his script about a friendly alien to come alive on screen.  Ray wrote the script of the film based loosely on his short story ‘Bonku Babur Bondhu’ hoping to make the-first-of-its-kind movie in India. Encouraged by the famous sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, Ray pitched his screenplay to Hollywood. What followed was described ‘ordeals with the alien’ by Ray himself. Numerous visits to US, UK and France and countless meetings and correspondence resulted in nothing. What was probably Ray’s most ambitious project, never took off.

Failures and disappointments are part of an artist’s life. And Ray knew that well enough. His project never seeing the light of the day was one thing, but seeing the plot similarities in E.T. and the physical appearance of the alien in Close Encounters of the Third Kind had uncanny resemblance to his sketches for The Alien. While the world welcomed, praised and applauded these two movies by Steven Spielberg about over a decade later, Ray’s own hopes of his project ever taking off was quashed forever. The resemblances and the similarities are well known by all Satyajit Ray fans and it bothers me still that no credit was ever given to him for it. This book brings forth the original script by Ray and his correspondence over the period as kind of a proof of the claims of the Ray fans.

Aside from the original script and the collection of correspondence the book also offers the translated version of ‘Bonku Babur Bondhu’, translation of an epic interview of the author on All India Radio and also traces the Maestro’s love and affinity for science fiction.

This book should be of interest to sci-fi lovers, film enthusiasts and is a must have for Satyajit Ray fans for being the bonanza that it is.

Review Copy received from Harper Collins India

This post is a part of A to Z Challenge and BlogchatterA2Z

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