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How E.T. came home: Satyajit Ray’s science fiction

Ray's science fiction was imbued with hope and humour, unlike the dystopia popular in the West

Satyajit Ray. Photo: Getty Images
Satyajit Ray. Photo: Getty Images

In his 1960s script for “The Alien", Satyajit Ray gave his planned science-fiction film a dramatic opening: As a spacecraft lands in a lotus pond in a West Bengal village, amid the night’s “deadly silence", limp lotus stalks straighten up and open their petals. Ray’s project remains unrealized, but parts of the treatment famously found their way into two of the world’s most loved sci-fi films—Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

The story of how and why Ray’s movie never saw the light of day is now recounted afresh in a new book, Travails With The Alien: The Film That Was Never Made And Other Adventures With Science Fiction. But there’s more to this book—a collection of essays, letters, drawings, articles, short stories and interviews—than the “Alien-E.T." controversy. Chiefly, it showcases Ray’s boundless passion for science and science fiction.

Spielberg is a sideshow. E.T. was an annoyance and a disappointment for Ray because he knew that after it he wouldn’t be able to make “The Alien", a project he had his heart set on. Ray was philosophical about it, choosing to talk instead of the limitless possibilities of science fiction as a film genre.

Ray’s fascination for science fiction began with his father Sukumar Ray’s The Diary Of Prof. Heshoram Hoshiar (there’s a translation in Travails With The Alien), which was a parody of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, a tale of some phenomenally absurd and comical creatures thumping around remotes parts of the world (such as, “The Karakoram. Ten miles north of the Bandakush Range.")

Satyajit Ray’s first children’s short story, published in 1961, was modelled on Heshoram. Byomjatrir Diary, or The Astronaut’s Diary, is a delightful (and very funny) story that introduces Prof. Shonku, but it’s also an account of the scientist-adventurer’s last adventure. For some reason, this story doesn’t find a place in this volume, a baffling omission. Many more Shonku adventures followed, delighting young Indian readers as Ray fell in love with science fiction, reading up journals, science books and the sci-fi of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, John Wyndham and Theodore Sturgeon.

Running through his short stories, interviews, and even the script of “The Alien’s", there is a quality of human-ness about how Ray viewed science and imagined science fiction. His sci-fi always centred on people—characters all of us will recognize—and was located in familiar surroundings.

In the 1962 short story, Bonku Babu’s Friend, for instance, the timid village schoolteacher with a fascination for geography stumbles upon the extraterrestrial in Poncha Ghosh’s bamboo grove, minutes after being lectured by bullying neighbours that if indeed an alien were to visit Earth, it would land in a Western country—decidedly not in Kankurgachhi, their village.

Everything about Ray’s sci-fi is a reminder of familiar sights and sounds, and laced with humour. How come the crickets aren’t chirping tonight, Bonku Babu wonders as he approaches the pink glow emanating from, well, Poncha Ghosh’s bamboo grove. Even his aliens look like humans.

Sketches from ‘The Alien’.

In the second short story of this book, The Maths Teacher, + Mr Pink And Tipu, the only unusual thing about the physical appearance of the visitor from outer space (Pink Man) is that he has two tongues and no teeth. He also likes to leap over 10ft-tall trees. Other than that, he looks a bit like Tintin the boy reporter in Ray’s illustration.

Ray’s fascination with science led him to launch the science-fiction cine club, “for devotees of science fiction and fantasy films", in Kolkata in 1966, and to actively involve himself with the Bengali science-fiction magazine Ashchorjo as its chief patron. He scoured the pavements of his city for issues of Science Digest, was friends with Clarke, and corresponded with Bradbury.

When it came to his own works, Ray’s science fiction was rooted at home, in the commonplace—not for him Bradbury’s bleak portrait of the last human stranded on colonized Mars (and the phone goes off). Indeed, perhaps because it had its origins in short stories written for children, Ray’s science fiction (except for a short story for adults called Sabuj Manush, or The Green Man) is easy-going, without a hint of the dystopia that characterized much of science fiction and cinema in the West. Stanley Kubrick’s AI-endowed evil computer HAL threatens to take over in 2001: A Space Odyssey, whereas Bidhushekhar, Prof. Shonku’s robot on the space journey, is jovial, helpful and rather overawed by the sight of planets.

Yet, the plot of “The Alien", while simple, throws up questions about science, business, ethics and religion. Science and scientists are never the villains in Ray’s imagination. He viewed and studied science as a friend. In E.T., by contrast, every scientist (but one) is a heartless man, bent upon abducting a friendly alien from children.

Ray doesn’t demonize science. Without the scientific training of an Asimov or Clarke, he harnesses his formidable powers of imagination and storytelling. “Human imagination is unbound," he says in an All India Radio interview, “and although the science lags behind, it gradually tries to catch up if there is the slightest technological possibility with it, and one day it becomes a reality."

Powered by his imagination, Ray’s “Alien" is all about the limitless possibilities of science, courtesy a visitor from outer space whom Ray describes as “supremely intelligent, endowed with super powers, but puckish in its ways". In the 1960s, it would have been sci-fi we had yet to see on the big screen. But, then, along came E.T., with its sci-fi of small- town America.

Since then, science fiction has mostly returned to its darkly imagined humourless future. But there’s no reason Ray’s compassionate imagination cannot make a comeback in science fiction movies. Someone reasonably tuned in to his sensibility—Ray admired Mira Nair, so why not her—should dust off this script, develop it and make it into a film. It will glow and flicker like E.T.’s spindly healing finger, rotting wheat fields suddenly blooming with the resplendent promise of an end to hunger, so appropriate in these dark times of anti-science.

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