Satyajit Ray’s reputation in India is based on his world-renowned films (which have sadly not been watched widely in India) and his Feluda novels (that have a decent readership via the English translations). His short stories are relatively lesser known, though a few of them had been made into a television series (directed by his son) in the mid-1980s. It is, therefore, very interesting that one of those stories – Bonkubabur Bondhu – was one of the first short stories he wrote, featured a benign alien and was the origin of what could have been his first Hollywood film.
Travails With The Alien is an amazing book, in the sense that it is probably the only full-length book on a film that was never made. It is not a short journey that started with an idea/script and ended with a major studio backing out due to a shady wheeler-dealer who had slithered into the project in a somewhat unplanned manner. I mean, that’s probably the ‘tweet summary’ but the book covers a journey that was much longer, much deeper and much more magnificent.
The book – designed like an album – starts with Ray’s earliest writings on science fiction as a genre in both literature and cinema, traces his journey as a SF ‘addict’ (and goes into his correspondence with SF legends like Clarke and Bradbury) before reaching the short story and the script for the TV show episode.
The Alien – like the hero of a blockbuster film – makes an appearance about a third into the book in the form of a fairly detailed script that was pitched to and accepted by Columbia Pictures. The piece de resistance comes after this – Ray’s account of what happened, narrated with his brand of sardonic humour and amazing detail. For fans of classic Hollywood, the narrative would be delicious because it features some of the top stars of 1960s in bit parts and Ray exhibiting an almost copybook case of the ‘impostor syndrome’. Like any middle-class Bengali, he asks about hotel room rents and is not fully placated when he is told, “Maestro… you can’t afford anything but the best, you know, you made the Apu Trilogy!”
The book ends with two more tangential inspirations – two short stories by Ray’s father and Ray himself. The former could have been the starting point of Ray’s SF hero – Professor Shonku – and the latter a child-friendly tale of a helpful alien.
In between, there is this interesting theory about The Alien script being an inspiration to later-day films like Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind – told from the perspective of noted film journalist, Aseem Chhabra, who did an investigative story on the topic as a journalism student. This segment is very intriguing and – if not anything else – should inspire readers to watch Spielberg’s films once again and check out the similarities between his aliens and Ray’s!
In short, the book is a sumptuous treat for movie fans. It is a treasure trove of previously unpublished articles, letters, photographs, news clippings to boost the main content of the script of The Alien, Ray’s reminisces and the short stories (which have appeared in print earlier). The book's layout (by Pinaki De) needs a special mention because it is very rarely that you see such a diverse set of visuals accompanying an even wider range of text, fitting in with each other so beautifully.