WHAT IF HITLER won World War II? What if Gandhi had not been assassinated? What if the Incans had defeated the conquistadors? A hallowed sub-genre of Science Fiction is ‘alternate history’. Ask counter-factual questions and the answers become your story.
What if Satyajit Ray had made his magnum opus, The Alien, in 1967, predating Kubrick, Scott and Spielberg, and had ushered in the renaissance of Science Fiction? Just as Kubrick’s 2001; A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Ridley Scott’s Alien set the path for our imagined futures, Ray’s magnum opus would have perhaps set off a wave of humanistic, non-Western perspectives in the ‘literature of the imagination’.
Alas, we don’t live in that timeline and the only transmission from this possible past is Travails with the Alien, a book about this unmade film.
Satyajit Ray’s involvement in Science Fiction is painstakingly laid out in this book; as he enthusiastically writes in the opening essay, ‘to the true aficionado that sibilant and that fricative are the hiss and swish of the rocket that takes him to the farthest reaches of man’s fancy’.
Ray’s way of understanding the genre was to divide it into two hemispheres: the Poetic and the Prosaic, with HG Wells and Jules Verne flying the masts for these trends, respectively. His aim clearly was to write stories and create films where both would come together.
The seed of The Alien is Bonkubabur Bandhu, a short story Ray wrote in 1962 for his Sandesh magazine. As a short story, it is a perfectly formed gem about how a timorous school teacher in a mofussil district becomes the first human to meet an extra-terrestrial.
The design of the alien (production notes and Ray’s sketches are also reproduced in this book alongside the script) is innovative and prescient—the alien resembles the now common ‘Greys’, made famous by the X-Files—and its powers include generating what would be now called ‘crop circles’ and so on.
At the heart of the story of The Alien is what is known as the ‘First Contact’, the first meeting with an extra-terrestrial entity. This can devolve into an alien invasion like Independence Day or strive for a bridge of understanding, like in Arrival.There are plenty of cool cutting- edge ideas here. The ship is a living spaceship with a ‘poetic interior’, a far cry from the ultra-sleek spacecrafts of Kubrick. Reading the script, one can admire the Hollywood executive circa 1968 who approved it. The moon landing was still a year away at the time, Ridley Scott was making ad films and George Lucas a student at UCLA.
While reading this book, one is reminded of Ray’s supernova superstar status. Titans stride through the pages, and Ray is a colossus amongst colossi. The brochure for the small science- fiction club that Ray starts has a greeting from Walt Disney. Marlon Brando flies down to Calcutta just to see his films. The text is littered with sentences like ‘the first meeting with Sellers was at Ravi Shankar’s place’. Kubrick, a notoriously finicky persona, is content to chill with Ray during the shoot of 2001. Haskell Wexler, acclaimed cinematographer, writes saying that he would be ‘honoured to work for you on any film without pay’ and goes on to add that he will only work with ‘directors whose philosophy of life has meaning for me’. Arthur C Clarke helps out with script points and Bradbury writes swooning fan letters.
As it happened, many of Ray’s ideas were lifted and wound their way into Hollywood—most notably Spielberg’s ET—and Ray found himself in the odd position (when he got funding in the 1980s) of being accused of plagiarising his plagiarisers.
Pulp writer Michael Moorcock came up with the ‘multiverse’ theory. We float in an ocean of infinite universes. Everything that can happen has happened. Just not in our universe. So we can console ourselves that there is an adjacent reality where The Alien was made. Just not in ours.