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Tales from Development Hell: The Alien

By Ryan Fleming.

No. Not this alien. Not quite.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Too often in the West, success or impact in film is couched purely in terms of the American film industry based in Hollywood. Despite most nations having their own native film industry, many of them since the earliest days of film and some of them actually predating Hollywood. Such was the success of Satyajit Ray, whose films produced in his native India had earned major awards in Europe throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Ray was so well regarded that it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came knocking. However, the planned Indian-American co-produced and Ray directed science fiction film, The Alien, would never come to pass.

Ray’s first film was Pather Panchall (1955), adapted from Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhya’s 1929 Bengali bildungsroman of the same name. The film was made with a limited budget, amateur actors, and an inexperienced crew but was a box-office success and earned much praise. Ray had been influenced by Italian neorealism, as Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) had been amongst his original inspiration to become a filmmaker. It proved popular enough to warrant two sequels: Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959). Together, the three films form Ray’s Apu Trilogy and all three went on to critical acclaim globally. Ray parlayed his success into a series of well-received drama films during the 1960s, but from Charulata (1964) onwards, took a more experimental approach.

From 1965 onwards, Ray expanded his projects from just dramas to works in the fantasy, science fiction, and detective genres. This was not without precedent; Ray was also a writer of short stories and novels in the Bengali language.

Some lasting characters created by Ray include Feluda, a private investigator based out of Kolkata, first appearing in 1965; and Professor Shonku, also making a debut in 1965, a scientist inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger. Amongst his earlier works is Bankubabur Bandhu (Banku Babu’s Friend), first published in Sandesh magazine in 1962. It is this work on which The Alien was to have been based.

Professor Shonku at work.

Picture courtesy Satyajit Ray, from a sketch on Wikimedia Commons.

Examples of Bengali science fiction can be found going back to the 19th Century, some examples of which speculated on future developments and can retroactively be considered alternate history. Jagadananda Riy’s Shukra Bhraman (1892) speculated on interplanetary travel and alien creatures several years before HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897) was published.

Jagadish Chandra Bose is another early writer of Bengali science fiction who often receives the accolade as the father of the genre. The editor and writer Adrish Bardhan would coin the term “fictional science” to describe the burgeoning Bengali science fiction genre and did much to raise its profile in the post-colonial era.

Bardhan and Ray were both prominent writers of Bengali science fiction in the 1960s, though Bardhan ran his own magazine, Ashchorjo and then Fantastic, which also featured fantasy and horror; whereas Ray’s publications could be found in Sandesh, where he served as an editor. Both also brought science fiction from the West to their readers. Ray translated stories by both Ray Bradbury and Arthur C Clarke into Bengali. His stories were written with a young adult audience in mind, and Bankubabur Bandhu found great popularity amongst that audience during the 1960s.

The tale concerned a spaceship landing in a pond, where villagers begin worshipping it as a temple. From the craft, the alien, known as “Mr Ang”, established a connection with a young boy in the village through his dreams. The alien also plays several pranks on the village. It was during a meeting in London that Ray shared the story as the kernel of an idea for a science fiction film with Arthur C Clarke. Intrigued, Clarke put Ray in touch with a Sri Lanka-based producer named Mike Wilson. Ray and Wilson would pitch the film in Hollywood, where they attracted the attention of Columbia Pictures in co-producing the film.

The presence of the craft and associated goings on attracted the attention of three outsiders: an Indian businessman, a journalist from Kolkata, and an American engineer. Stars Marlon Brando and Peter Sellers were in talks to play the lead roles in the film. Ray described the eponymous visitor as resembling “a sickly human child”, with “large head, spindly limbs, a lean torso”.

The presence of two major stars, Hollywood financing, and the first film from a renowned director targeted in part at Western audiences could have made the film a success. This was the same time as science fiction films were becoming major successes for the first time with the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Planet of the Apes (1968). However, The Alien would never be made.

Often, the failure of a film to be made is due to trends, being the wrong film at the wrong time, or other factors beyond the ability of a single person to influence. Not so The Alien, where the failure to make it when intended with Ray directing can be laid almost entirely at the door of huckster producer Mike Wilson. Wilson had managed to have the script credited to “Mike Wilson and Satyajit Ray”; had copywrited it; and he even pocketed the fee for the script. Ray would never receive any compensation for the script, though Wilson at least was convinced to give up the copyright after Ray wrote to him requesting ownership of his own work.

Marlon Brando dropped out of the project and efforts were made to secure James Coburn as a replacement. However, between Wilson’s chicanery and the Hollywood culture in general, Ray’s enthusiasm for doing his first Hollywood film almost completely evaporated. He returned to India intending to pursue other opportunities. His first film upon his return was Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), a musical fantasy which would be amongst his most commercially successful. The script to The Alien remained in Hollywood, where Columbia would attempt to lure Ray back several times up to the 1980s. It was during that decade that The Alien would attract more controversy.

ET the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) was an immediate blockbuster upon its release. It surpassed Star Wars (1977) to become the highest-grossing film of all time. It actually returned that title to its director, whose Jaws (1975) was the previous record holder before the release of Star Wars. ET would eventually be surpassed itself in the title by Jurassic Park (1993), from its very own director: Stephen Spielberg. That film had begin life as a horror-themed sequel to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) titled Night Skies. Screenwriter Melissa Mathison would home in on the one friendly alien featured in the original script and its relationship with a child: ET was the result.

ET was originally developed for Columbia, which had distributed Close Encounters, but the studio saw limited commercial potential and the script was sold to Universal Studios. Those familiar with Ray’s script for The Alien noticed similarities, and it was Arthur C Clarke that first alerted Ray to ET’s existence. Ray would say that ET would not have been possible without his script being readily available in Hollywood, something that Spielberg has denied saying he was in high school when it was originally being developed. It actually arrived in Hollywood after Spielberg had graduated high school but whilst he was still trying to break into directing. Ray never pursued legal action, even going so far as to call Spielberg a talented director and praising his films.

The legacy of The Alien goes beyond similarities and potential plagiarism by ET, with at least two productions in India taking inspiration either from the unmade 1967 script or from Ray’s original 1962 short story. Koi... Mil Gaya (2003), written, directed, and produced by Rakesh Roshan would become the second highest grossing Indian film of its release year and would earn numerous rewards and have multiple follow-ups, being seen as a milestone of Hindi-language science fiction films. It bears a far closer resemblance to the unmade script for The Alien than it does ET. However, as with ET, no connection has been admitted.

The second, adapted by Ray’s son Sandip Ray, was the television film Bankubabur Bandhu (2006). This version adapts the original short story where the protagonist, and friend to the alien, is Banku Babu, a schoolteacher. This stands in contrast to the script for The Alien, as well as ET, which features a child in that role.

Banku Babu meets the alien, as conceived by Satyajit Ray from his original short story; that alien sure looks familiar. This predates ET.

Picture courtesy Satyajit Ray via Wikimedia Commons.

In The Alien, the child was named “Habu” – “dumb” in Bengali. In both Night Skies and the original reworked script ET and Me, the child protagonist was to be autistic. Comparisons would be even more stark had that aspect been retained. What if The Alien had gone into production in the late 1960s? Would there even be an ET to draw accusations?

Suppose Ray is able to make his entry into Hollywood with a less sleazy producer as his representative. Difficult, but not impossible, and The Alien is made as a co-production with Columbia Pictures, bilingual in Bengali and English, starring Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando, for a 1968 release. Satyajit Ray has made his entry into Hollywood filmmaking. Would it have been a successful one? As mentioned, 1968 was a landmark year for science fiction films, and The Alien might contrast nicely with both the cerebral, sterile 2001 and the dystopic adventure Planet of the Apes. It might suffer at the box office from being partly in a language other than English, but it would not be out of character for the studio to dub over all the Bengali in English for its US release.

Ray already had his fans in the US and especially Europe. Whether dubbed or retained in its original bilingual form, it will likely draw critical acclaim. This, however, will probably not lead to Ray relocating permanently from India, even without the shenanigans of Wilson, the culture in Hollywood might result in his retreating home as soon as he can. Perhaps a pattern might emerge, however, where Hollywood studios co-produce and finance films by Ray shot in India, said films likely being across an eclectic group of genres, similar to how Ray worked historically. Though if The Alien is successful, the US studios might press for more science fiction.

If The Alien even approaches the successes of 2001 and Planet of the Apes, then it might radically change the direction of American science fiction films. South Asian cultures were then very underrepresented in Hollywood films, and still perhaps are today. With The Alien, there would have been a major science fiction film set and filmed in India, featuring Indian actors. Even if dubbed, there would have been nothing of its kind seen in Hollywood before. There was nothing of its kind seen in Hollywood science fiction after The Alien went unmade. There came a point in science fiction films where Japan became the go-to look for futuristic settings. With The Alien, and potentially further Indian science fiction films that might find their way to the US, might looks steeped in South Asian cultures become common too?

The combination of Ray and science fiction would make The Alien a landmark film. Likely one whose popularity lasts for years, though it might have dipped as the years go on. Depending on which roles Sellers and Brando play, it is possible that at least one of them will be in brownface. This will no doubt be the subject of much controversy in subsequent years where The Alien made it into production. Despite this, it could go on to provide a gateway for Bengali science fiction, and more generally Indian culture, to many young Americans. Certainly, it would be notable enough for any studio to think twice about producing a film with too many similarities.

It cannot be said with certainty that ET was plagiarised from The Alien. ET’s own development from a mean-spirited horror film into a heartwarming family classic is well documented. That Columbia was involved in the development of both films perhaps does indicate that, whether consciously or not, there was some influence.

What would be present if The Alien had been released would be the knowledge that this idea had been done before. If it was unconscious influence, someone would notice the similarities to the earlier film; if it was conscious, would anyone be so brazen? Does The Alien getting made mean that, assuming Close Encounters still exists, we instead get Night Skies?

ET was perhaps the most significant film of Steven Spielberg’s career. Jaws might have put him on the map, but ET proved lightning could indeed strike twice when the same director became responsible for the highest grossing film of all time twice within the same decade. After its success, studios were willing to finance any script Spielberg would be even peripherally involved in: these included Back to the Future (1985), The Goonies (1985), An American Tail (1986), and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).

Spielberg’s own career as a director would likely be unharmed by the absence of ET, but film and popular culture in general from the 1980s onwards would be radically altered if he does not achieve the highest grossing film of all time again around the same time.

ET had other impact than just the career of Steven Spielberg. It was rushing out a video game adaptation for Christmas 1982 that precipitated the video game crash of 1983 and hobbled the young US video game industry, leaving a gap into which Nintendo and Sega later stepped. Not only would we not get one of the worst video games ever produced, we would also not get one of the worst films ever made in the shape of Mac and Me (1988). It was a shameless rip-off of ET that functioned largely as an elaborate advertisement for McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, it actually bore even more of a resemblance to The Alien than ET! As if we needed further reasons to know Mike Wilson was bad news, but there’s two.

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Ryan Fleming is the author of the SLP book Reid in Braid.


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