The Alien was supposed to have its roots in Bankubabur Bandhu (Banku Babu's Friend), a short story that Satyajit Ray had written for Sandesh, the Ray family magazine. The script revolved round a spaceship that landed in a pond in rural Bengal. The villagers began worshipping it as a temple risen from the depths of the earth.
The Alien established contact with a young village lad named Haba (Moron) through dreams and also played a number of pranks on the village community in course of its short stay on planet earth. The plot contained the ebullient presence of an Indian businessman, a journalist from Calcutta
and an American engineer. What perhaps differentiated The Alien from hitherto done sci-fi films was the portrayal of an intruder from outer space as a benign and playful being invested with magical powers and best capable of interacting with children. The Alien never got made in spite of the repeated efforts of Columbia, Ismail Merchant, Sellers' ex-agent and others.
Ordeals of The Alien
By Satyajit Ray
"Sellers is in Paris," said Mike Wilson, putting down the telephone. "They will get in touch with him and find out if he is interested.” ‘They' were Peter Sellers' agents in London, whom Mike had called up from my flat in Calcutta's Lake Temple Road within minutes of learning that I was thinking of approaching the British actor to play the part of an Indian businessman in my projected science fiction film, The Alien. While by no means a blockbuster in the Hollywood sense, the special effects in the film alone called for a budget which was high by Indian standards. If the money was to come from Hollywood, a big name or two in the cast would help, and Sellers was certainly in that category. Moreover, he was a fine, rangy actor, and he had already played an Indian in a Hollywood film, The Millionairess. If, as I suspected, he knew one kind of Indian accent, a vaguely South Indian one, I was sure that if he agreed to play in The Alien, he wouldn't mind making an effort to add a new and authentic one to his repertoire. The two LPs of his that I possessed held proof that he could do things with his voice and tongue which bordered on the miraculous.
Mike Wilson had come with credentials from the noted astronomer and science fiction writer Arthur Clarke. I had met Clarke in London the year before and described to him the germ of an idea I had for a sci-fi film. Clarke had found it promising. Back home in Colombo, he had talked about it with his friend Mike Wilson. Wilson too had settled in Colombo marrying a Sinhalese Christian of striking good looks. He had also elbowed his way into the film business, written, produced and directed James Banda, blithely transplanting the Fleming secret service agent in Sri Lanka, and rounded up virtually the entire European community in Colombo to play sinister bit roles in the film. Above all, Mike was a highly skilled professional skin diver with the legendary distinction of having stumbled upon a 17th Century Mughal galleon off the coast of Sri Lanka, and retrieved from the wreck a chest full of silver coins. When a man like this writes and tells you that he is ready to give his right arm to set up a co-production deal with you, you are inclined to take his word on trust.
But I had to write and tell Mr. Wilson that there was nothing on paper yet beyond a few jottings. Undaunted, he flew down to Calcutta, checked into a Sudder Street hotel and announced that he would stick around until I produced a treatment. I thought it prudent to tell him that writing being an intensely private pursuit with me, I discouraged company while working on a script. Mike ignored my stricture, "I shall sit by and make coffee for you when you need it, Maestro." Mike didn't make coffee, but sit by he did and, being a friend of Arthur C. Clarke kept tossing off ideas which slid off the pages of my script. By the end of a fortnight I had a treatment. Meanwhile word had come that Sellers was interested. Mike and I turned up in Paris in the April of 1967 and met Sellers in his hotel. "New Zealand?" asked Sellers as soon as Mike opened his mouth. Mike nodded, grinning. I was duly impressed. We sat and talked about sundry matters over lunch in the vast hotel dining room. Sellers knew no French but spoke "Franglais" which had the waiters in stitches. Half a dozen of them had thronged round our table, some with autograph albums. Inspector Clauseau had gone over big in Paris. "Do you know my work at all?" I found an occasion to inquire, not without some trepidation. "No," said Sellers. "But Jonathan Miller swears by you and his word is good enough for me." But it wasn't good enough for me. I asked Mike if he could somehow set up a screening of one of my films for Sellers when we were in Paris. Mike dialed London from Sellers' suite, and a print of Charulata arrived from the London distributors the next morning. We screened it in a mini viewing theatre the same day. As the film ended and the lights came up, a red-eyed Sellers turned to me and said: "Why do you need me? I'm not better than your actors, you know!" Of course Sellers knew why we needed him. He was just being modest. At any rate he heard the story, said he liked the part, and asked Mike to keep in touch with his agents. Soon after this, Mike and I parted. He had to see about the fate of James Banda in Sri Lanka while pursuing The Alien and I to sit at home and await word from him.
The next communication from Mike, a month later, was from Hollywood. It was a joyous carillon of a cable - Columbia will back The Alien. I was to be given free hand. Both Brando and Steve Mcqueen were keen to play the American engineer. Saul Bass will mastermind the special effects etc. etc. Sellers was in Hollywood too, playing an Indian in a comedy, and anxious to have a second session with me.
With the hum of the machinery in my ears, I arrived in Hollywood on June 1. Mike drove me into town from the airport in a hired Lincoln convertible and I found myself checking into the Chateau Marmont, an elegant, self-contained two-storied cottage with all mod cons, one of several which dotted the lawns of the Hotel Marmont where, as I learned later, Maurice Chevalier once maintained a permanent suite. "Don't worry, Maestro," said Mike, reading the signs of solicitude which I must have betrayed. "Columbia has made an advance against expenses. You can't afford anything but the best, you know, you made the Apu Trilogy!"
The first meeting with Sellers was at Ravi Shankar's place. The Indian part in the new comedy called for his going through the motion of playing the sitar and Sellers was anxious to get the fingering right. Ravi had promised to play after dinner. With simple Bengali dishes backed by superb North Indian contributions from Ravi Shankar's gifted accompanist, Alla Rakha, the dinner was an unqualified success. During the splendid recital that followed, Sellers sat cross-legged on the carpet, intently watchful, and simulated learned response by judicious interjections of wah-wahs.
On the way back I asked him what kind of an Indian he was playing in the new film. "It's a film about a chap who lands up in Hollywood to play a bit part in a North-West Frontier movie, and gets invited to a big Hollywood party by mistake. The film is called The Party.” "What's the Indian called?" I knew Sellers was partial to the name Bannerji. "Bakshi," said Sellers, and then made a noise like a snorting rhino. "What's that?" "First name," said Sellers, "H-R-U-N-D-I, Hrundi V. Bakshi. You must come and watch the shooting. Blake's a genius at improvising comic business. The other day we shot a hilarious scene where the chap gets swathed in a roll of toilet paper." I tried to sound casual as I mentioned that, unlike the starring roles he had been playing of late, in The Alien he would have to share the honours with three others - the Bengali journalist hero, the American engineer and the wordless elfin creature from outer space.
Sellers said that he didn't mind at all. "And I'll tell you one thing. I had an Indian astrologer tell me in London that I was going to work with an Indian director. So this is as much an act of volition as a decree of fate." On the strength of the one Pink Panther film I had seen, Blake Edwards hadn't struck me as a director of much comic talent. Sellers himself had appeared much less funny as Inspector Clauseau than, for instance, in the hilarious first episode of the seven-part De Sica film, Seven times, Woman. I mentioned how good he was in this film. "Did you?" Sellers sounded dubious. Then he shook his head, dismissing my judgment. "That De Sica," he grumbled, "insists on acting out everything. And then wants you to copy him. I was most unhappy." Sellers was obviously happy working under Blake Edwards. The day we went, they were shooting the key scene - the scene of the party. Between takes, Sellers kept snuggling to his newly married second wife, the Swedish Britt Eklund. Sellers had suffered a heart attack some months ago and Eklund saw to it that he did not overstrain himself. A dozen or so Hollywood movie types sat around a table and ate. They included an Amazonian blonde and a cowboy with a gun in holster. Sellers, the odd man out, sat next to the blonde on a stool so low that his chin muzzled the table cloth. I stood close enough during the take to catch Hrundi eyeing the blonde's cleavage while he adlibbed, "My friend Bannerrrji whom I met in Worrrli last February..." He also daubed butter on his thumb instead of the toast he held in his hand an inch away.
I know that most comedians are funny on the screen because they are given funny things to do and say by their directors, writers and gang men. Even Groucho never spoke his own lines. But Groucho had the skill to put over his lines with style; and the best of his writers, such as Perelman, knew precisely what would bring out the best in him. This is a convention of film comedy which one accepts and it does not belittle the achievement of a truly gifted comedian. His skill, like a musician's, is interpretative and one judges him on that level. But it is surely not right when a comedian with the caliber of Sellers cheerfully submits to the whims of a director who can think only in terms of belly-laughs, many of which were clearly not going to come off on the screen. Did Sellers not care enough? Or did he lack judgment? He was certainly superb in all the three parts he played in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove a couple of years ago.
Outwardly, at least, Sellers' enthusiasm for The Alien didn't wane during my stay in Hollywood, although the project didn't get off the ground. Columbia was truly keen, but why? I was asked by the young executive who was looking after the particular property. Did I need Mike Wilson? Who was he? How did I come to team up with him? I had been asking myself the same questions. I had found, upon arriving in Hollywood, mimeographed copies of my script piled up on a table in the room marked Office in the cottage where we stayed. They bore the surprising legend - Copyright: Mike Wilson and Satyajit Ray. I had questioned Mike and he had explained it was to make doubly sure that my interests were protected. "Two heads were better than one, Maestro". Beyond suggesting that I use the term broad instead of chick in the American dialogue, Mike had made no contribution to the screenplay I could think of.
Since no one walks in Los Angeles (you can be held up for vagrancy, if you do), there was plenty of time for me to sit alone in the cottage to wonder where all this bizarrerie was leading to. A party at Jennifer Jones' in the vast mansion once occupied by Greta Garbo and John Gilbert only the feeling of having strayed into a Carrollian wonderland. One met stars and actors of the 40s Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, William Wyler, King Vidor, that one scarcely believed existed in the flesh. And in the midst of all this, Mike vanishing from view and then suddenly materializing through a door on the far side of the party room, to drag me off whispering "Come and see the Johns in the John, Maestro," and sure enough, I found no less than six Augustus John drawings on the walls of one of the most spacious and elegant bathrooms I've ever seen.
I left Hollywood firmly convinced that The Alien was doomed. In fact, the snuffing out took longer than I expected. Shortly after my return to Calcutta, I got a letter from Sellers. It was in verse. Sellers had asked me in Hollywood if I knew the poetry of William McGongall. I had to confess I didn't. "What? You don't know the greatest bad verse writer of all time?" Sellers, it seemed, had regaled his audience with recitals of McGongall in his Goon Show days. Scottish by birth, this Poet and Tragedian, as he styled himself, flourished during the latter part of the 19th Century, wrote narrative poetry, had found a publisher, and built up a following. Sellers went to the length of procuring two of his books for me in Hollywood and ticking the verses he liked best.
A single quotation will suffice to give non-aficionados an idea of the kind of verse McGongall wrote.
The following concludes ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster': Oh: Ill fated Bridge of the Silv'ry / Tay I must now conclude my lay / By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay / That your central girders would not have given way / At least many sensible men do say / Had they been supported on each side by buttresses / At least many sensible men confesses / For the stronger we our house do build / The less chance we have of being killed.’
In London, at the Hilton, I usually kept to my room, but had to go and see Mike one evening in his suite two floors below mine. The scene that met my eye through the pall of smoke could have been a set piece out of Petronius. The carpet was strewn with bodies, male and female, and Subbulakshmi sang over the whir of a movie projector and the Bengali dialogue of what turned out to be a 16 mm print of my own film Devi, flicking fitfully on a bare wall on one side of the room, a son-et-lumiere to end all son-et-lumieres.
But I was more concerned about Mike sober than Mike high, because it was when he had his wits about him that he revealed some alarming new facets. He had never bugged phone calls before, but he did this time, every call which had to do with our project. And he started carrying a small cassette recorder in his briefcase which he turned on surreptitiously to record every scrap of conversation in the offices of Columbia. "They're a nasty lot here," he said to me as I questioned the ethics of the operation. "I'd like to see them go back on their word now." I had only one meeting with Columbia where Mike was not present. "Have you got the 10,000 dollar advance which Mr. Wilson received on your behalf for your screenplay?" they asked me. I said I wasn't even aware such an advance had been made. By now I had begun to feel a full-fledged Kafka hero. Mike was supposed to be associate producer, but there was as yet no agreement between us. He was anxious to make good the lacuna. On my way to the airport Mike had commissioned a Rolls with a built-in cocktail cabinet for the journey. A sheaf of papers were slapped down on my knee. "If you would just sign here, Maestro. I said "I'm sorry. I can't even read what I'm supposed to sign." Mike zipped out a pocket torch and flashed it on the top page of the bunch. "It's just to say you and I are partners." "I can't sign anything in a car, Mike," I said. "Not even in a Rolls Royce. Send the papers over to me in Calcutta."
I waited, but the papers didn't come. A production man from Columbia U.K. came down to Calcutta a few months later. He said Columbia would back the film if Mike could be persuaded to pull out. "Only you can do it,
Mr. Ray," said Nick Macdonald. "Write to him. Who knows, he may yet be persuaded to see reason." I wrote to Mike asking him to forgo his copyright on the screenplay so I could proceed on my own. Mike sent a sizzling reply calling me a thief and a slanderer. And no question of parting with the rights naturally. Peter wrote next. This time in prose. "I should tell you straightaway," he said, "though the part may appear more or less complete to you it does not seem to me and I don't see how I could contemplate playing it as it is." I had told Peter that the screenplay was a first draft and would be fleshed out though not to any great extent. All he had to do at this stage was to agree in principle, which he did. I wrote back: "Dear Peter, if you had wanted a bigger part, why, you should have told me right at the start, by disclosing it at this juncture You have surely punctured The Alien-balloon Which I daresay will now be grounded soon causing a great deal of dismay to Satyajit Ray." There was no answer from Peter. I had in the meantime seen The Party, and noted the nod (or was it a dig?) at Pather Panchali at the end of the film. "I'm sorry," says Bakshi to the girl who has taken a fancy to him and has asked him into her flat. "I'm sorry, but I must go back to my monkey." "Monkey!" "Yes. My pet monkey, Apu." For over a year there was no communication from anybody on The Alien and the project for me receded into the realms of the unattainable. Then unexpectedly came a brief note from Arthur Clarke. Mike had shaved his head and gone off to the jungle of South India to meditate. This was followed by a letter from the shaven-headed monk himself. He was relinquishing his rights to the screenplay, although obviously too close to sainthood to spell it out in mundane terms. This is the way he chose to put it. "Dear Ravana. You may keep Seetha. She is yours. Keep her, and make her and the world happy."
Ravi and Ravi Shankar
Satyajit Ray designed a storyboard on Ravi Shankar, the great sitar maestro and Ray's contemporary and friend, before he launched his filmmaking career. Ray first saw Ravi Shankar play the sitar in 1945, and an abiding, long-lasting friendship formed between the two. It is unclear what prompted Ray to make this storyboard.
Perhaps Ray wished to make a documentary on Shankar or visually capture Shankar playing a complete raga from beginning to end, or perhaps a film incorporating both.
Shankar is represented in the storyboard playing the Todi Raga, which is usually played in the late morning. It is noted for its great power, pathos and dignity. Although there are many ragas, some say thousands, they can be classified as six male ragas with six female counterparts known as raginis. The aesthetic, emotional, sensual and seasonal elements in the system of pairs of ragas and raginis greatly appealed to painters, who saw in it a potential feast for the eye. Ragamalas, miniature paintings inspired by such music, were popular in the 16th through 19th Centuries. Ray attempts to show the ragamalas that Shankar's recital of the Todi formed in the listener's imagination.
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