Michelangelo Antonioni made movies in Hollywood. He made Zabriskie Point and he made Professional Reporter. Akira Kurosawa made a Hollywood movie too. Dreams. English was not their language. And yet they made at least one movie in Hollywood. This is not an odd case. There have been many international pioneers who have spelt their name on American celluloid.
English is our language in India. We have the second largest film industry after Hollywood, and we match each other in form, style and content. And India has produced several great directors over time, directors who have met with great international acclaim in film festivals around the world.
Has Hollywood then never reached out to an Indian director in which case?
There is a story before that. Satyajit Ray had made the renowned science-fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke in London and during their conversations, Ray spoke to him about an idea he had slowly started to develop, for a film on “aliens”. Ray knew that the special effects, to be believable, would require a higher budget than what was usually accounted for in an Indian movie. He knew he would need Hollywood’s money to make this movie. He shared his concerns with Mr. Clarke.
Back in Calcutta, Ray received a phone call from a certain Mr. Mike Wilson. He was Arthur C. Clarke’s friend from Colombo, a small time film maker, writer and producer. He had the connections in Hollywood and he had heard from Mr. Clarke about Ray’s Alien film. Though Ray tried to keep him at bay, irrespective of his connections, Mr. Wilson flew down to Calcutta and landed up at Satyajit Ray’s house.
Several discussions were had, several screenplay options were noted, ideas were floated, and finally, a rough treatment was made ready. Ray realized that if the money for making this movie was to come from Hollywood, then the presence of a few Hollywood actors would definitely boost the reach of his audiences.
Mike Wilson promised to get back. And in 1967, get back he did. Columbia Pictures had agreed to back the movie. The legend, Saul Bass, would be involved in the graphic design of the movie, and actors like Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando were interested to play parts in the movie.
It was perhaps the greatest coupe ever in film making history. Ray’s movies were already well-known, his stories for children claimed as the highest examples of limitless imagination.
But Satyajit Ray had made up his mind. He wanted Peter Sellers to play the role of an Indian businessman in the movie. Peter Sellers was contacted, so that he could learn more of Ray’s works, in Sellers’ Paris hotel room, a screening of Charulatawas arranged. Sellers loved the film, he loved his part, he agreed to act.
Mike Wilson then got Satyajit Ray over to Hollywood. What seemed ostensibly to be more of a white man’s burden syndrome, Ray was subjected to the lap of luxuries. Mike Wilson paraded him around like a celebrity, he showcased Ray to the almost the whole of Hollywood like the genius who had arrived to save Hollywood from its mires. Everything was paid for by Columbia. They were showing generous advances towards the making of Satyajit Ray’s Aliens. Satyajit Ray had reason to be happy. Even though Mike Wilson had managed to get half a copyright on the project for himself, Ray still had reason to celebrate.
Ray returned to India once again, to a rather fascinating letter from Peter Sellers. Sellers had watched Ray’s pioneering film, Pather Panchali. Believing his faith in the power of cinema to be reaffirmed, Peter Sellers wrote in his famous “Bad Verse” avatar:In the year of 1967 and in the month of December An auspicious month coming as it does at the end of the year And not the slightest alike to November Is a month that I will long remember. I received one day From Satyajit Ray Information I required without delay So that I could say to my friends the evening of that day The film you are about to see Is the film of a Trilogy And is called Pather Panchali In which there is a scene of two children in a field of barley Watching a train go by Under an azure sky So beautiful you want to die.
Ray was satisfied. Who wouldn’t be? And then the call came from Mr. Wilson again, stating that Columbia US had transferred the film rights to Columbia UK. Ray wasn’t bothered by that. But when he landed at London, and started to see Mike Wilson slowly start to take over the entire project, he started to caste his aspersions on the entire project. And in a meeting with the Columbia team, Ray was asked if he had received the ten thousand pound advance made to him in the hands of Mr. Wilson. Ray had heard of nothing of the kind.
On his way back to the airport that trip, Ray recounts how Mr. Wilson had hired a Rolls Royce and inside, he had asked Ray to sign some papers. Ray refused, now that Mr. Wilson’s inner motivations were slowly coming to the fore. Ray asked for the papers to be sent to him in Calcutta.
The papers never reached. Ray explained that a man from Columbia UK arrived in Calcutta a few days later and explained, “We will back the film to the very end, only on one condition. Mike Wilson needs to be out of it.” Mike would hear nothing of it. He instead accused Satyajit Ray of having thieved on his idea. There was no question of returning the copyright.
And in the swing of it all, Peter Sellers wrote to Ray, declaring that he was not entirely satisfied with his part in the movie, Aliens. He wanted to rid himself of the project. Ray was certain that there were other motivations at work here. Therefore, Ray picked his pen and wrote to Sellers:“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.”
No reply ever reached Satyajit Ray. No reply was expected. Though Ray continued to believe that Peter Sellers’ mention of his pet monkey, Apu, at the end of Blake Edwards’ The Party, where too he played an Indian could have been a dig at the expense of Satyajit Ray and Pather Panchali.
The Alien never took off. The following is an excerpt by Ray’s long time still photographer, Hirak Sen, explaining the root premise of the Alien movie:
“The Alien was supposed to have its roots in “Bankubabu’s Bandhu” (Banku Babu’s Friend, 1967), the first short story that Ray had written. 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) though dreams and also played a number of pranks with the village community in course of its short stay on planet Earth. The plot contained the ebullient presences 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 repeated efforts by Columbia, Ismail Merchant, Seller’s ex-agent and others. Apparently, mimeographed copies of The Alien were available throughout America and Ray lost interest as films with similar plots, characterization and visuals were released in the early eighties. However, none of these productions has never acknowledged its debt.”
Satyajit Ray made some character sketches as to what his Alien should look like. Deja vu, anyone?