The Best Movie on Extraterrestrials Was Nearly an Indian's Oeuvre

Columbia Pictures was deeply interested in the script, and is believed to have even roped in actors like Peter Sellers, Marlon Brando and Steven McQueen. In 1968, Peter Sellers backed out citing a lack of a meaty role; Brando and McQueen followed suit.

The Best Movie on Extraterrestrials Was Nearly an  Indian's Oeuvre

Stanley Kubrick did not think of Arthur C. Clarke as his ideal collaborator; Arthur C Clarke thought of Kubrick as 'enfant terrible'. However, when Columbia Pictures prevailed over Kubrick to send feelers to the renowned author, whom the auteur considered 'a recluse, a nut who lives in a tree', Clarke replied in the positive.

In 1964, the duo met to discuss the possibility of making a science-fiction cinema. Clarke furnished his famed short story The Sentinel, along with a clutch of other gems. Their chemistry clicked and they set about writing a novel to precede the screenplay of their magnum opus, which was to display the credits in this order:

"Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke, based on a novel by Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick".

India's very own

The novel, however, released a month after the cinematic marvel known to us as 2001: A Space Odyssey. The novel 2001 has since achieved a cult status. That was in 1968, a year before the first man landed on moon. But, this is not the story of Kubrick or Clarke. This is the story of an Indian director, whose short story nearly became India's first sci-fiction cinema. Nearly...

The contact

2001: A Space Odyssey is considered a landmark, an epoch-defining work of art that inspired a generation of filmmakers to touch upon the mystery surrounding the question that every individual must have at sometime asked themselves: Are we alone? Even as Clarke and Kubrick were giving words to their thoughts, sometime around 1966, an Indian director met Clarke in London. Now, Clarke was one of the 'Big3' in sci-fiction, the others being Issac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. This Indian director was a sci-fiction writer in his own right, having created a fictional scientist for his audience.

The Indian director had started corresponding with Clarke in 1964, when he had written to the writer seeking his wishes for a cine science club he was planning to start. During the course of this discussion, the Indian director outlined a story on the visit of an extraterrestrial spacecraft to India, and broke the mundane convention that depicted the aliens as malignant. The Indian director's alien was friendly. The discussion ended with the Indian director leaving the renowned writer impressed.

Underwater ruins of Koneswaram Temple discovered

Clarke had made Sri Lanka his home. That is why Kubrick thought he was a recluse living up a tree. Well, not exactly. Clarke carried with him the vestiges of the debilitating polio that afflicted him at a young age, and gave vent to the scuba diver in him in Sri Lanka. During one such diving session in 1956, Clarke and his friend Mike Wilson discovered the underwater ruins of the original Koneswaram Temple in the Trincomalee district of the Island Nation.

James Bond or Banda?

After the London meeting, Clarke told his friend Wilson about the story outline given by the Indian director. Wilson is credited with having produced the first Sri Lankan colour cinema and also with having adapted James Bond to the Lankan milieu as James Banda. Wilson jumped at the idea of a sci-fiction from the subcontinent and immediately established contact with the Indian director and landed at the director's doorsteps to help him pen the script, which was titled The Alien.

Once the script was ready, Wilson took the Indian director to Hollywood to clinch a deal with Columbia Pictures. The production house is touted to have released a sum of $10,000, which the Indian director never saw, and is believed to have been appropriated by Wilson. Now, Wilson also managed to get his name added to the script as a co-author. The year was 1967.

Columbia Pictures interested

Columbia Pictures was deeply interested in the script, and is believed to have even roped in actors like Peter Sellers, Marlon Brando and Steven McQueen. In 1968, Peter Sellers backed out citing a lack of a meaty role; Brando and McQueen followed suit. The dejected Indian director returned home. However, Columbia Pictures remained hopeful, subject to one condition: Mike Wilson had to be jettisoned. The Indian director turned to one person who could help: Arthur C Clarke. He wrote to Clarke explaining the situation and sought his help to get Wilson out. However, Clarke replied saying the Wilson had gone to south India after accepting a monastic order.

In 1969, the Indian writer received a letter from one Swami Siva Kalki stating:

Dear Ravana. You may keep Seetha. She is yours. Keep her, and make her and the world happy...

This Swami was none other than Mike Wilson; Ravana was purportedly the Indian director keeping Seetha - the script - captive. While the Indian director had by now given up on the Hollywood project, Columbia Pictures had not.

An article or the article?

In 1982, Richard Attenborough's Gandhi took the world stage by storm. Ben Kingsley's performance as the eponymous character was well received. But it was being given a run for its money at the Academy Awards by the Steven Spielberg-directed Extra Terrestrial or ET as it is known popularly. But, ET won awards only in the technical categories, probably owing to an article penned by a journalism student of Columbia University. The then journalism student is currently a renowned cinema journalist: Assem Chabra.

Chabra got the cue for his article after reading an article in the India Today magazine, where the Indian director had given an interview and famously said:

...neither E.T. nor Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind “would have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies.”

During the course of his writing, Chabra contacted the Indian director over phone to hear this anguished reply:

“What Spielberg has done is ruin my chance of making the film, because then people will say it came from Spielberg."

Ray of brilliance

In 1962, a Bengali magazine named Sandesh published a short story titled Bankubabur Bandhu. The story is of an alien spacecraft landing in a nondescript Bengali village, where the extraterrestrial befriends a simpleton. This story formed the base of the script that was developed for the Hollywood project The Alien. The Indian director planning the ill-fated Hollywood project was also the short story's writer: Satyajit Ray.

However, Steven Spielberg denied the claims. He once called on Clarke in Sri Lanka and said:

“Tell Satyajit that I was a kid in high school  when his script was circulating in Hollywood.”

But, a later investigation by the magazine Star Weekend Magazine revealed that Spielberg graduated from Saratoga High School in 1965. He worked as an unpaid intern at Universal Studios in 1968, just about the time when the copies of The Alien were available throughout America in mimeographed copies. Moreover, Clarke had told Chabra in 1982:

“I told Satyajit that he  should write politely to Spielberg and say, ‘Look — there are a lot of  similarities here,’ but don’t make any charges or threats.”

It has been 38 years since the controversy broke out, but one cannot deny that Spielberg did a good job. However, Satyajit Ray's body of work and attention to detail leaves one wondering, what if...

Satyajit Ray, however, harboured no ill-will against Spielberg, and he even admonished Chabra for writing a piece that brought him a repute that he did not deserve. Such gentleness is bound to make friends out of even hardcore enemies, and Spielberg was only a fellow artist. Maybe, this was the reason why Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Merchant-Ivory campaigned hard to get Ray his rightful due in the form of honorary Oscar in 1992.