Satyajit Ray Vs Steven Spielberg - Whose Idea Was ET, Anyway?

Satyajit Ray Vs Steven Spielberg - Whose Idea Was ET, Anyway?

Stirring up old conflict is seldom a bright idea. Especially when being in a state of conflict feels permanent, as it does, these days. So when an article that started out as an innocent enough portrayal of Satyajit Ray’s influence on Wes Anderson turned into a monumental trans-continental film conspiracy, nobody was more taken aback than I was. Still, there it was clear as day, the recurring theme that kept popping up during my research of Ray’s influence on western directors–allegations that Steven Spielberg’s science fiction period piece, ET, was in fact Ray’s brainchild. Ordinarily, I may have ignored this pattern of discourse, yet the sheer number of influential people in the cinematic world that had entertained serious questions on the subject, including the venerable Martin Scorsese, intrigued me.

I knew Ray was more than just a sci-fi enthusiast, having frequently contributed to the genre through his writing and sketches. However, I initially found it difficult to wrap my head around the idea of Ray coming up with a film script that could have strongly influenced the Hollywood film. Let alone one that seemed so ‘American’ at its core.

As a fan Ray’s I was surprised that I had never heard of this supposed scandal before. My mind started to conjure up images of a ninja arsenal of Colombia Pictures’ lawyers shooting poison darts from rolled up lawsuits at any writer who dared break the story on how Ray was robbed of his blockbuster from Bengal by Hollywood hacks. To my disappointment, this was not the case.

In truth, this story and the conversation surrounding is unknown to many for it has been mired in unresolved conflict ever since ET hit the screens on June 10, 1982. Ray died without making the science fiction movie he always dreamt of, and hearsay suggests Spielberg is still sour that one of his best films is considered by some to be plagiarism.

By the piecing together of information available to the public domain it appears, in Scorsese’s words, ‘dirty politics’ were a factor in this story; however, whether or not that allegation applies to Spielberg remains to be seen. But I digress. To get the full picture of this predicament, it is imperative to start with Ray’s love affair with science fiction.

A Lifelong Love Affair

Primarily known as a highbrow filmmaker, the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, and Wes Anderson all claiming to be serious fans, Ray’s writing (and illustrations/ graphic design) occupies less space in popular imagination. Nevertheless, much like his father and grandfather before him, Ray honed his skills as a wordsmith. In addition to his popular detective series, fronted by his popular sleuth character Feluda, he also wrote numerous sci-fi stories for Sandesh, a Bengali children’s magazine started by his own grandfather.

Most of the stories came under the banner of the Professor Shonku series, which Ray had begun to work on in the early sixties. The first Shonku story, ‘Byomjatrir Diary’ (The Diary of an Astronaut), was published in 1965 as part of a collection of children’s science fiction.

Ray’s eccentric sci-fi protagonist represented a preternatural understanding of how to package sci-fi for young readers and adults alike. Professor Shonku and his 24-year-old cat Newton spent their days on adventures everywhere from Hitler’s Germany to Mars, as well as occasionally saving the universe. Think a somewhat anthropomorphic Rick & Morty set in ‘60s India.

Just a quick glimpse into the series shows Ray was more than capable of fathoming page-turning space fiction with wacky inventions, like, a snuff gun that makes victims sneeze uncontrollably for 35 hours or an Ornithon machine that teaches crows lessons. The intent behind his work is much like the intent behind ET, for Ray loved to use sci-fi as a medium of entertainment that included both adults and children.

Clarke, The Catalyst

Arthur C Clarke, a legendary British Sci Fi writer, first met Ray in 1966 on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in London. Ray desired to bend Clarke’s ear regarding advice on the establishment of a science fiction film club in Calcutta; yet soon the conversation turned to a Sci-Fi story that had long been brewing in Ray’s ever-busy mind.

What Ray laid out was based on Bankubabur Bandhu (Banku Babu’s Friend), a short sci-fi story he wrote in 1962 about an alien who lands next to a small village in Bengal. The crux of the story, which Ray was keen on earning Clarke’s approval over, was that the alien was an approachable and amicable creature that establishes a close bond with an affable villager, Banku Babu. Although the concept of a friendly alien does not appear to be too revolutionary an intention in the 21st century, during the sixties pretty much all cinematic and written encounters involving the third kind girdled a fear-mongering hostility towards the notion of alien lifeforms interacting with humans. In short, Ray may have very well been the pioneer of the amiable alien.

Clarke expressed appreciation over Ray’s narrative, but for the time being he left the conversation there.

Welcome Wilson The Wily

Ray toyed with the story throughout the rest of 1966 as a sort of passion project. However, towards the end of the year a phone call caused Ray to shift gears and treat the story as a serious creative endeavour. Clarke, who lived in Sri Lanka at the time, couldn’t get the concept of Ray’s sci-fi project out of his head, and opened up to his friend Michael G. Wilson about the idea of projecting Ray’s storyline on the big screen. Wilson, an American director and screenwriter, was in the process of making Sri Lanka’s first colour film (James Banda) at the time.

Wilson was easily convinced, and was so eager he soon gave Ray a call and expressed his interest in churning the science fiction story into a Hollywood blockbuster. Ray replied he had no issue with the picture being in English, however, he was firm in negotiating the film would also be recorded in Hindi and Bengali, as well as being shot in Bengal. He knew even the best Hollywood sets couldn’t capture the beauty of the land he called home. Moreover, Ray made sure that Wilson was aware that no script currently existed, and that he would have to put pen to paper if they wanted this potential film to have a life on the screen.

Wilson’s reply did more than waver on the weird. The over enthusiastic, and slightly presumptuous director flew to Calcutta uninvited. Like many writers, Ray abhorred the idea of being hovered over while at work, especially by an overly familiar man he had never made the acquaintance of before. To top the predicament off, Ray’s wife’s (Bijoya Ray) describes Wilson as being an alcoholic and drug addict in her biographyManik and I: My Life with Satyajit Ray.

Nonetheless, the script was finished despite external adversity, and Wilson cabled it off to Hollywood. It was time to see if Ray’s story, now titled ‘The Alien’, would make the cut.

Hollywood Heaven And Hell

1967 was a roller coaster for Ray. He received a cable saying that Colombia Pictures would back his film. In addition, Peter Sellers, fresh of the monumental movie Pink Panther, sent word that he wanted to work with Ray on this project. On top of that, the legends Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen both wanted to play the role of an American businessman on assignment in Bengal. If this wasn’t enough of Hollywood’s desperation to be a part of the film, Saul Bass expressed interest in conducting the graphics and design. Ray was also a graphic designer, and the idea of working with Saul Bass, every Hollywood directors’ deepest desire at that time, may have excited him more than the prospect of working with Sellers, Brando, or McQueen.

With purpose pushing against his chest, Ray hastily booked a flight to Hollywood to follow up with Sellers as well as link up with studio bigwigs. Little did he know he would soon return as deflated as a balloon that had decided to tango with a sharp needle.

The warnings first came from his dear friend Marie Seton, a British actress, who urged Ray not to trust Wilson. Soon after Colombia Pictures also put forward the question, “Why do we need Wilson?”

Yet verbal warnings rarely bear the same weight as physical ones, which in this case came in the form of a stack of Hollywood scripts reading ‘The Alien’, ‘Copyright Mike Wilson and Satyajit Ray’. Aside from distracting Ray, the only effect Wilson had on the script was insisting the alien’s spaceship was golden, and that Ray replace the word ‘chick’ instead of ‘broad’ in the English dialogue. Moreover, Wilson had already begun to bug talks with studio heads as well as increase his intake of substances, which put a damper on negotiations.

Not even all the parties in Beverly Hills could ease the growing nausea and sense of defeat building up in Ray. He soon left Wilson to flit around town solo, as he embarked on a plane back to India, bitterly disappointed and doubting the prospect of his major motion picture ever being made. The worst was yet to come though. As Ray journeyed back to India, mimeographed copies of his script travelled around Hollywood.

Source: Factor Daily

Slandering Satyajit

Although Ray pivoted to another project back in Bengal, an executive from Columbia Pictures came to Calcutta to assure Ray his movie would be made if Wilson was cut from the project. Upon the executive’s behest Ray wrote to Wilson, asking him to relinquish his legal ties to the movie. In response, Wilson decided to stoop lower than the previously low-lying bar he had set. He called Ray a thief, among other things, and refused to give up the rights to a film that he had secretly stolen.

And that was not the only sucker punch Ray had to endure. A letter from Sellers arrived stating he no longer wished to participate in The Alien. Ray, who maintained a humorous outlook even when severely depressed, wrote Sellers in verse according to The Daily Factor:

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.

In 1969, a letter arrived from ‘Swami Siva Kalki’. Wilson had replaced his strong affinity for nefarious substances for spiritual fervour, taking on his new name somewhere in a South Indian jungle. In a spur of what Wilson may have presumed to be enlightenment, he wrote, “Dear Ravana. You may keep Seetha. She is yours. Keep her, and make her and the world happy.” Yet Ray’s patience had waned thinner than a crescent moon, driving him to ignore the man requesting him to take back what he had already purloined.

Spielberg’s Story Leaks Similarities

Thirteen years later, in 1982, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial hit the screens.

Aseem Chhabra was one of, if not the first, writers to break this story 35 years ago. He was a student at Columbia University’s journalism school at the time, and got approval from his professors to pursue the story on the basis of strong similarities between sketches of aliens that Chhabra witnessed in Marie Seton’s book, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, and the aliens he had seen on screen during Spielberg’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind in 1977. Although the reasoning that the appearance of the aliens in a film Spielberg made a few years ago were akin to Ray’s old sketches may have seemed like a shot in the dark, Chhabra’s hunch eventually led him to some concrete criticism.

Through Chhabra’s strong presentiment that ET manifested even more of Ray’s vision along with a relentless persistence and cunningness that runs deep in good writers, he managed to get hold of a copy of Ray’s ‘The Alien’ script. The similarities seeped to the surface for Chhabra who recently broached the topic again in an article for The Hindu, writing, “Ray’s alien was introduced to us for the first time as we noticed his slow-moving three-fingered hand, similar to E.T.’s slow-moving four-fingered hand. Ray’s alien had healing powers, just like E.T. And both the aliens could make plants bloom.”

The benign nature of the creature whose pacifist powers resemble more of a Forest God, rather than the then-typical portrayals of ferocious aliens, is an important similarity to take note of.

As Bijoya, Ray’s wife, explained in her biography, “Until now, all the films and stories dealing with aliens portrayed them as evil beings whose sole purpose in coming to Earth was to hurt it. But in this story, for the first time, an alien arrives on our planet, to help the world, and not hurt it.” Even Ray pointed out, “…the benign nature of the creature, and the fact that it is small and acceptable to children and possessed of certain superhuman powers – not physical strength….and that it takes interest in earthly things,” represented a unique disposition of his fictional alien.

Yet Wilson’s blunder of distributing mimeographed copies across Hollywood made the script widely accessible to people across the Hollywood film industry, with Ray estimating that, “there were hundreds of them (in circulation).” This meant his conception of the cordial extra terrestrial was no longer a novel notion.

What is even more intriguing is that Columbia, the same studio that wanted to back ‘The Alien,’ received refusal rights for ET, which they passed on. However, they retained 5 % of the profits, which according to TCM made “a film produced by Universal, Columbia’s most profitable film of the year.”

Colombia received first refusal rights because one of their screenwriters, John Sayles, had produced a script titled Night Skies that featured a benevolent alien angle similar to the one Spielberg wanted to pursue. However, Sayles’ storyline revolved “around malevolent aliens who terrorize a farmhouse.” All the aliens in the screenplay were murderers except for one friendly alien that becomes marooned on earth in the script’s last scene. This connection to ET is far more loose than the closeness found in Ray’s ‘The Alien’, yet due diligence was taken as a precaution for Night Skies and not ‘The Alien’.

So Colombia passed on the film, but banked a huge amount of money. This could be a coincidence, yet having Universal produce the film also meant Colombia were in the clear to profit highly without the liability of Ray possibly threatening legal action. Also, Wilson took a USD 10,000 advance from Colombia under Ray’s name in the 1960s for a movie that was never made. It may be possible that the studio held onto that grudge. Nevertheless, all the ‘maybes’ in the world, no matter how convincing they are, add up to a big steamy pile of speculation.

What cannot be tossed into the ‘idle chatter’ drawer is the fact that Spielberg denied any possibility of being able to get hold of a copy of the script of The Alien, claiming he was a high school student at the time. This false statement still haunts Spielberg’s narrative of innocence.

Star Weekend Magazine looked up records and dates that refute Spielberg’s statement. He graduated from Saratoga High School in 1965 and joined Universal Studios in 1968 as an unpaid intern, the same time copies of The Alien were available around Hollywood.

Moreover, in 1969, Spielberg climbed the ladder and became one of the youngest directors ever to be signed up with a major Hollywood studio, like Universal, giving him even more access to scripts. Spielberg could have gotten confused and messed up the years, yet it seems strange he would forget the formative time period where he established himself as a force in Hollywood.

A point brought up by other sources, which is merely conjecture, is that ET, a box office legend, was not made into a sequel like other rave review Spielberg movies, such as, Back to the Future, which Spielberg produced, and Jurassic Park, which Spielberg directed. ET’s box office results grossed more than Back to the Future or Jurassic Park, despite being made before the two other major hits. America’s gargantuan film industry is not known for looking a gift horse in the mouth, however, for some reason unknown to the public, Spielberg or Universal decided not to further capitalize on ET. Perhaps it was because the negative publicity the movie received from Chabbra’s article on the similarities between Ray’s script and Spielberg’s final product, for it made nation-wide news. The Los Angeles times, in particular, reportedly ran with the story three times.

What isn’t conjecture is that Spielberg and his studio, DreamWorks, have been accused of plagiarism on several occasions, which includes movies like Amistad, Chicken Run, Twister, and What Lies Beneath, among others. However, Spielberg’s tactics are often to settle out of court or have an army of lawyers counter sue, so technically, he has never openly admitted to plagiarism.

ET is a very personal film according to Spielberg. “E.T. was about the divorce of my parents, how I felt after my parents broke up,” Spielberg once admitted. “[It was] the first movie I ever made for myself.”

He further recalls the idea behind the film was borne from a feeling, “like when you were a kid and had grown out of dolls or teddy bears.” He continued, “You just wanted a little voice in your mind to talk to. I began concocting this imaginary creature, partially from the guys who stepped out of the Mother Ship for ninety seconds in Close Encounters [1977].”

Although legal action never took place and Ray was humble enough to maintain Spielberg was “a good director that made good films,” he also openly challenged the authenticity of the film. Given how deeply personal ET was as a film for Spielberg it seems strange that in 1992 he would be one of the strongest advocates for Ray’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Despite the open conflict regarding their film-based feud, Spielberg helped the man who refuted the originality of arguably his most successful film receive an honor he dearly yearned for. Maybe Spielberg has a big heart or maybe he felt guilty, however, circumstances point to another possibility.

Given that Scorsese also was one of the influencers that recommended Ray for the award, and Scorsese admitted ET was influenced by The Alien, natural intuition points to Scorsese urging Spielberg to pay homage to Ray. As Scorsese commented to Ranjan Das Gupta, of The Times of India, “Due to some dirty politics played by unknown quarters, Ray’s Hollywood dream had to be shelved. I have no qualms in admitting that Spielberg’s E.T. was influenced by Ray’s Alien. Even Sir Richard Attenborough pointed this out to me.”

Yet intuition is not a fact, and citing intuition, no matter how much sense it seems to make, is not the same as the concrete truth. This continues to be the downfall of anyone advocating Ray’s perspective in this scenario.

I believe it is difficult for a fan of Satyajit Ray’s to remain unbiased at this point in the originality of the ET vs. The Alien discussion. This is because the release of ET broke a bit of Ray. Regardless of Spielberg’s innocence or guilt, the Sci Fi story that Ray had invested so much of his heart and soul into would never be realised.

However, I’m sure Spielberg fans could ping-pong the same concept across the proverbial TT table of morality, and put forward that Spielberg being ‘falsely accused’ could have adversely affected him - especially as according to Spielberg the tender topic of his parents’ divorce is part of the inspiration behind the film.

What You Missed Out On

As tempting it is wield around insufficient evidence and write off Spielberg as a cheat, that is neither my job nor the right thing to do. My job is to tell you what you missed out on.

Scenes that never made the big screen include the American engineer of ‘The Alien’ stumbling upon the extraterrestrial in a whiskey and hashish induced stupor as well as a bevy of beautiful pranks the alien plays on the villagers. However, merely chucking readers a few out of place anecdotes from Ray’s script doesn’t do justice to the work.

The Chess Players and Other Screenplays, written by Satyajit Ray and edited by Andrew Robinson, his biographer, is a must read for you actually get to delve into the story of Haba and his alien friend. In addition, Robinson’s Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye adds an interesting perspective to the drama circling ‘The Alien’.

Richard Boyle, an English writer, took it upon himself to write a more definitive account of this story, however the death of Ray in 1992 caused Boyle to suspend further work on his 30,000 word manuscript. When he later decided to try and publish his work he was dissuaded due to information that a lawsuit might arrive on his doorstep before a single copy was sold. Boyle wrote the following lines in an article for The Sunday Times, titled Story Of A ‘Might-Have- Been:

“I was advised some of my vital comments regarding Spielberg would attract the attention of his rapacious Hollywood lawyers. Deflated, I pushed The Wrecking: The Story of Satyajit Ray’s Ill-Fated Science-Fiction Film Project, The Alien) to the back of a drawer where it has remained.”

Maybe when Boyle’s book leaves his drawer and hits the book shelves we will get to know a bit more about this debacle that looks like it will outlive both the directors involved.

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