Did Steven Spielberg plagiarise Satyajit Ray’s The Alien?

Harper Collins India's recent book, Travails with the Alien, poses serious questions about the true origins of Steven Spielberg's ET: The Extra-Terrestrial.

WrittenBy:Murtaza Ali Khan
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Steven Spielberg is widely regarded as the world’s most successful filmmaker thanks to his bankability at the box office. So far his films have grossed a total sum of approximately USD 10 billion worldwide. One of the early successes in Spielberg’s career was ET: The Extra-Terrestrial which he made in 1982. The film went on to become a major Hollywood blockbuster of the 20th century. It also bagged four Academy Awards, among various other accolades. The film’s unprecedented success paved the way for other Spielberg blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, War of the Worlds, Ready Player One, etc over the next several decades. It also led to Spielberg being labelled as the world’s most inventive filmmaker. Now, Harper Collins India has recently come out with a book titled Travails with the Alien – The Film that was Never Made and Other Adventures with Science Fiction which reveals a slice of hitherto undocumented history that poses serious questions about the true origins of ET.


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Travails with the Alien narrates the ill-fated story of a screenplay that the legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray wrote for his science fiction dream project The Alien. It was inspired by his own science fiction short story titled Bankubabur Bandhu published in Bengali children’s magazine Sandesh in 1962, about fifteen years before the release of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. The book tells theOrdeals of the Alien as Ray called it through a series of unseen interviews, letters, articles, illustrations, photographs, and newspaper clippings carefully catalogued by the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives. It all began with Ray wanting to make the film with the backing of a major Hollywood studio. Bustling with enthusiasm, Ray took a series of trips to the US, UK and France. Unfortunately, all his efforts went in vain as the film, for the film was never made. However, Ray got the shock of his life, some fifteen years later, when he watched ET and noticed the striking similarities the film bore to his script of The Alien.

The series of events recounted by Travails with the Alien ultimately make for a tragic tale but one wherein there is camaraderie, humour, irony and self-loathing in equal parts. The book begins by putting a spotlight on a relatively lesser known side of Ray’s multi-faceted personality. An avid science fiction enthusiast, Ray was greatly inspired by the works of pioneers like Jules Verne, HG Wells, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C Clarke. He not only wrote extensively for leading science fiction magazines and journals but also contributed greatly to the Bengali science fiction literature. In fact, it was Clarke who encouraged Ray to take the script of The Alien to Columbia Pictures. Also, on Clarke’s recommendation, he took a Colombo-based producer named Mike Wilson as his partner. Wilson’s only claim to fame was a film called James Banda, a goofy rendition of James Bond set in Sri Lanka, which he had written, produced, and directed.

But, as fate would have it, Wilson ended up becoming the biggest roadblock for Ray and his dream project. Unbeknownst to Ray, he took a USD 10,000 advance from Columbia Pictures, acting on Ray’s behalf. In an article written for The Statesman, more than a decade after the actual incident took place, Ray reflected upon the moment in good humour when Columbia officials first told him about Mike’s surreptitious dealings in the following words: “I said, I wasn’t even aware such an advance had been made. By now I had begun to feel like a full-fledged Kafka hero.”

On learning about Mike’s conduct, Columbia bosses asked Ray to get rid of him at any cost. Hoping against hope, Ray wrote to Wilson, requesting him to forgo his copyright on the screenplay which Wilson had gained through trickery, having contributed practically nothing to the screenplay. At first, Wilson seemed to be in no mood to entertain, but, just when Ray had almost given up, he received a letter from Wilson, who according to Clarke, had shaved off his head and became a monk. The letter read as follows:

Dear Ravana:

You may keep Seetha. She’s yours. Keep her, and make her and the world happy.

With Wilson opting to relinquish his rights on the screenplay in a most theatrical manner, Ray’s hope of making The Alien suddenly revived but perhaps it was a little too late by then. In what would be his last throw of the dice, Ray had Ismail Merchant (one half of the Merchant-Ivory duo whom Ray had earlier helped in making their debut venture The Householder) approach a top Columbia representative on his behalf but even that went in vain. It pretty much turned out to be the final death knell for Ray’s dream project.

But, the ordeal hadn’t ended for Ray. As Travails with the Alien takes us forward by more than a decade we learn about a call that Ray received in the year 1982 from Arthur C Clarke who had just seen Spielberg’s ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and was taken aback by the striking similarities it bore to Ray’s script of The Alien. Around the same time, a young student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism named Aseem Chhabra (now a noted film journalist and author) read an interview of Ray’s in the India Today magazine wherein he had revealed the details of his telephonic conversation with Clarke. Ray had categorically stated that neither ET nor Spielberg’s 1977 science fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind “would have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies.”

In the article titled Ray and the Alien featured in the third section of the book, Chhabra writes, “As a fan of Ray’s and Spielberg’s films, this interview piqued my interest. And I remembered seeing Ray’s sketches of an alien in British author Marie Seton’s biography Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray and how they resembled the friendly creatures that came out of the mothership towards the end of Close Encounters.

During his intensive research, Chhabra managed to get his hands on the original script of The Alien and just like Clarke he too was struck by the uncanny similarities it bore with Spielberg’s film. He observes, “In Ray’s script, an alien lands in a village in Bengal where he befriends a young boy. In ET, the alien lands in a small town in southern California where he becomes friends with a young boy named Elliot.” He further comments, “Ray’s alien is introduced to us for the first time as we notice his slow-moving three-fingered hand, similar to ET’s slow-moving four-fingered hand. Ray’s alien has healing powers, just like ET. And both aliens could make the plants bloom. There are other similarities as well.” Fortunately, Travails with the Alien features the complete script of The Alien as penned by Ray along with several of his illustrations and drawings that add considerable weight to the claims of plagiarism raised against Spielberg.

However, Arthur C Clarke strangely took a U-turn of sorts when he read the India Today report in Island newspaper; he went to the extent of advising Ray against filing any plagiarism charges. In his letter to Ray, dated Feb 20, ‘83, he wrote, “In any event, for God’s sake don’t get involved with lawyers. It’s an expense of spirit (and cash) in a waste of boredom”. Ray’s gentle disposition anyhow didn’t allow him to press any legal charges against Spielberg. His only regret remained that Spielberg had dashed his hopes of ever realising his dream project.

When confronted by Clarke on the issue (as revealed through a letter written by Clarke to the British daily The Times, dated 14 August 1984), Spielberg indignantly replied, “Tell Satyajit I was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood.” However, as opposed to Spielberg’s claims, in the year 1967, he would have been around 21—too old to be in high school by any stretch of the imagination. Also let’s not forget that in 1969, just two years after Ray took his script to Hollywood, Spielberg was hired to direct an episode of Night Gallery, written by Rod Serling. 

The aforementioned events not only give rise to an ethical and moral dilemma but also make us question Spielberg’s true intentions. Why would he lie about him being in high school in the late 1960s when he was actually directing television shows? Why didn’t he feel obligated to openly respond to Chhabra’s article? Why he never bothered to contact Ray and clarify himself? We also need to question the role played by the Hollywood studios that backed Spielberg at the time.

Travails with the Alien is a treasure for cineastes as well as the students of cinema that serves as a powerful reminder of how even great artists can become a victim of widespread opportunism as well as their own gullibility. It is a pity that it took the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives so long to come out with a book about the untold story of The Alien. Today, one can only wonder what may have happened had Ray chosen to sue Spielberg. But one thing that can be said with considerable certainty is that Travails with the Alien has made public a unique piece of movie-making history that will remind the posterity about how the great Satyajit Ray missed the golden opportunity to make what would have been India’s first science fiction spectacle.


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