Satjayit Ray, Peter Sellers and aliens

Posted in Media, politics, Propaganda, Satire by Anuraag Sanghi on September 19, 2012

A post that appeared in UltraBrown. The site seems to have expired.Following content accessed from webcache

Tuesday, July 17

Satjayit Ray, Peter Sellers and aliens

Satyajit Ray accused Steven Spielberg of ripping off his ‘67 script The Alien for the hit E.T. The Alien was to star Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando:

In 1967 Ray wrote the script to a science fiction film he wanted to make called The Alien. Peter Sellers was interested in the lead role, and Marlon Brando in the second lead… Ray was alarmed to discover that producer Mike Wilson had copyrighted the script Ray had written in both their names… He returned to Calcutta and abandoned The Alien project…

In 1982, when Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster E.T. was released, the plot bore a striking similarity to Ray’s script for The Alien, and was produced by the same company that had contracted with Ray in 1967. The similarity was considered by some, including Ray, to be more than mere coincidence. He told the Indian press that E.T. “Would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies…”

… Spielberg has denied plagiarizing Ray’s script. “I was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood…” [Link]

The script was written by Ray in 1967, based on Bankubabur Bandhu (Banku Babu’s Friend), a Bengali story he had written in 1962 for Sandesh, the Ray family magazine.

What differentiated The Alien from previous science fiction was the portrayal of an alien from outer space as a kind and playful being, invested with magical powers and capable of interacting with children, in contrast to earlier science fiction works which portrayed aliens as dangerous creatures.

The plot revolved around 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 boy 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. [Link]

Sellers turned the Bengali character into bad ethnic joke:

Second-rate brownface

When Ray went to see Sellers, on the set of The Party… a coarsening was evident: the detail and imponderability of Kabir had gone, to be replaced with a brittle slapstick charm. The Indian sensibility was now an opportunity for gags

[Ray:] ‘Later I saw The Millionairess where I found his Indian English very amusing, though not authentic… Sellers was shooting (The Party)… [and] was again playing an Indian with the unlikely first name of Hrundi, using brown makeup and the same accent he had used in The Millionairess...

‘There was a scene in The Party where Hrundi was shown playing the sitar. Ravi Shankar, a good friend of mine, was then living in Los Angeles. Sellers wondered if there would be an opportunity to observe Ravi playing the sitar… After a gorgeous North Indian meal, RS gave a splendid recital with Sellers sitting cross-legged on the floor, his eyes glued on RS’s fingers for well over an hour…

‘A few months later I saw The Party. I recall regretting that even a first rate comedian could get enthused over a shoddy script. But there was one thing in the film that tickled me. Towards the end, the following exchange takes place between Hrundi and the American girl who has befriended him in spite of his gaucherie:

‘H: I must get home to my pet monkey.
Girl (surprised): Your pet monkey?
H: Yes. Apu…

‘To this day I haven’t been able to fathom why Sellers wrote what he did the way he did. It was as cold and brief as an editor’s rejection slip. It said there was no question of Sellers’ participation in The Alien unless his part was rewritten and expanded… ‘

[Sellers:] ‘Kubrick… reckons that Satyajit Ray is number two or number one, and I think so too… But for some reason he can’t get distribution. Nobody’s interested, so he has an art house showing…’

That last sequence [of Sellers’ later movie The Magic Christian had] the businessmen going into the shit to grab the free pound notes… City gents doing the breast stroke and dodging turds… ‘You’ve really got to hate people to love this film.’ [Link via Another Subcontinent]

Sellers and Ray fell out so badly, there are several versions of a story where Sellers likens arthouse icon Apu to a monkey:

Sellers had a fight with Ray, and to spite him, kept a pet monkey which he named Apu. [Link]

When Ray was insisting [that] Peter Sellers… play the lead role in The Alien, he saw [at a] party Sellers mimicking Apu as a monkey… Now people can say that this was just petty humor and, well, Sellers was a small guy while Ray was 6 feet 5…. but Ray himself found that debasing… It reflects an acute lack of sensitivity on this great actor’s part. [Link]

Sadly, Sellers’ interpretation of Apu is what Hank Azaria seems to have imitated in voicing the Apu character in The Simpsons.

Related posts: The Apu travesty, White guys in turbans, Peter Sellers still outsells actual desis, Giants, dwarves and lemurs, Goodness gracious, Peter Sellers is alive, Mr. Birdie Num-Num gets a biopic, Sick of spices, ”The Party” remake

manish vij on Tuesday, July 17th, 2007, 1:04 am in Film, Profiles, SimpsonsEmail this Email this
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  1. 1prakruti

vow Manish, this is news..how did u end up digging this 2001 article..

spielberg of all people in this ..cant believe..I admire both satyajiy ray and spielberg as worlds best directors..

u know thats why copy-righting is important…once u write something just make sure u send it to copy right office in washington DC for registration..

look at how many hindi movies are copies of english movies..plagiarism is a big thing these days.. look at kaavyas scandal…

  • 2Pravin I think Mike Wilson , not Spielberg should have been the target of Ray’s ire. Besides Melissa Matheson(ex Mrs Harrison Ford) is credited with the script. Whether she did the story or not, I am not sure. Or did Spielberg come up with the broad story and commissioned Melissa to write a screenplay?Regardless, Ray should have hired a lawyer. Unfortunately, that’s the only way to do business in the u.s.
  • 3aseem chhabra (Full disclosure — I broke the Ray/Spielberg story — 24 yrs ago as a student at Columbia Univ. J. School. The story was carried by major US papers — LA Times, Philly Inq, etc., in March 1983, just weeks before E.T. and Gandhi were entering the final Oscar race.)There are so many facets to this story. Ray learnt about E.T. from his friend Arthur C. Clarke, who called him from London and told him about the similarities between the E.T. and The Alien script. Clarke’s advice to Ray was “Don’t take it lying down. At least write to Spielberg and tell him so” (Quotes from my memory, as told to me by Clarke in 1983 from his home in Colombo).Incidentally, Ray traveled to Hollywood with Clarke, taking the script studio to studio. At one point Steve McQueen was also being considered for a role in the film (For more details about the Ray’s journey to Hollywood, checkout Marie Seton’s “Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray” and Andrew Robinson’s “Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye.”).There were indeed a lot of similarities (I managed to get hold of a copy of The Alien’s script, which btw is now available in a book published by Faber & Faber). E.T. had the power to heal wounds; so did Ray’s Alien. E.T. could make dead flowers blossom; Ray’s Alien could bring alive a dying paddy field. The first time we are introduced to E.T. we notice his fingers — same with Ray’s Alien. And there were more.When I spoke to Ray for the article, he had one major regret — that he would never be able to make The Alien, because then people would say that he had taken the idea from Spielberg’s E.T.
  • 4Shashwati What a great post Manish! thanks! I had known about the Ray and E.T. connection, but all the details were murky. As for Aseem, where were you July 4th?
  • 5Ryan Spielberg is known for muscling in on book and scripts. It is likely he read the script in the 70s and commissioned his own writer to make an Americanzed treatment of it.

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