The story of the similarities between Spielberg’s E.T., and a Satyajit Ray script

As Spielberg’s sci-fi fantasy blockbuster turns 35 years old, a closer look at the possible inspiration

November 11, 2017 04:20 pm | Updated 05:19 pm IST

Did allegations of similarities with Ray’s script hurt E.T. at the Oscars that year?

Did allegations of similarities with Ray’s script hurt E.T. at the Oscars that year?

Thirty-five years ago, in the fall of 1982, Satyajit Ray got a phone call from his friend and science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke. Although Clarke lived permanently in Sri Lanka, he was on a visit to London where he had seen Steven Spielberg’s new film — the critically acclaimed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial .

Watching the film, Clarke was struck by the similarities between E.T. and The Alien , a script Ray had written in the mid-60s. In Ray’s script, an alien landed in a village in Bengal and befriended a young boy.

It was on Clarke’s recommendation that Ray took his script to Hollywood in 1967 hoping to get a studio deal to make the film. At one point, Columbia Pictures showed interest and names of top Hollywood stars, including Peter Sellers and Steve McQueen, were suggested for the role of an American character in Ray’s film. Unfortunately, after many delays, the project was shelved and The Alien was never filmed. Ray revealed the phone conversation with Clarke in an interview with India Today magazine in February 1983. In the interview, he also said that 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.”

A patient wait

As a student at Columbia University’s journalism school in the spring of 1983, and a fan of Ray and Spielberg films, this interview piqued my interest. And I remembered seeing Ray’s sketches of the alien in British author Marie Seton’s book 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 .

A still from Close Encounters of The Third Kind

A still from Close Encounters of The Third Kind

There was a story here, I told my professors at Columbia University. But the challenge was to talk to Clarke, Ray and perhaps also Spielberg. So I pulled out my typewriter and typed a letter to Clarke, which I mailed to his publisher. I also sent a letter to Ray with a set of questions.

I had managed to get his Bishop Lefroy Road address in Calcutta from the Indian Consulate in New York. And I made phone calls to Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment office in California, but had no luck in talking to the director.

While I waited patiently to hear back from Ray and Clarke, a friend at Columbia University’s film school surprised me with a copy of The Alien ’s script. The previous summer, my friend had interned at Merchant Ivory Production’s office in Bombay where he found the script (Ray was close to Ismail Merchant and James Ivory — editing their first film The Householder and also composing music for Shakespeare Wallah ). One day he borrowed the script but then conveniently forgot to return it.

Reading the script, I realised Clarke was right and indeed there were similarities between E.T. and The Alien .

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. There were other similarities as well.

A few weeks later, when I got no response to my letters, I took the next step. Through the local AT&T operator, I connected to the phone company’s international information desk. I enquired if there was a listing for Arthur C. Clarke in Colombo, Sri Lanka. To my surprise, Clarke’s home number was listed and one could just pick up the phone and talk to the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey .

My interview with Clarke went well. He was warm, very approachable and friendly. And this is what he said to me: “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.”

I then called Marie Seton — again getting her number from AT&T’s international desk. I remember there were five Marie Setons in London. After a couple of tries, I reached the old lady who gladly agreed to give me “Showtojeet’s” phone number. And she reminded me at least four times to call the filmmaker between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., because he would always sit by his desk for that one hour.

Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray

And that is how I called Ray from my dorm room in New York City. He picked up the phone, said he had received my letter and was going to write back. But I needed to interview him immediately and Ray agreed to talk. Ray had not seen E.T. but he had talked to an attorney in Calcutta and discussed the possibility of suing Spielberg on plagiarism charges. And he told me that Columbia Pictures had circulated “dozens and dozens of copies of my script.”

But Ray was also concerned that Spielberg “had made the necessary changes so that there is no case, there is no legal action possible in those circumstances.” Mostly Ray sounded dejected. “Sometimes I feel I ought to do something about it, but here I am in India in the middle of a film myself (he was making Ghare-Baire at the time),” he said to me. “I can’t do anything by correspondence. Besides he (Spielberg) can deny it. What he has done is ruin my chance of making the film, because then people will say it came from Spielberg.”

But then Ray added that he was not in a “vindictive” mood and that Spielberg “has made good films and he is a good director.”

A mere technicality

The story I wrote with Ray’s and Clarke’s voices was circulated to several newspapers by the Columbia News Service — part of the journalism school programme. And the story broke in the middle of voting for that year’s Academy Awards, where E.T. and Gandhi were the frontrunners. Some reporters wondered if I wrote the story because I wanted Gandhi to win. Los Angeles Times did three follow-up stories based on my article. The New York Times even quoted an unnamed spokesperson from Spielberg’s office saying that the director was frustrated by Ray’s allegations.

I do not think my article made the difference, but we all know that Gandhi swept the Oscars winning eight trophies. E.T. won four awards — mostly in the technical categories, and for John Williams’ score.

I wrote to Ray with a set of clippings of my article. He was angry. He felt my article had earned him a reputation he scarcely deserved. I was heartbroken.

Spielberg never openly responded to my article, but he did make peace with Ray. He, along with Martin Scorsese and the Merchant Ivory team, were the key filmmakers who backed Ray’s honorary Oscar in 1992.

The author is an is an independent writer, film festival programmer and the author of Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star. He admits crying each time he watches E.T..

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