The ideas that Satyajit Ray couldn’t film

Ray was always assessing the cinematic potential of literary sources that ignited his imagination

Published - June 15, 2021 12:15 am IST

Satyajit Ray is universally admired for his cinematic creations. However, to understand his mind, it may be worthwhile to reflect on the literary ideas that he could not transform on celluloid. Some are well known — The Alien, A Passage to India and the Mahabharata . But there were many more which only the Ray aficionados are aware of. Fortunately, the essays and letters of Ray and his son Sandip; the biographies by Marie Seton ( Portrait of A Director , 1971) and Andrew Robinson ( Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye , 1989); Suresh Jindal’s My Adventures with Satyajit Ray — The Making of Shatranj Ke Khilari (2017), Nasreen Munni Kabir’s Conversations with Waheeda Rehman (2014); and articles by Bangladeshi photojournalist Amanul Haque and others throw some light on the subject.

An idea about aliens

Based on his own story and ideas, and encouraged by the famous author Arthur C. Clarke, Ray drafted the screenplay of his sci-fi film The Alien in 1967. Columbia Pictures agreed to produce it with Peter Sellers in an Indian role. Steve McQueen was contacted and even Robert Redford considered, and the Indian cast was almost finalised. Columbia even advanced some money for the project. However, there were many unexpected twists and turns, as recounted by Ray in “Ordeals of the Alien” ( The Statesman , October 4 and 5, 1980), and the project had to be abandoned. Ray wrote to Sellers:

“Dear Peter, if you wanted a bigger part

Why, you should have told me so right at the start.

By declining at this juncture

You have simply punctured

The Alien balloon,

Which I daresay would be grounded soon

Causing a great deal of dismay

To Satyajit Ray.”

The project was revived later, but by then Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was released (1982), with ‘striking parallels’ noticed by Clarke and others. Ray held, as Robinson quotes, that E.T. “would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies”. However, Spielberg commented, “Tell Satyajit I was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood’. Despite advice, Ray did not pursue the matter further. His depiction, as communicated to Jindal, that the aliens were “benign by nature, small and acceptable to children, possessed of certain supernatural powers, not physical strength but other kinds of powers, particular types of vision, and that they take interest in earthly things” was indeed influential.

The West’s image of India

Ray met E.M. Forster at Cambridge in 1966 with the intention to film A Passage to India . Robinson quotes Ray, “… but he knew my name. He kept shaking his head much of the time which meant that he didn’t want the book to be filmed. That was the drone — no! — in words, gestures, looks, everything. He was adamant. And I felt there was no point in asking why.” Later, much after Forster’s death, Ray was approached in 1980 by the trustees at King’s College, but by then he had lost interest in the subject. David Lean’s version (1984), understandably, could not satisfy Ray — “… The whole thing is too picturesque… For me none of the characters come alive… Peggy Ashcroft’s performance notwithstanding…” In a famous essay “Under Western Eyes” ( Sight & Sound , Autumn 1982), Ray had touched upon the limitations of the West’s interest in India and how its views were often distorted and unreal, sometimes even with “grotesque stereotypes as Hurree Jamset Ram Singh…” He ended, “Slighted for so long, India will not yield up her secrets to the West so easily…” It is a pity that A Passage... could not be filmed by Ray.

All on paper

The Mahabharata fascinated Ray from his early childhood. From the late fifties he had been planning to film it. But in what language? “How to introduce even the main characters to a non-Indian audience?” At one time, he intended to cast Dilip Kumar, Toshiro Mifune and others. Ray was interested in the dice game part. More than the war, it was the exploration of personal relationships between the characters that appealed to him cinematically. In jest, he once told Jindal, “I gave up, because I couldn’t imagine Kirk Douglas playing Arjuna.”

Waheeda Rehman, who acted in Ray’s Abhijan (1962), said that Ray had been keen to adapt R.K. Narayan’s The Guide and had contacted her for the female lead. As she observed, the approach and treatment of the film would have been entirely different under Ray’s direction. But then we would have missed the Bollywood blockbuster.

There were many Bengali film ideas that Ray had nurtured at some point or the other, as detailed by Sandip Ray in Ananya Satyajit (1998) and others. Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s Rajasimha (with Balraj Sahni) and Devi Chaudhurani (with Suchitra Sen), Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s Mahesh , Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay’s Drabamayeer Kashibash and Ichhamati , Manik Bandyopadhyay’s Padma Nadir Majhi, Mahasweta Devi’s Bichhan, Buddhadeva Bose’s Ekti Jiban , Prafulla Roy’s Ram Charitra , Shibram Chakraborty’s Debotar Jonmo , Banaphool’s Kichhukshan , Bangladeshi writer Shahed Ali’s Jibrailer Dana and Selina Hossain’s Hangor Nodi Grenade were thought of. For a variety of reasons, including non-availability of actors (Chunibala Devi and Suchitra Sen, for example), these ideas had to be abandoned at different stages. According to Sandip, his father moved on with his work, never regretting what could not be pursued.

Ray was approached by Indira Gandhi to make a documentary on Jawaharlal Nehru for whom he had admiration. Besides, in a letter of June 1, 1978, Ray wrote to Jindal about the proposals he had been requested to consider “… (a) documentary on Rajasthani music for French TV… (b) a 3-part film for BBC (each 90 minutes long) on any subject or subjects of my choice… (c) a proposal from UNO to make a film on ‘the horrors & miseries of war’, for worldwide TV screening… (d) a revival of The Alien under a major U.S. company backing with an updated script and a new title…” UNICEF approached him for a film on child labour. Ray was also interested in the operatic form of Balmiki-Pratibha , and documentaries on notables like Radhanath Sikdar who first calculated the world’s highest mountain peak. None of these eventually took off for reasons not publicly known.

Conscious of what’s happening all around, Ray was immersed in ideas. A storyteller, both in celluloid and print, he was always assessing the cinematic potential of literary sources that ignited his imagination. Now, on the occasion of Ray’s 100th birth anniversary celebrations, it is for the researchers to probe and delve into the available material in order to fathom why many of these ideas couldn’t get transported to the medium of cinema.

Amitabha Bhattacharya is a retired IAS officer who has also worked in the private sector and with the UNDP. Views are personal

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