On the occasion of the 98th birth anniversary of Satyajit Ray, THE EDITION reexamines some traits in the science fiction he created. 

Here is an excerpt of the paper Frankenstein in the Bamboo Grove, presented by SUBHA DAS MOLLICK at the SCMS (Society of Cinema and Media Studies) Annual Conference in Seattle on March 15, 2019. The excerpt below focuses on Satyajit Ray’s scientific imagination.

Satyajit Ray, known to the world as the creator of Apu trilogy, was also a prolific writer. Even though not formally trained in science, he had an inherent interest in science and technology. He brought out his first book of science fiction stories in 1965. The book is titled The Diary of Professor Shanku. Professor Shanku is a middle aged, balding, unassuming scientist living in a small town called Giridi and doing mindblowing experiments in his home grown laboratory. In the story Pages from a Space Traveller’s Diary, we encounter a robot created by Shanku. As Shanku is making preparations for his space travel, the robot, Bidhushekhar, seated in Shanku’s laboratory, suddenly begins to nod his head in disapproval when Shanku is about to pour ‘tantrum boropraxinate’ in a mixture. When Shanku picks up the bottle of ‘velosilica’, the robot nods in approval. Shanku, the creator of the robot is stunned by this “intelligent behaviour” of the robot because this had not been programmed into the architecture of the robot. He makes a note in his diary, “Bidhushekhar’s behaviour today was another example of my creation performing beyond my expectation. Why should a mechanical man made of hinges and gears make such a sound? He is my creation. He cannot have a mind of his own and definitely he does not have an intelligence. Does an unknown hand, more powerful than my mortal human intelligence guide me? Or am I underestimating my own creative intelligence?”

An artificial intelligence getting out of control is the stuff of western science fiction – be it ‘the creature’ in Mary Shelly’s pioneering book or HAL in 2001 A Space Odyssey. But the difference between these works and Satyajit Ray’s fiction is that even if the artificial intelligence begins to perform beyond what is programmed into it, it does not pose a challenge to the creator. On the other hand, it is loyal to the creator and works in his best interest. A camerederie develops between man and machine, much the same way the driver Bimal got attached to his jallopy in Ajantrik.

Man creates machines in his own image. Ambitions, anxieties, apprehensions of the humans are programmed into the machines they create. Professor Shanku, in another story, The Mysterious Sphere, creates a machine called ‘microsonograph’ that can pick up and amplify sound waves created by ants and other tiny creatures, that can also pick up a cry of pain of a plant when a leaf or a flower is plucked. The microsonograph reminds us of Jagadish Bose’s crescograph invented by the scientist to measure plant response to various stimuli. 

Both the real scientist Bose and the fictional character Shanku had turned their scientific knowledge and expertise to understand nature, to appreciate the ebb and flow of life’s energy trampled over by mankind. Perhaps that is why the robot created by Shanku was sensitive to his environment. The sensitivity got programmed into the machine, even though its creator did not do so deliberately.

Satyajit Ray takes the idea of artificial intelligence forward in another short story Anukul. Set in his hometown Calcutta in a futuristic era, robots are now available for sale. Instead of hiring a servant, one can now bring a robot home for doing all household chores. Anukul is one such robot brought home by a Hindi school teacher. Anukul is several generations evolved compared to Shonku’s tin man companion Bidhushekhar. Anukul is programmed to learn new chores. And indeed, he does. He performs chores to perfection and in his spare time reads the holy book Gita, reminding the reader of the creature’s reading ventures in Frankenstein. A camarederie develops between man and machine, but the school teacher’s cousin Ratan, who has just lost his job to a robot, cannot stand Anukul. A conflict situation propels the narrative forward.

Satyajit Ray, inspite of being one of the leading filmmakers in the country, had never ventured to turn any of his science fiction stories into a film. In 2016, Sujay Ghosh adapted Anukul for a short film of the same name. In the film Anukul learns to play the piano and burns the midnight oil to read the Bhagawad Gita. During a midnight conversation with his master, he introspects, “God is indestructible and so am I.” It dawns on him that he is invincible, while his master is not. Interestingly, even this realization does not make him turn into a terminator, even though a lethal ability of giving a 440 Volts shock is programmed into him.

At the end of the film, in a bid to defend himself from Ratan’s attacks, he sends a high voltage spark through Ratan’s body. Ratan drops dead and a financial crisis is averted because Anukul’s master is declared as the sole inheritor of a dead uncle’s property. Man and machine continue their life together – at least for the time being.


Let us now turn our attention from artificial intelligence to extra terrestrial inteligence. In 1962 Ray wrote a story Bonkubabu’s Friend. The protagonist of this story is a village schoolmaster who is the subject of ridicule of the entire village. He is so mild mannered that he cannot protest against the jokes and taunts hurled at him. One day, while returning home, Banku Babu noticed a beam of light in the bamboo grove. “A pink glow reflected on the nearby leaves, twigs and branches. And down below that, right on the pond, the light glimmered. It was a constant, still light”. It was the light emanating from the spaceship that had meandered into the earth’s orbit by mistake. A creature called Ang came out of the spaceship and made friends with Bonku Babu.



Ang was cordial to Bonku Babu and gave him a kaliedoscope like device through which he could see the places that Bonku Babu wished to visit. Ang’s parting advice to Bonku Babu was, “You are far too mild and meek. Every living being ought to speak up against injustice and insinuations hurled at them, specially if it is unprovoked.” Saying this, Ang got into his spacecraft and flew off. The bamboo grove was back to normal. But Bonku Babu was transformed for life. Nobody dared meddle with Bonku Babu ever again.

When Arthur C Clarke asked Satyajit Ray to write a science fiction script for Hollywood production, he took up the story Banku Babu’s Friend and turned it into a script titled The Alien. Here is an excerpt:


A lotus pond in the village of Mangalpur in West Bengal. The camera holds on a part of the surface of the pond with lotus leaves and limp lotus stalks, lit by soft moonlight.

A point of light appears as a reflection on water, grows bigger and bigger until the pond itself is lit up. The chorus of frogs, crickets and jackals grows in volume, and is joined by a humming sound. In a blaze of light something descends on the pond, shattering its placidity. A cascade of water descends on the lotus leaves and the camera tilts up and zooms back to full shot of the pond.

A dome like object is seen sinking into the water. The pulsating light that emanates from it dims into total darkness as the object slowly disappears below the surface. As the surface calms down, in the deadly silence that now prevails, all the limp lotus stalks now straighten up and open their petals at the same time.

Titles begin over this shot.

The extra terrestrial intelligence that lands in the bamboo grove is a benevolent force. It can transform a wilting paddy field into a bountiful harvest, it can heal wounds and if it wills, it can even make a dead man alive. It can get into a child’s dreams and play with the child.

In the script The Alien, the maestro has created a microcosm in a small village in Bengal. There is a dying old man, there is a little beggar boy Haba and his grandmother, there is the village priest and the other village people who congregate at the tea stall to discuss about world affairs and the problems afflicting the village. There are also the Santhals and their Christian Padre and the pot smoking sadhu under a banyan tree. This tiny village in the rural hinterland of Bengal is by no means isolated from the rest of the world. An American engineer is right there with his advanced drilling technology to tap underground water. He has been brought here by a Marwari businessman with his own profit motives and there is a young reporter from Calcutta reporting about the “development project” in rural India.

Into this motley crowd comes an alien from beyond the solar system. His space ship lands unnoticed on the lotus pond tucked away inside the bamboo grove.

The year is 1967. India as an independent nation is 20 years old, the Cold War is at its peak, man has not yet set foot on the Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey is still a year away.

Ray gives the description of the alien thus:

A shot of the exterior of the spaceship shows its top opening like a lid.

Through the opening the ALIEN comes out. The ALIEN is a cross between a gnome and a famished refugee child. Large head, spindly limbs, a lean torso. Is he male, female or neuter? We do not know. What his form basically conveys is a kind of ethereal innocence and it is difficult to associate either great power or great evil with him. And yet a feeling of eeriness is there because of the resemblance to a sickly human child. The ALIEN stands poised on top of the spaceship for a few seconds, then takes a leap and lands gently, almost weightlessly on a lotus leaf.

The narrative is pieced together from three points of view – that of the alien, the director or the camera’s point of view and the point of view of the reporter.  

In scene 30 of the script the reporter Mohan has an introspective conversation with his newly wed wife. He reminds her of the recent newspaper report about a moving object in the night sky – perhaps a spaceship launched by one of the superpowers. And then he says:

Shunya. It means space and it means zero.
Isn’t that wonderful?
We discovered that zero. An unknown Indian.
Way back in the time of the Upanishads.
And that changed the course of history by changing the course of mathematics.
But then – we lost ground.

In a way, Ray has posited himself in the film through the persona of the reporter. Like the reporter, Ray has faith in modern science, but has also faith in the wisdom of the Vedas. Both Ray and Mohan believe in the Newtonian mechanistic order of the Universe, yet they believe that beyond this clockwork precision and predictability, there is something unfathomable.


The spaceship looks like a temple risen from the pond. The villagers begin to worship the unknown God who has landed in their village. The shrewd Marwari businessman plans to monetize the situation and turn the small village into a holy place for pilgrims to flock. The American thinks that it is a Russian spaceship full of explosives. The Christian padre ponders about the possibility of miracles. The dying old man’s last words are “Avatar”. Avatar means incarnation. Ray had planned to name the film “Avatar” in Bengali.

But why is the “Avatar” or the Alien here? The reporter wants answers. The pieces of jigsaw puzzle are not falling into place. Some pieces are missing and till he finds them, he cannot file his report.

Ray throws the missing pieces at us in Scene no: 80


The ALIEN sits cross legged in the classical manner of the Buddha. A red disc of sunlight on his face and around his head, singing the simple song about flowers and rivers and paddy fields that HABA has taught him.

Around the ALIEN, in the gravityless cabin of the spaceship, floats HABA in a state of blissful slumber, and the various specimens of earthly flora and fauna he has helped to collect for his friend – a frog, a firefly, a snake, a fish, a lotus, a squirrel and a bulbul bird – all in a state of suspended animation.

The ALIEN now stops singing and stretches his hand towards an invisible control.

At this point the spaceship begins to look like Noah’s Ark. The Alien had perhaps come to collect living specimens for his home planet – to start life afresh there. Perhaps his home planet, in an advanced state of civilization, had become barren and lifeless or perhaps the Alien preserved this life on earth in a state of suspended animation thinking that it would come in handy after earthlings destroyed each other in the Third World War, which was looming over the horizon in the Cold War era.




There is a purpose behind every action in this Universe, but the purpose is sometimes unfathomable by limited human intelligence.

The absence of dystopia and anxiety in Ray’s sci fi may be understood if we look back at the early years of Bengal Renaissance. Science is the raw material of science fiction and modern science has been a colonial import. But Indians quickly understood that modern science was necessary for building a modern nation of people with rational bend of mind. So Raja Ram Mohan Roy appealed to the Governor General Lord Amherst to provide modern European education, particularly scientific education to the Indian people. Science lessons were started in the medical college. Enlightened Bangalis started writing articles on science for the benefit of the common people.

Interestingly, Bengal’s social reformers who advocated the study of modern science, also advocated going back to our Vedic roots to understand the essence of Vedic philosophy. Ram Mohun Roy, for instance, translated the Vedic texts in Bengali to enlighten the superstition ridden common man. The central theme of those texts, for Roy, was the worship of the Supreme God who is beyond human knowledge and who supports the universe. Through his Brahmo Samaj, he advocated a monotheistic Hinduism in which reason guides the adherent to “the Absolute Originator who is the first principle of all religions.” Thus, modern science and spirituality were synthesised by the Renaissance men of Bengal. This systhesis gave them a unifying vision of the Universe. The mechanistic worldview that they embraced did not erode their faith in the wisdom of the Vedas that propounds the existence of a supreme creator. The newfound scientific knowledge helped the Renaissance man to rationalize his position in the grand scheme of Creation.  This unifying vision is strongly manifest is manifest in the works of Tagore.

J.C.Bose, who was a close friend of Tagore, too prided in this unifying vision. Several detractors of Jagadish Chandra Bose underrate his contribution to microwave researches and also his biophysical and plant physiological researches as a metaphysical attempt at fitting empirical results into the Vedic doctrine of unity in diversity. Prof. George James Pierce of Stanford University wrote in the journal Science in 1927, “The trouble with Bose is that while his curiosity is directed towards biological phenomena, his mind is inadequately equipped with information and the habits necessary for accurate study and his reflections are addressed to philosophical problems.”

Satyajit Ray is often called the last Renaissance man of Bengal. He inherited the Vedic unifying vision, which made him not only a humanist filmmaker, but also a visionary of harmony between man and machine. His science fiction works are endowed with a unique scientific imagination that stands apart from the dystopia and anxiety driven western sci fi.



  1. Arun Kumar Biswas, Father Eugene Lafont and the Contemporary Science Mvement, The Asiatic Society, Kolkata
  2. Satyajit Ray, Travails with the Alien, Harper Collins
  3. Satyajit Ray, Professor Shonkur Diary, New Script Publishers

SUBHA DAS MOLLICK is a teacher of Media and Film Studies and a documentary filmmaker. She switched her career from teaching Physics to teaching media in 1996 and was instrumental in setting up the nascent departments of Film Studies and Mass Communication & Videography at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, India. Today, as one of the founder members of Bichitra Pathshala, she is engaged in experimenting with the pedagogy of the moving image. She can be reached at

Opinions expressed in this article are of the author’s and do not represent the policy of The Edition. The writers are solely responsible for any claim arising out of the contents of their articles. INTRODUCING INDIAN HERITAGE has no relation to the contents of this article and solely featured by The Edition in the interest of caring and sharing Indian Heritage.


  1. I was wondering when we would get a glimpse of the Seattle presentation. I’d hoped for a video. This is the next best thing. Well-researched and very interesting presentation. Thanks for the GIFs!


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