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Opinion | Bruce Lee: man and myth

Despite Bruce Lee's legendary status, his impact on cinema and martial arts has been underestimated

Bruce Lee’s popularity created a worldwide wave of interest in karate in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Getty Images
Bruce Lee’s popularity created a worldwide wave of interest in karate in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Getty Images

The death last week of the actor John Saxon, best known in India for his role in 1973’s Enter The Dragon, brought to mind that film’s phenomenal lead actor, Bruce Lee. For all the adulation accorded to him, Lee’s impact has arguably been underestimated. Look at it this way: In its 125-year history, cinema has produced only two truly global superstars—there was Charlie Chaplin in the silent era, when language was no barrier, and there was Bruce Lee in the 1970s, whose actions rendered the sometimes laughable dialogue in his films redundant.

He achieved that elevated status through the thinnest of filmographies, starring in only four completed movies between the commencement of shooting for The Big Boss in July 1971 and his death two years later at the age of 32. Each of the four proved a bigger hit than its predecessor, and the last, Enter The Dragon, premiering a month after his death, became the first English-language film with an East Asian lead to top the American box office. Lee shattered dozens of objects with snappy hand strikes and spectacular kicks in fight scenes and martial arts demonstrations. Posthumously, he shattered Hollywood’s glass ceiling and the dismissive idea of Asian physicality that had taken root in the West.

When he died, his fans could not believe the hero they considered indestructible had perished. The assigned cause seemed impossibly trivial: a cerebral edema brought on by an allergic reaction to a painkiller. A dozen alternative versions of his death sprang up and it was these conspiracy theories I grew up with, until I was old enough to seek out trustworthy biographical material myself.

Lee was born in San Francisco and brought up in Hong Kong, where he was a child actor, a cha-cha dancing champ, and studied under the legendary martial artist Ip Man, whose life story was later adapted into the popular film series bearing his name. After returning to California as an undergraduate student, he established a martial arts academy, trained some of the best-known actors of the day, and played supporting parts in television programmes. Denied major roles in his adopted home thanks to his ethnicity and accent, he turned to the Hong Kong film industry, snagging a two-film deal with Raymond Chow, who had just launched the Golden Harvest production house.

The Big Boss and Fist Of Fury were made for about $100,000 (around 74 lakh now) each and grossed over a hundred times their production budget. The success gave Lee creative and financial freedom to write and direct The Way Of The Dragon, which he co-produced with Chow. The climactic confrontation of that movie, staged within Rome’s Coliseum, featured as its antagonist a karate champ named Chuck Norris, who went on to find fame as an action movie star, a right-wing ideologue and the subject of an early internet meme.

Lee’s popularity created a interest in karate in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even my school in Mumbai, not predisposed to innovation, invited a local sensei to train interested students. I joined the classes, conducted after school hours three days a week. Following a few sessions of sawing the air, the trainer told us we needed uniforms, which had to be ordered from him, and would cost close to 100. That was a significant investment and I wasn’t committed enough to justify the expense. Most of my schoolmates thought likewise and attendance plummeted. Thenceforth, our only interaction with martial arts was through VHS tapes, and occasionally, the big screen.

There is a bit of irony in Lee having been the catalyst for karate’s global popularity. Only as an adult did I realize that his films dramatize the conflict between Chinese kung fu and Japanese karate. This is particularly true of Fist Of Fury, set in 1910, when China was occupied by numerous foreign powers, including Japan. The film focuses on the humiliation of the colonized, most famously in a scene where a Sikh guard prevents Lee from entering Huangpu Park in Shanghai’s Bund, pointing to a sign that reads, “No dogs and Chinese allowed."

Although stories of such notices are myths (there is no evidence that a “No dogs or Indians" sign was placed outside any institution in India either), Huangpu Park did exclude Chinese residents in that era. The story of Lee’s character defeating a number of exponents of karate, including the Japanese villain Suzuki, constitutes an ethno-nationalistic assertion of the superiority of Chinese martial arts in the context of the nation’s historical subjugation.

The Way Of The Dragon, known in India as Return Of The Dragon because it was released after Enter The Dragon, offers a perspective on the kung fu versus karate antagonism that we can assume is Lee’s own, since he wrote, directed and starred in the film. His character travels to Rome to help out the owner of a Chinese restaurant who is facing extortion from a protection racket. There he finds the staff being trained in karate to resist the thugs. When a staff member who refuses to join the group says scornfully that karate is foreign, Lee responds, “Foreign or not, if it helps you to look after yourself when you are in a fight, you should use it."

That encapsulates his approach to martial arts, which was not restricted by convention. In the opening scene of Enter The Dragon, his character punches, kicks and wrestles an opponent before forcing him to submit through an armlock. Nearly 50 years later, we witness similar moves in bouts of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), the most prominent contact sport to have emerged in the 21st century. A number of commentators have suggested Lee is among the fathers of MMA. All-time greats like Jon Jones cite him as an inspiration and the biggest star in the sport, Ireland’s Conor McGregor, has said he has no doubt that had Lee been young and fit in the present decade, he would have been a world champion mixed martial artist.

Such statements keep alive a five-decade-old controversy about how good Bruce Lee was in real-life combat. The issue bubbled back to the surface last year, when Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood portrayed Lee as a loudmouth brought down to earth by a stuntman named Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt.

I could understand the outrage at Tarantino’s depiction of the icon, but also knew how much Tarantino admired Lee from citations in his previous movies. The scene in Once Upon A Time… felt like somebody had extracted a precious memory from my childhood and torn it to pieces. A part of me protested, “Come on, man, don’t do this to Bruce Lee of all people…." But another part thanked the director for wrenching me back to the right side of the divide between admiration and uncritical idol worship.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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