I was in class five in Calcutta when I went to see Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon at the New Empire theater with a relative of mine. I was turned away from the gate because the film had an adult certificate. I was devastated. To compensate for it we went to see the Amitabh Bachhan and Vinod Khanna starrer Hera Pheri at a nearby hall, but that was no compensation for a kid who had just been deprived of the flavor of the season that continued to have successive re-runs for the next ten years and spawned a culture of fighting that infected an entire generation and gave rise to spurious self defense schools that reverberated with stomach churning screams like Yeaah – Hooh! Well, I managed to catch up with the film after 4 years when it was released at a run down North Calcutta theater that screened only English films at that time – Talkie Show House. And I watched the film four times in one week and became an instant convert to the legend of Bruce Lee.
After so many years and multiple viewings the film still remains one of my favourites and I never flip the remote whenever I stumble into it on any of the movie channels. I remain glued during the commercial breaks, waiting for the film to resume and see my favourite action hero biding his time to take on the bad men. In the meanwhile I had caught up with all the other Bruce Lee films that were released in Calcutta like The Game Of Death, Fist Of Fury etc., but none of these films came close to Enter The Dragon. One major reason for that was of course the story: whereas the other films were mere showcases of his fighting skills and the stories were just an excuse, in this film it was the revenge motive that acted as the spring board, setting the protagonist on his journey to a remote and exotic island run by a ruthless Hun who organized martial art competitions every year and ran a drug syndicate clandestinely. It’s the same Hun whose men were responsible for Bruce Lee’s sister’s suicide when they had tried to rape her. But it is not just a personal agenda that Bruce Lee is set to accomplish; he has been roped in by an UNO agency to infiltrate Hun’s racket and figure out and destroy the drug cartel. Accompanying Bruce Lee are two other fighters played by Jim Kelley and John Saxon, two B-grade actors from the Hollywood industry.
Bruce Lee was no actor; he was a fighter out and out and with only one set expression that went well with the roles that he played. He was not required to emote; that was a saving grace. But we were too young to bother about these things. We loved his legendary flying side kicks and nanchaku act; and when he took on twenty men one by one with barely a scratch on his sinewy body, we loved every moment of it. But we got really scared every time we saw him face to face with the cunning Hun in the climax of Enter The Dragon. Here at last was a man who was a formidable opponent and we rooted for Bruce Lee with bated breath despite knowing that he is going to win the battle ultimately inside that mirrored hall and Hun was going to be savagely killed. Such is the power of storytelling.
I had become such a huge Bruce Lee fan that I began collecting all his posters and postcards and laid hands on some rare magazines from Hong Kong (thanks to a couple of Chinese friends of mine in school) that featured only Bruce Lee and photographs of his personal life. Here at last was the man behind the legend and screen persona, smiling at us, wearing blue jeans and designer T-shirts, leaning against big fancy American cars. All those magazines are long lost but I stumbled onto the man behind the legend yet again in the university when I read Roman By Polanski for the first time. This is one of my favourite auto-biographies; last count I read it is 5.
In his book Polanski calls him simply Bruce, immediately demystifying the aura behind the legend and placing him straight amongst mortals. Bruce was struggling as an actor in the US in the 60s, doing bit roles in TV action series now and then. In the meanwhile, to make ends meet, he was imparting Kung Fu training to Polanski and his circle of friends that included icons like Steve McQuinn and Peter Sellers. Polanski speaks highly of his fighting skills and offers some rare anecdotes about the man; for example that he was short sighted and wore contact lenses. (My god, Bruce wore contact lenses!? How could he be so ordinary?) Being a good friend of Polanski, he had once requested the director to consider him for a role if he ever decided to make a sensible martial arts film. When Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate and some of their common friends were brutally murdered by the Mason Family gang, the suspicion initially had also fallen on dear Bruce Lee, amongst other people, and Polanski himself had carried out a private probe into his role because a piece of contact lens was found at the murder site. Much later, when Polanski caught up with Enter The Dragon he fondly recalls his friend who was already dead before he had attained the zenith of stardom in Hong Kong and the world over.
Such was the man and the legend. Bruce Lee continues to inspire not only me – even at this age, but an entire generation of actors and directors who grew up on his films. Copy cats fell aside (one Chinese actor even dared to take on his name – Bruce Li!) and it was left to the intelligent like Jackie Chan who is an equally gifted fighter to reinvent himself as a comic action hero in order to break out of the Bruce Lee mould and carve out an entirely different persona in order to be acceptable to his audience. Closer home, it was our Mithun-da who combined his dancing skills with Lee’s fighting postures in successive and successful B-movies in the 70s and Krishna Shah cashed in on the popularity of Bruce Lee by casting John Saxon in his ambitious Shalimar because of the actor’s association with the Kung Fu artist in Enter The Dragon. (How we were confused by John Saxon when he gave an interview in India during the shoot to the effect that Enter The Dragon was a time-pass entertainer that he didn’t attach much importance to! What is this man trying to say?)
Enter The Dragon and its protagonist continue to be my guilty pleasure which I thought I will come out with in the open; drop my guard for once and share it with my friends in my first blog entry .
Would love to welcome your take on the film and the legend and find out if the phenomenon had the same impact on you folks as it had on me.