The man who made dedication sexy: Remembering Bruce Lee
Back in the ‘70s, a friend from school got himself into big trouble. His hapless maths tutor came into his room and was greeted by a foot flailing in front of his face. And a feline wail that was meant to strike fear into the human heart. Apologies, explanations and punishment followed. But my friend was not entirely to blame.
He had just returned from New Empire movie hall, where he had watched Enter the Dragon. For the third time.
This was the one film (other than Sholay) that moved that entire generation. Sadly, when we view it now, it seems the most predictable kitsch. But that does not matter. What matters is that we do watch it. Again. And then again. Perhaps a little shame-facedly, perhaps trying to laugh it off. But afterwards, men like me, men in their 40s, 50s, perhaps even their 60s, can be discovered “bouncing lightly on the balls of their feet”. Or more likely, picking themselves up off the floor after attempting a high side-kick.
Because of the charisma of one man.
Li Jun Fan. Bruce Lee. Born in San Francisco (1940 – he would have been 78 now!). Raised in Kowloon. Street scrapper in Hong Kong. Studied drama and philosophy at Seattle Central Community College. Journeyman in Hollywood. Became a star making martial arts movies in China. But by the time Enter the Dragon made him a global superstar, an Asian icon, he wasn’t there. Like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, an artist in a different age and genre, he was dead at 32. While we as teens tried to copy his moves, he was long time gone (although in that era before the Internet, we were not really sure for years). The ultimate contradiction – a man whose superlative skill kept him alive in our minds even after his death.
Then the story grew. From saga to legend to myth. That he could punch so fast that it could not be captured by a camera shooting at 24 frames a second. That he had knocked out a 10th Dan karate grandmaster (Vic Moore – a disputed account). That he had a “one-inch punch” that could kill a man. Even, as recently viral on social media, that he could play table-tennis using a nan-chaku instead of a racquet. Which is unfortunate, because when myths are debunked, the truth is also discredited. And the truth about Bruce Lee is quite impressive even without the myth factory.
What made the legend of Bruce Lee? Part of it he made himself. He was in his own way a narcissist, and a fair to middling self-publicist. But he was also a man of quite stunning focus, discipline, dedication. He was a movie star, but he knew his stardom was based on his martial arts prowess. His early training was in Wing Chun, a version of kung fu developed and practiced in South China. But his learning also came from the mean streets of Kowloon, where as a teen he fought in the street gangs. The myth holds that he beat up a gangster’s boy and had to escape to the USA, but quite possibly his parents thought he was running with the wrong crowd and sent him away from Hong Kong. His street-fighting days built his belief in the practical aspects of self-defence, stripped of the flowery philosophy and mysticism of the traditional schools. But again, the contradiction… this was a man who studied philosophy in college, and made famous typically Oriental lines like “Flow like the water” and “Focus is like a finger pointing to the moon”.
A major part of his legacy is the popularity of eastern martial arts around the world. In the 19th century, Conan Doyle had mentioned “baritsu” when he probably meant “ju jitsu”. A hundred years later, teenagers could differentiate between wu shu, kung fu, karate, tae kwon do and aikido. And the five (yes, just five) English language films that Bruce Lee starred in had a huge contribution to this awareness. But it did not happen overnight.
Bruce Lee started teaching martial arts in 1959. First in San Francisco, then in Seattle. He was on the fringes of Hollywood for years. He choreographed action scenes, outlined plots (one of which was stolen). He had celebrities as students and sparring partners – Chuck Norris, John Saxon, James Coburn. Even Lew Alcindor, who was later an icon in his own right as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But he was on the point of giving up on a film career.
The breakthrough came at the Long Island Karate Championship in 1964, where he performed two-finger push-ups and demonstrated his “one-inch punch”. These two sum up his appeal – phenomenal physical conditioning, and the mystique of effective demolition. He was noticed. He landed the role of Kato in the TV series The Green Hornet. He was on the way to fame. Or was he? The starring roles did not happen. Until he returned to Hong Kong in 1970. And found that Kato was a bigger celebrity than the Hornet. He reaped a Golden Harvest…
In 1971, Lee starred in The Big Boss, produced by Golden Harvest. The film was a huge success. His next film, Fist of Fury, was an even bigger hit. Bruce Lee was a star. By the time Enter the Dragon was released, he was an international phenomenon. The time was right. The Flower Power generation had discovered the Orient. The Beatles had discovered Mahesh Maharishi. And through the Dragon, the world had discovered karate.
Ironically, Lee did not follow any particular school of martial arts. His own creation, Jeet Kune Do (“the intercepting fist”) was based on his “style of no style”, an amalgam of all that he found effective. His screen persona was strongly Asian, enigmatic, mystic. But he himself believed in weight training, protein drinks, vitamin supplements. He popularized the commitment to physical excellence, the paramount importance of systematic training. His washboard abs were aspirational, but he also made dedication sexy. That may be his greatest legacy.
The author is a writer based in Kolkata. He writes under the pseudonym J Alfred Prufrock