Once in a while, a movie comes along that captures the collective imagination of the masses. It runs to packed houses, dominates conversations and leaves a lasting impression on its viewers. There have been many such movies over the years and the Star Wars series is an example. In my memory though, as a young boy, the two movies that fit these criteria are “The Exorcist” and “Enter the Dragon”. Both were released in 1973 but I remember these movies being screened in India at a later date.
I did not watch the “The Exorcist”, it was too scary for a young boy. I still haven’t watched it, I’m not into horror movies. I like to leave a movie theater relaxed or inspired, not scared out of my wits. The Exorcist spawned a few urban legends. People would talk about wagering bets wherein a person after watching the last show of the movie would have to walk alone through Cubbon Park at aaround midnight. Bangalore in the mid-seventies was very green and Cubbon park seemed like a dense jungle to me. I would imagine it being a scary ordeal with the shadows playing tricks on one’s mind. There was also a rumor of a brave soul taking up the wager and then being a victim of a practical joke played by his friends. The story goes that he died of a heart attack. I don’t know if this is true but it made for a good scary story.
Given the popularity of “Enter the Dragon”, I’m sure it was either screened periodically or it just continued to play in the same theater for a long time. If I recollect correctly, I watched it in 1977. I had heard of the movie at my school. My classmates, who had already watched the movie, described the fight scenes in graphic detail. Come to think of it, there is an interesting aspect to parenting in India. Indian parents have no qualms about taking young toddlers to violent gruesome movies but they will ensure that their children stay away from movies if there is the merest hint of sexual content! My friends would stand in various kung fu poses and pretend to fight each other. These fights would be punctuated with shrieks of “hiaoow” or something to that effect. Once in a while, the combatants would get carried away and land painful blows on each other. As a clueless bystander, I sometimes would get caught in the crossfire.
My chance to watch the movie came when my neighbor and good friend Deepu graciously agreed to take me to watch the movie with his family. My brother was not at home, I suspect he had disappeared on one of his scout camps. We were to watch the movie on a Saturday evening and I told everybody that I met that I was going to watch the movie. As Saturday dawned, I couldn’t wait and after what seemed to be an interminably long day, I excitedly climbed into the backseat of Deepu’s car. There was a surprise. Before heading to the movie, Deepu’s dad took us to Airlines Hotel on Lavelle Road. We rarely ate out at home and this was a big deal for me. More exciting was the fact that we dined in the car. The windows were rolled down, a waiter affixed a stand to the door and brought an order of cucumber sandwiches. An English nicety before the Oriental storm that was to unfold. After gorging down the sandwiches, we arrived at Galaxy theatre on Residency Road.
The movie did not disappoint. Its been over 40 years since I watched the movie but I recall Bruce Lee’s sister fighting some goons before killing herself with a shard of glass. There is a competition of sorts on an island and Bruce Lee shows up to compete and also avenge his sister’s death. The theater burst into applause as Bruce Lee made his first appearance on the screen. I remember the names of just two other actors other than Bruce Lee and those are John Saxon and Jim Kelly. Of course, IMDb is available to refresh my memory. It does not matter though, these actors are the ones that mattered, the good guys! I felt sad as Jim Kelly is killed in the movie. As the movie progressed, I got to watch the nunchucks in action. I had heard descriptions of this wondrous weapon that could disarm and disable attackers. Bruce Lee wielded them as if they were an extension of his body!
The climax of the movie was novel to me. Bruce Lee stalks the villain in what seems to be a labyrinth that has mirrors on all the walls. This allows the villain to spot Bruce Lee and also attack him with an element of surprise. Of course, being a villain, he has an iron claw for a hand and the gashes on Bruce Lee’s torso attest to their effectiveness. Bruce Lee, out of frustration smashes all the mirrors. The villain who can no longer hide has to face Bruce Lee in a protracted fight. He who devises clever instruments of death is often killed by one of them. In this case, the villain is impaled on a spear that projects from a revolving door. As with all movies, the cops arrive in choppers just as Bruce Lee finishes off the villain. The audience chuckled as the choppers land.
Deepu and I discussed the movie excitedly as we returned home. I had been initiated into the Bruce Lee cult and was no longer an outsider when it came to discussions at school. I could join in with the kung fu poses! There was a nagging question though. At that age, we did not worry about the meaning of life but we wondered who would win in a fight between Mohammed Ali and Bruce Lee. Mohammed Ali was a legend of our time. The “Rumble in the Jungle” had spread his fame worldwide and I would often hear my neighbor play Johnny Wakelin’s “Black Superman” on his record player. Mohammed Ali was the suave, slick talking boxer whose punches could knock anybody down. The answer to this profound and vexing question depended on whom you discussed this topic with. There were the “Bruce Lee will beat Mohammed Ali any day” camp and others who would vehemently assert that if Ali could land a couple of punches, Bruce Lee was toast. In my mind, there would be an amicable tie. At that age, I could not bear to think of either of these two icons losing.
Enter the Dragon is also the only movie that I have watched twice in a movie theatre. My brother decided to watch the movie later and I tagged along. However, there was a difference this time. As I watched the movie, it was as though I had already forged a secret kinship with Bruce Lee. I knew what was going to happen next, my brother did not! One of the few times in the life of a young boy where he knows something more than this older brother, albeit for a very short period of time. Around that time, a relative gave me an old kung fu t-shirt. I wore it proudly on the street when I played. Bruce Lee also left his mark on my class picture from 1977. As the photographer got ready to take the picture a group of boys stood in the famed Bruce Lee pose. I did too. I think one of the teachers reprimanded us and I hastily tried to strike a normal pose. The picture captures me in an awkward transitory position while a couple of classmates are still in the pose but their hands are lowered!
There were other Bruce Lee movies – Game of Death, Fists of Fury, Big Boss and so on. I watched these at friends’ houses on their VCRs. To me, they never measured up to Enter the Dragon. Over the years, I have read up on Bruce Lee. His “Tao of Jeet Kune Do” is considered to be a classic. He is an intriguing character, in some cases, it is hard to sift the myth from the reality. He, along with Mohammed Ali, had to face racism and stereotyping and they fought back in their own ways. Lee died young, Ali the strong, supreme athlete debilitated by Parkinson’s disease. Both live in our collective memories though, as young athletes in the prime of their lives.
I think kids today are into Avengers and other fictitious superheroes. Lightsabers and wands have taken the place of nunchucks (and they are probably safer too!). They are cool no doubt, but they can’t hold a candle to Bruce Lee who walked and talked amongst us, mere mortals. Perhaps it is just the young boy in me that feels this way, but I think there are others of my generation who feel the same.
I leave you now with some words of wisdom from the man himself!