TALKING FILMS

Bruce Lee died in 1973, but Indian filmmakers refuse to let his memory fade

The Tamil film ‘Puthiya Brucelee’ is the latest attempt to find a homegrown Shaolin master.

Martial arts movie legend Bruce Lee died at 32 in 1973. His influence on the genre was felt the world over and his athleticism and high-kicking skills generated numerous tributes and knock-offs, including in India. The most recent homage is the Tamil movie Puthiya Brucelee (The New Bruce Lee). The May 25 release, which stars a lookalike named Bruce, is a local instance of “Bruceploitation” – the practice of rolling out martial arts films with Bruce Lee imitators.

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Puthiya Brucelee.

Puthiya Brucelee has many Indian predecessors. Two of them were released in 1983: Deb Mukherjee’s Hindi film Karate, featuring Mithun Chakraborty, and SP Muthuraman’s Tamil film Paayum Puli, starring Rajinikanth.

Karate spices up fight choreography with jump kicks, somersaults, high-pitched screams and assorted gimmicks to give a semblance of kung fu. The film revolves around two karate fighter brothers, played by Chakraborty and Deb Mukherjee. Separated at a young age, they get together as adults to avenge their father’s death, secure a weapon of mass destruction, and win a karate competition in the climax.

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Karate (1983).

Paayum Puli is inspired by the 1978 Hong Kong film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, according to Naman Ramachandran’s Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography. Rajinikanth plays Shankar, a man who takes martial arts lessons and avenges the murder of his sister. Besides offering wall-to-wall action, Paayum Puli’s fight scenes are glamourised by the set design (the villain’s lair looks like a discotheque), lush cinematography and Ilaiyaraaja’s arresting background score.

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Paayum Puli (1983).

Mithun Chakraborty appeared in a series of low-budget action movies through the 1980s and ’90s, such as Chandaal (1998) and Zehreela (2001). Notable among these is TLV Prasad’s Hindi film Shera (1999), in which Chakraborty’s character, Shera, executes many unbelievable stunts. Shera’s talents include rotating through the air at great speed, floating in mid-air before jumping on a villain, and flying parallel to the ground for some distance to thrust his fingers into his opponent’s eyes.

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Shera (1999).

Among other Indian tributes in the 1980s are Arjun Hingorani’s Katilon Ke Kaatil (1981) and Pankaj Parashar’s Peechha Karro (1986). In both films, the heroes fight and defeat a Lee lookalike. The fight scene in Katilon Ke Kaatil involving Dharmendra in a warehouse is similar to the sequence from the Bruce Lee blockbuster Enter The Dragon (1973), which was also a huge hit in India.

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Katilon Ke Kaatil (1981).

In the cult comedy Peechha Karro, the fisticuffs between the diffident hero Vijay (Farooq Sheikh) and the Lee clone is farcical. Vijay, upon orders from his prospective father-in-law (Amjad Khan), has to fight Choos Lee, “the brother of Bruce Lee”. Vijay wins the duel because Choos Lee has unknowingly consumed milk spiked with a hallucinogenic before the fight.

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Peechha Karro (1986).

In Taqdeerwala (1995), the Hindi remake of the Telugu film Yamaleela (1994), Bruce Lee’s spirit quite literally charges up the hero. Suraj (Venkatesh) is down and out after getting thrashed by the villains led by Chota Ravan (Shakti Kapoor). The gods Yamaraj (Kader Khan) and Chitragupta (Asrani) are in peril because if Suraj dies, they will not be able to procure a prophetic book whose whereabouts are known only to Suraj. The gods pray to Lee’s spirit in heaven. The spirit enters Suraj’s body and he dragon-fists his way out of the fight.

In the ’90s, the most prominent actor in the martial arts film genre was Akshay Kumar. Having actually been trained in taekwondo and Muay Thai, Kumar made his action scenes looks realistic and credible.

Kumar’s mastery was a useful gimmick to vary his action scenes. Only in the 2009 film Chandni Chowk to China did his knowledge of Muay Thai actually play a role in the plot. Kumar plays vegetable cutter Sidhu, who is believed to be the reincarnation of a Chinese war hero. After the death of his father (Chakraborty), Kumar learns kung fu and then steps out to vanquish the villain.

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Chandni Chowk to China (2009).

Among the other heroes who commemorated Bruce Lee in the 90s ’were Ajay Devgn and Mohanlal. In Jigar, Raju (Devgn) avenges his sister’s rape at the hands of martial arts expert Duryodhan (Arjun). Raju is trained by Ajit’s sensei-like figure, who always dressed in a silky robe and has white hair and moustache. In the climax, a well-trained Raju smacks the Lee out of Duryodhan despite being blinded.

In the Malayalam film Yoddha, released in the same year and sharing similarities with Jigar, Ashokan (Mohanlal) is blinded by the villain, the sorcerer Vishaka (Puneet Issar). Ashokan is rescued by a tribe of monks who train him. Soon enough, Ashokan has become a near-invincible martial arts fighter with supernatural hearing skills that compensate for his blindness.

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Yoddha (1992).

AR Murugadoss’s Tamil film 7Aum Arivu (2011) offers an Indian a chance to lord over the Chinese in the martial arts department. Suriya plays Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, depicted in the film as a Tamil prince who is said to have travelled to China from Western Asia between the fifth and the sixth centuries and invented Shaolin kung fu. In the movie, Bodhidharma proves himself to be an ace doctor, a master martial artist, and even a hypnotist. Suriya also plays Aravind, a descendant of Bodhidharma in the 21st century, who replicates his forefather’s powers after they are injected with his DNA.

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7Aum Arivu (2011).

The 2010s saw the release of Bruce Lee The Fighter (2015), a Telugu action movie with Ram Charan, and the Tamil-language Bruce Lee, starring GV Prakash Kumar. Both films have nothing to do with the screen icon or kung fu. Teja is called Bruce Lee for no apparent reason, while Kumar is so named so that he may grow up to be brave.

Two weeks before the release of Ram Charan’s film, Ram Gopal Varma, a vocal fan of Lee, released the teaser of a film called Bruce Lee, which the director never ended up making. When news of Shekhar Kapur making a biopic on Lee broke in 2017, Varma announced his own biopic immediately in a series of tweets.

In the 2010s, Vidyut Jammwal and Tiger Shroff have been most closely associated with the martial arts genre. Jammwal, a professional martial artist trained in Kalaripayattu, established himself as a serious action star in Commando: A One Man Army (2013). Shroff, however, has stolen Jammwal’s thunder in the past few years with the blockbusters Heropanti (2014) and the Baaghi films. Both actors are shown to be god-gifted pros who require little or no training in their films.

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Baaghi: The Rebel (2014).

Far away from mainstream cinema is Kenny Basumatary’s Assamese-language Local Kung Fu, made on a budget of Rs 95,000.

The zany comedy is set in Guwahati and offers kung fu stand-offs and duels in the style of the Hong Kong cinema from which it has been inspired. The oddball characters include a kung fu-practising gangster named Tansen, who also loves singing Hindustani music. A sequel, Local Kung Fu 2, based on William Shakespeare’s play The Comedy of Errors, was released in 2017.

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Local Kung Fu (2012).
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.