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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.