“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water...Be Water, my friend.”
This is one of the most circulated and celebrated quotes of master Bruce Lee. Too bad it reached his fans posthumously. Bruce Lee, the legend died in 1973 on July 20, due to ‘misadventure’, as his doctor would later quote.
A fact that fans till date refuse to accept, and with good cause.
We call him ‘master’ because he not only taught people – famous or not – how to do martial arts but also taught them a way of life in the process.
Hey fellow millennial, if you know Bruce Lee as a cult icon, you couldn't be more wrong. Bruce Lee or Lee Jun Fan (his original name in Chinese) was an actor, director, martial artist, a franchise in himself, and of course, a legend.
As an Actor: Hollywood’s First and Last ‘Dragon’
Bruce Lee was a child actor even before he became the phenomenon that he is. In fact, showbiz was pretty much in his blood as his father Lee Hoi Chen was a well-known Cantonese opera singer in Hong Kong.
However, it was martial arts that led Bruce to showbiz with the TV show ‘The Green Hornet’, as Kato. While the show didn’t do as well in the States, Lee soon realised how popular his character and his choreographed fight sequences were in Hong Kong.
That led him to give few of the best martial arts hits in Hong Kong including the ‘Fists of Fury’, ‘The Way of the Dragon’, and ‘Game of Death’, which of course came after several failed projects and trials and tribulations.
It is unfortunate that his biggest hit and what is considered his first Hollywood success, ‘Enter The Dragon’, that was produced by the Warner Bothers only saw the light of the day after his untimely death at the age of 32.
As a Director: Choreographing Fights
If you consider Bruce Lee famous for his action sequences and martial arts in films, you are doing injustice considering the kind of effort he used to put into choreographing such shots.
It is not a secret that he used to put together the action sequences by himself in the films. Bruce Lee not only choreographed sequences in his films, he was the mastermind behind the narrative and writing behind several of his hit films.
Although his films are characterised by less dialogues and more expressive moments on screen, he deserves credit for creating such moments in the history of film-making where one can literally say that ‘actions speak louder than words’.
The final showdown between Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee in ‘Return of The Dragon’ that was shot in Italy at the Colosseum, was a brain child of Lee himself. It has gone down as one of the classic scenes in the history of film making.
As a Martial Artist: The Father of MMA
Bruce Lee didn’t learn to fight so that he could show-off or perform cool stunts in films. For him, martial arts was survival, and eventually a way of life.
After moving to Hong Kong, Lee’s early years as a teen were rife with fights among local street gangs. He was picked on for not being Chinese enough. This led his father to enlist him under the tutelage of Wing Chun master Ip Man (yep, the guy who inspired the Ip man series).
That’s where Bruce Lee’s martial arts comes from. But he didn’t stop there. His ideology about martial arts came from his personal experience of being in street fights.
Bruce Lee loved Kung Fu, but also despised how every tenet of the Asian martial arts was about keeping the art to themselves. He also thought that the martial arts that he was taught had little consideration for and use in the real world. This led him to experiment with several different forms of martial arts such as Karate, Kung Fu Muay Thai, and even fencing to give birth to his own style called the Jeet Kune Do. Years later martial arts enthusiast would hail him for being the first man to give birth to the idea of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
His form and legacy continues till today with his own school of martial arts that was heralded by his trusted students.
As a Franchise: The Legend Lives Through His Work
For many of us who grew up watching Bruce Lee films, he is an orientation to other martial arts films. What he brought to Hollywood and cinema, is essentially a hit-making forumla that would be cashed in for years and years later.
We, in fact, have a name for it these days that we didn’t have back when Bruce Lee launches his martial arts inspired films: a franchise.
Just like any franchise, Bruce Lee told a story on one specific subject, reinvented it every time, and cashed in eye-balls for the pure entertainment it provided. Much like ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Marvel’ does these days.
To understand this, one has to look into the work of Chuck Norris, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Michael Jai White, Cynthia Rothrock and of course Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee’s son. All of them had pretty successful careers out of Bruce Lee’s invented style of film-making, in Bruce Lee invented universe where martial arts mattered. In fact, our very own ‘Khiladi’, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgan had been in films donning the martial arts master avatar several times in the beginning of their career.
Word has it that the concept of Warner Brother’s well-known series ‘Kung Fu’, was actually brought to them by Bruce Lee himself before he passed away. Even without that it is not hard to notice how his martial arts and his philosophy have heavily influenced movie franchises like Ip Man, Karate Kid, and even the John Wick series.
As a Philosopher: ‘Be Water My Friend’
“Why are there so many jokes on Chuck Norris but none of Bruce Lee? ‘Cause Bruce Lee was no joke.”The Internet
We don’t know the origins of this (in)famous ‘joke’ but it pretty much sums up the respect the unruly internet has for this man. And that steps from his words as much as his actions on screen.
Perhaps what distinguishes Bruce Lee from the other martial artist-cum- actors that came after him was that he looked at martial arts as not only an exercise or bodily activity but embraced it as an ideology for life. He was not only quick on his feet, he was a quick thinker and an eloquent speaker, as it’s evident for this famous ‘lost interview’ that was released posthumously.
In this interview, one can get an insight into Lee’s mind. In the interview, few things are crystal clear: He knows he is good, he knows he can be cocky, but he also knows that the toughest thing in life is to be honest to oneself.
Lee’s onscreen philosophies draw as much interest and fandom as his off-screen principles that several of his friends and pupils sang songs of after his demise. And it is this philosophy and belief, and not his astounding physical prowess, or cinematic excellence, that elevates him to the level of a legend.