Another film from 2019 (other than Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) that makes reference to Bruce Lee is the Tamil-language action film titled Petta directed by Karthik Subbaraj and starring the septuagenarian (well, he will be in December) SUPERSTAR of Indian cinema, Rajinikanth. In one flashback scene Rajinikanth, is seen sporting an old-school Indian moustache, wearing a traditional veshti and striding along a row tables with seated guests enjoying a banana-leaf meal. It is a wedding scene and the people are feasting in some kind of community hall on the rear wall of which is painted, rather incongruously, a mural of Bruce Lee!
It is interesting to note that Rajinikanth movies are just as referential as Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre, albeit with less pretension. If Tarantino’s referential play indexes the worlds of Hollywood and Spaghetti Westerns, Rajinikanth films refer even more reflexively to the realm of Rajinikanth movies (over 160 released to date), generating SUPERSTAR tropes that transcend specific films. Further, Indian cinema is, as a whole, filled with instances of pastiche, parody, piracy and praise – ranging from reverential remakes across the many indigenous language cinemas, to shameless ripoffs of Hollywood.
One reviewer of Petta explains just such a scene from the film, “In one moment Rajini actually takes out a nunchuck and starts doing fancy moves with it. I imagine a 10-year-old Karthik Subbaraj [who is so much younger than his leading man] watching Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and thinking, ‘imagine how cool it would be if my Thalaivar did that?!’ and then writing it down on a piece of paper with a crayon. It’s kinda ridiculous, but that about sums up the fun, bizarre and complete Rajini mania world that is Petta.” This tribute to the Martial Arts master and first crossover Asian superstar in the global movie industry reflects the place he holds in the esteem and imagination of the populations of many Asian nations.
It is in the light of this place of honour that I suggest that Tarantino’s degrading portrayal is an egregious maligning not only of a man but also that of an icon which is esteemed by a wide global community. Bruce Lee is much more to us than just a great martial arts master and the first Asian cross-over movie superstar and … you know, although I loved Pulp Fiction, somehow, I could never get into the martial arts oriented Kill Bill set … now I understand why … Once Upon a Time in Hollywood seems to have revealed much more about Tarantino than it has about Bruce Lee.