An introduction to My Beautiful Laundrette

An introduction to My Beautiful Laundrette

Hanif Kureishi's 1985 film My Beautiful Laundrette portrays a young British Asian man who runs a laundrette with his white schoolfriend, and the romantic relationship between the two. Sukhdev Sandhu explains how the film marked a radical departure from previous representations of British Asians in mainstream culture.

Back in the early 1970s and early 1980s, when Hanif Kureishi was starting out as a playwright, British Asians were rarely spotted on the stage, screen or in the pages of literary fiction. They were culturally invisible and widely regarded as a ‘model minority’ whose passivity and meekness contrasted favourably with the feistiness of second-generation Caribbean youths. They had no presence in the pop charts, no fashion styles that were aped by white Britons, no dashing wingers or centre-forwards whose footballing prowess might make them poster or sticker-book heroes.

Ever so infrequently, British Asians were represented in current-affairs coverage of industrial disputes, shocked reports about the cruelty of arranged marriages, and occasional dispatches about how, on the streets of Whitechapel and Southall, they were beginning to fight back against xenophobic bootboys. Elsewhere, in sitcoms such as It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974–81) and Mind Your Language (1977–79), or in the routines of portly end-of the-pier comedians, they were language-mangling, curry-gobbling misers. In short, they were the butts of jokes rather than the tellers of them.

For writers such as Salman Rushdie, in his essay ‘Outside The Whale’ (1984), this sorry state of affairs was compounded by what he regarded as the televisual Raj Revival of the early 1980s. He argued that expensive, gorgeously shot, multi-episode costume dramas such as The Jewel in the Crown (1984) and The Far Pavilions (1984), as well as films such as Gandhi (1982), propagated conservative, reactionary politics all too similar to those being espoused by the then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In towns and cities across the United Kingdom, many immigrants and their children were being treated as second-class citizens, perpetrators of economic crises of which they were actually the victims, and yet, according to Rushdie, here were splashy film works that seemed to portray ‘easy escapes from history, from hullabaloo, from terrible, unquiet fuss’.[1]

The clamour and criticality for which Rushdie hungered was to be found in Hanif Kureishi’s debut film My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). It was originally conceived as a television series, one whose drama was contextualised by explicit and sweeping references to post-Windrush immigration to the United Kingdom. The final version, directed by Stephen Frears, focused on the present day. It portrayed, almost Bildungsroman style, a young Anglo-Pakistani called Omar (played by Gordon Warnecke) who opens up a launderette in south London that he runs with Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis), a schoolfriend who some years before, to their mutual regret, had chosen the company of racist skinheads over his. A romance forms between them and makes them both pariahs to their respective communities.

Continuity and costume notes for My Beautiful Laundrette, with Polaroids (part three)

Continuity and costume notes for My Beautiful Laundrette, with Polaroids (part three)

Polaroid photographs taken during the filming of My Beautiful Laundrette of Omar (played by Gordon Warnecke) and Johnny (played by Daniel Day Lewis), together with, anti-clockwise, Salim (played by Derrick Branche), Tania (played by Rita Wolf), and Uncle Nasser (played by Saeed Jaffrey).

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Usage terms © Hanif Kureishi. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Penny Eyles (Continuity and script supervisor for My Beautiful Laundrette): © Penny Eyles. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

Continuity and costume notes for My Beautiful Laundrette, with Polaroids (part two)

Continuity and costume notes for My Beautiful Laundrette, with Polaroids (part two)

Polaroid photographs taken during the filming of My Beautiful Laundrette of Johnny and Omar setting to work on the laundrette.

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Usage terms © Hanif Kureishi. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Penny Eyles (Continuity and script supervisor for My Beautiful Laundrette): © Penny Eyles. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

My Beautiful Laundrette immediately bewitched and bewildered audiences. British cinema, with the exception of a few horror films and outlier auteurs such as Ken Russell, Kevin Brownlow and Derek Jarman, had been widely regarded as moribund by cultural critics. Its biggest successes – such as the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire (1981) or the work of Merchant and Ivory – were set in the past, preoccupied with the mores of the upper- or upper-middle classes, and formally rather unadventurous. Kureishi’s film grappled with contemporary social and racial issues that were widely seen as divisive, and featured leads who, in their age, ethnicity and attitude, would not have been out of place at a pop concert.

Published journalism by Hanif Kureishi

Published journalism by Hanif Kureishi

Hanif Kureishi describes the writing and filming process behind My Beautiful Laundrette in an article for Time Out, published in November 1985 ahead of the film’s cinema release.

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It was also eye-opening in its focus on sex. British Asians were popularly regarded as dowdy, puritanical and family-focussed rather than hedonistic. Yet here, Omar has a relationship with someone who’s not his fiancée, with a man rather than a woman, and with a poorly educated skinhead of the kind many immigrants would have feared and despised in equal measure. This same-sex relationship is depicted explicitly at a time when much of the conservative establishment decried homosexuality in the name of Victorian values, and when the popular press used the AIDS epidemic as an excuse to castigate gay people. Though occasionally fraught, the leads' romance is mostly fun, certainly not tragic.

Typescript first draft of My Beautiful Laundrette

Typescript first draft of 'My Beautiful Laundrette'

Omar and Johnny’s first kiss in a draft of My Beautiful Laundrette (dated 20 June 1984).

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Usage terms © Hanif Kureishi. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

It’s not just Omar: his uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey), seemingly an upstanding member of the Pakistani community, has a mistress. And Tania (Rita Wolf), Nasser’s daughter, is so bored and frustrated by the patriarchal world she’s growing up into that, on the evening of a men-only domestic gathering, she goes into the garden and, in a spirit of defiance, flashes her breasts at the startled and also rather delighted Omar who’s inside making polite chit-chat with relatives. Kureishi, always an equal-opportunities offender, portrays Asian domestic life as a prison for women and as a front for self-interested men to scratch each other’s backs.

Typescript late draft of My Beautiful Laundrette by Hanif Kureishi

Typescript late draft of 'My Beautiful Laundrette' by Hanif Kureishi

‘I’m going’: A late draft of the scene where Tania announces to Johnny that she is leaving home, ‘To live my life’ (1985).

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Crucially, though rooted in social realism (Kureishi grew up on kitchen-sink dramas such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), My Beautiful Laundrette is tinged with gentle surrealism and is certainly not a protest film, far less a tract about race relations. Kureishi was unusual in writing about urgent issues in a voice that was funny and sometimes satiric. ‘Irony is the modern mode’, he once claimed, ‘a way of commenting on bleakness and cruelty without falling into dourness and didacticism’.[2] What surprised many contemporary viewers was that Kureishi – who they assumed to be in the business of community PR – was deploying irony and satire ‘against’ Asians as much as Thatcherites. In fact, he was arguing there was often next to no difference between the two groups.

Typescript introduction to My Beautiful Laundrette by Hanif Kureishi

Typescript introduction to My Beautiful Laundrette by Hanif Kureishi

‘the film was to be an amusement, despite its reference to racism, unemployment and Thatcherism’: Hanif Kureishi drafts the introduction that was published with the My Beautiful Laundrette screenplay.

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The film, as with almost all of Kureishi’s work which is set there, is a love song to London. In the mid-1980s politicians and commentators often spoke about the English capital as a ghetto, a failure, an enclave for the poor, the weirdos and for immigrants. For them its values stood in direct opposition to those of Middle England – the real England of the suburbs and the Shires. That’s exactly what Kureishi’s characters love about it: however grotty and broken down it may appear, it’s also a place where individuals can escape their suffocating families, follow their hearts, devote themselves to experimentation. It’s no accident that Omar changes the name of the launderette from imperial-sounding 'Churchill’s' to the more fluid, alchemical 'Powders'.

It’s been argued that the film’s focus on the drama and exuberance of polycultural urban life paved the way for later writers such as Zadie Smith and Monica Ali. Contemporary responses to the film were mostly enthusiastic. Kureishi’s screenplay was nominated for a BAFTA in 1986 and an Oscar in 1987. However, for some on the right, among them University of Oxford history professor Norman Stone, My Beautiful Laundrette was part of an emergent wave of British films that were anti-patriotic, conveyed an ‘overall feeling of disgust and decay’, and were in thrall to ‘sleazy, sick hedonism’.

Published journalism by Hanif Kureishi

Published journalism by Hanif Kureishi

‘Whenever a rightwing newspaper calls one of our films “sick” Stephen and I know we must be doing the right thing’: Hanif Kureishi responds to Norman Stone, who attacked My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid in the Sunday Times.

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Usage terms 'Dirty Washing' by Hanif Kureishi © Hanif Kureishi. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. © Time Out. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. Hanif Kureishi interview with David Bowie © Hanif Kureishi. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Photographs © Michel Haddi. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. 'England, bloody England' by Hanif Kureishi © Hanif Kureishi. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Not all of Kureishi’s later films, among them Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1988) and London Kills Me (1991), were as well received, but My Beautiful Laundrette, together with his enduringly popular novel The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) assured his talismanic status for British South Asian artists who were inspired by his brio and fearlessness. Cornershop, whose ‘Brimful of Asha’ topped the pop charts in 1997, included a song called ‘Hanif Kureishi Scene’ on the B-side of their curry-coloured first single in 1993.

Gurinder Chadha, director of Bend It Like Beckham (2002), would later recall: ‘When I saw My Beautiful Laundrette I was, like, “Wow!" Hanif took Asians into another space. He was bringing us up to speed. I remember thinking that we’ll never go back to having arranged-marriage stories on the screen. Ha! We invariably do. But he showed that we could be open, honest and critical of our communities. It was so liberating. Early on he said something really important: “I’m not an anti-racist writer; I write about people."’ For Asif Kapadia, best-known as director of documentaries such as Senna (2010) and Amy (2015)' ‘He’s entertaining and controversial at the same time. In his stories there’s humour and behind it a hard edge. Just like him, really’.

Footnotes

[1] Salman Rushdie, ‘Outside the Whale’, Granta, 11, 1st March 1984

[1] Peter Childs, Contemporary Novelists: Brotosh Fiction Since 1970 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 149.

  • Sukhdev Sandhu
  • Sukhdev Sandhu is Associate Professor of English Literature at New York University where he is Director of the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture and also Director of Asian/ Pacific/ American Studies. His books include London Calling: How Black and South Asian Writers Imagined A City.

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