My Beautiful Laundrette

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) was the first screenplay by Hanif Kureishi, commissioned by Channel 4’s Film on Four. Set in South London in the 1980s, it concerns a second-generation British Pakistani man, Omar, renovating the Churchill Laundrette (a name clearly chosen by Kureishi for its nationalist associations) with the help of a white British childhood friend, Johnny. Partly by intercepting a drug deal, Omar draws in customers by equipping the laundrette with games machines and piped music. Though Johnny has at one point had connections to the racist National Front, his friendship with Omar develops into a sexual affair, despite the violence and prejudice they are surrounded by.

Two other characters – Omar’s father Hussain and Omar’s uncle Nasser – are first-generation Pakistani migrants, and respectively represent the poles of cultural identity Omar is pulled between. Omar’s father is a disillusioned socialist intellectual, committed to the traditions of Pakistan and opposed to the prevailing cultural attitudes of contemporary Thatcherite Britain. Nasser, however, embraces the westernised capitalist ethos and has a white mistress; it is he who is asked to find his nephew employment. Nevertheless, Nasser does maintain some non-westernised attitudes, returning to his family to arrange the marriage of his daughter.

These cultural divides were to some degree reflected by the reception of the film; some Pakistanis took the film to denigrate their community. In New York a demonstration by the Pakistan Action Committee included banners which called My Beautiful Laundrette ‘the product of a vile and perverted mind’.

Directed by Stephen Frears, and starring Gordon Warnecke as Omar and Daniel Day-Lewis as Johnny, the film did so well at the Edinburgh Festival that it was subsequently distributed internationally. Kureishi won the New York Film Critics’ Best Screenplay Award, an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, and a nomination in the 1986 BAFTAS.

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