My Beautiful Laundrette: Postcolonialism in the Wash

On Film / Essays — Jul 22, 2015

Whereas it took a cluster of “kitchen sink” dramas to enfranchise the northern working class in the British cinema of the early 1960s, a single subversive movie did it for the Anglo-Asian community in the 1980s. My Beautiful Laundrette, written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Stephen Frears, threw a Molotov cocktail of urban chaos, polemical ire, spiky comedy, and mixed-race queer sex into the so-called British Film Renaissance of 1984–86. Though A Private Enterprise (1974) is recognized as the first British Asian film, it was the success of My Beautiful Laundrette in 1985 that kicked open the door for such filmmakers as Ruhul Amin, Gurinder Chadha, Udayan Prasad, Meera Syal, Ayub Khan-Din, Shani Grewal, Firdaus Kanga, and Pratibha Parmar.

Frears and Kureishi’s pungently written, grittily lyrical comedy-drama front-loads the refurbishment and reopening of a run-down washateria in a South London Asian community to explore how Margaret Thatcher’s enterprise culture fostered greed even as it created jobs (though not enough to keep pace with the unemployment caused by Thatcherism’s dismantling of heavy industries). This issue is filtered through the working relationship of the laundrette’s second-generation Anglo-Pakistani manager, Omar Ali (Gordon Warnecke), and Johnny Burfoot (Daniel Day-Lewis), his white, working-class jack-of-all-trades and lover.

The film’s larger concern is the struggle of Asian immigrants—represented by Omar’s father, Hussein (Roshan Seth), and uncle, Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey)—to maintain their ethnic identities while assimilating into a society that offers material rewards for those prepared to abandon their traditions. The intellectual Hussein, formerly a campaigning socialist journalist and friend of Pakistan’s reformist prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, has been unable to adjust. The rise of the racist National Front political party and the Thatcher government’s aggressive monetarism have sickened him. Since the suicide of his wife, he has become a mostly bedridden alcoholic, cared for by Omar in a miserable flat. Nasser, on the other hand, is a cheerfully corrupt Thatcherite entrepreneur and opportunist, whose main business tenet is knowing “how to squeeze the tits of the system.” As a Pakistani family loyalist, though, he has his values and principles, notwithstanding his also having a white mistress, Rachel (Shirley Anne Field). A true figure of contempt is his relative and henchman Salim (Derrick Branche), a sleek, nouveau riche drug trafficker who despises the unemployed white youths Thatcherism has consigned to the gutter. Hussein is anxious for Omar to go to college but enlists Nasser in finding him temporary work, and Omar is soon entrusted with managing the self-service laundry. He hires his newly reencountered childhood friend Johnny, a homeless sometime burglar, as his sole worker.

If this sounds like a sociological tract, it is anything but. Nor did Frears give My Beautiful Laundrette a straightforwardly realist treatment. Despite the authenticity of its inner-city setting, the film has a dreamlike quality that suits its mythic structure. Once Omar takes charge of the laundrette, it becomes the center of the film’s labyrinth of thresholds crossed and uncrossed, of lurking “monsters” that must be “slain,” a magic space where psychological treasure as well as hard cash can be found. All that is below the surface. Above it are the deadpan comic situations and Kureishi’s lightly barbed dialogue. “That country’s been sodomized by religion,” Nasser says of Pakistan. “It’s beginning to interfere with the making of money.” Johnny jokingly calls Omar “Omo,” which conflates “homo” with the name of a popular brand of laundry detergent.

Kureishi was born in suburban Bromley in 1954, the son of an immigrant from Mumbai and an Englishwoman. In the early 1980s, he was acclaimed as the author of plays confronting white working-class racism—which had come to a head with the 1979 Southall race riots—and its effect on the Indian and Pakistani communities. The broadcaster Channel 4, which had been launched in 1982 and provided for the making of programs for minorities, commissioned Kureishi to write My Beautiful Laundrette. He dropped the first draft of his script through Frears’s mail slot.

Frears, born in Leicester in 1941, had already worked in film and TV for twenty years. He had assisted on movies directed by Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson, and Albert Finney, directed episodes of Yorkshire Television’s outstanding children’s period drama Tom Grattan’s War (1970), and, like Mike Leigh, directed his first feature film in 1971. Gumshoe, written by Neville Smith, is a drily humorous hard-boiled-fiction pastiche about a Maltese Falcon–obsessed bingo caller (Finney) who’s drawn into a murder and heroin-smuggling case on Liverpool’s mean streets. It demonstrated not only Frears’s eye for social decay and ear for casual racism but also his facility for nuanced genre appropriation (auguring his 1990 neonoir The Grifters).

After this first feature, Frears returned to television, honing his craft and gaining a reputation for speed, economy, and an ability to prioritize story and character on dramas by the likes of Alan Bennett, Peter Prince, and David Hare. However, the Orwellian 1980 Bloody Kids, written by Stephen Poliakoff, borders on the expressionistic, and Walter, adapted by David Cook from his novel and aired by Channel 4 on its November 1982 opening night, is a harrowing depiction of a mentally handicapped man’s institutionalization, targeting Mrs. Thatcher’s uncaring society.

Frears’s next project, the wry gangster road movie The Hit, was released theatrically. But it was his subsequent work, My Beautiful Laundrette, conceived for television though it was, that sparked his great run of cinema films over the rest of the decade—Prick Up Your Ears (1987), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), and The Grifters.

My Beautiful Laundrette was not at first considered a special case by Channel 4. Shot on 16 mm by Oliver Stapleton (whose seven subsequent films with Frears include his and Kureishi’s combustible multicultural epic Sammy and Rosie), it was produced by Working Title on a six-week schedule and a shoestring budget of $900,000. It wasn’t until the film’s rapturous reception at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August 1985 that its backers realized they had a red-hot movie on their hands and decided it should get a UK cinema run, for which the prints were blown up to 35 mm. Mainline Pictures opened it on November 16, and rolled it out slowly and profitably (an approach Palace Pictures soon adopted for Letter to Brezhnev, the micro-budgeted Liverpool comedy completed with Channel 4 money). On March 7, 1986, Orion released My Beautiful Laundrette in America, where it grossed a handsome $2.45 million.

Channel 4’s public-service remit enabled commissioning editor David Rose’s Film on Four wing to act as a studio for small British films about unprivileged or marginalized people, Walter and Leigh’s Meantime (1983) being early examples. This countered the panaceas of “heritage” costume and British Empire dramas, redolent of conservatism’s xenophobia and investment in the class system, which Frears has often criticized, describing it to me once as “the rattling of teacups.”

My Beautiful Laundrette rattles much more. Its specific critique of postcolonial Britain is achieved through Kureishi’s battery of conflicts—between whites and Asians, between whites and whites, between the Asian and African diasporas, between Asian brother and brother, between Asian parents and their adult children, between men and women. The fact that Omar and Johnny’s sexual relationship is not a source of social conflict, unlike that of Nasser and Rachel, is significant. It’s a masterful stroke of gay-straight taboo reversal that proposes that behavior conventional society has historically vilified may be the most likely to promote harmony. And not just in the film’s overlapping story strands does it reject the good manners and arid formalism associated with films that endorse middle-class and aristocratic values. Frears punctuates it with lurid nocturnal sequences and sudden poetic flights, as when a high tracking shot backs away from the distraught Rachel leaving the opening party at the neon-lit laundrette.

One of the main sources of tension in the film is Johnny’s past membership in the National Front, which attracted “Paki-bashing” skinheads to its extreme-right-wing ranks at the height of its popularity in the mid-1970s. Hussein, who helped Johnny when he was at school, rebukes him for having become a “fascist,” one of the betrayals that broke the aging socialist’s heart. Omar himself uses Johnny’s transgression as a stick with which to beat him when problems surface in their relationship. Nonetheless, the constant shifts in power between the boys suggest their partnership is more balanced than Nasser and Rachel’s affair, which seems to be partially based on her financial dependence on him. The scruffy donkey jacket with waterproof orange plastic shoulders that Johnny initially wears confirms he has been a skinhead; his current image is confused by his peroxide quiff, which suggests a punk or New Romantics influence. In Frears’s first shot of him in the film, his head is bowed, apparently in regret. He and a friend are about to be evicted from the filthy squat in which they have been living. The next time he turns up in the film, he is standing apart from his old NF mates, refusing to join them in harassing Omar, Salim, and Salim’s wife as they sit in a car.

These early images of Johnny reveal he is a youth in transition—one who rejects the system crushing his generation by rejecting the street violence that results indirectly from Conservative policies. Newly employed by Omar, he acquires a sense of self-worth and—if not quite a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis—swaps his too-long-lived-in tribal uniform for a brighter, cleaner look. Observed by Omar in the moments before the laundrette’s opening, he mounts the table where customers will fold their spin-dried clothes and stands there like an Adonis, the brief pose showing that the slumped, disconsolate figure he was at the start of the film has regenerated himself. He has also become the film’s moral center, for he cautions Omar, who has “big plans” for taking over more laundrettes, not to become greedy. The film shares Hussein’s belief that, for the children of immigrants, education is the key to social enlightenment and integration.

More so than Rachel, the disgruntled Tania (Rita Wolf), Nasser’s daughter, is the pivotal female character. Kureishi introduces her as the Ali family conscience and scold, who despises her father for cheating on her mother, Bilquis (Charu Bala Chokshi). She’s also a disruptive comic force. She flashes her breasts at Omar to distract him from listening to her father smugly hold forth to his well-heeled cronies in his den. In a temper, she upends on Bilquis’s lap the witch’s potion she’s concocting to poison Rachel. “I’d rather drink my own urine,” she tells Nasser when he presses her and Omar to get married. Tania is not about to become a submissive Pakistani wife like Bilquis, so she leaves home. When last seen, she is standing on a train station platform. A touch of magical realism removes her from patriarchal control.

My Beautiful Laundrette’s initial acclaim at Edinburgh focused attention on Kureishi as the film’s shaping intelligence, but this underestimated what Frears brought to it, and not simply in terms of eliciting superb performances from the actors. As much the film’s author as Kureishi, Frears uses elements of the decor to show one character’s isolation from another—a spiked fence separates Johnny from Omar at their first encounter, Nasser is behind a grid in a bar when Rachel ends their affair. In many scenes, characters hover in doorways, symbolic thresholds of imminent emotional change or stasis. Night scenes are bathed in sulfurous reds and noirish blues, redolent of the dangers and excitements—sexual and criminal—of the metropolis after dark.

Frears’s masterstroke was to deploy throughout a mise-en-scène that brings to the film a level of revelatory metacinematic self-consciousness. The key to this is the laundrette’s “Powders” neon sign, which makes its exterior resemble that of a small cinema. The interior is deep, as are those of many repertory theaters, and a “widescreen” window separates the washing, drying, and folding area (the space where the “action” takes place) from the back office (a darkened space from which the action can be viewed). Looking at—and through—the window, Omar admires Johnny doing his chores and standing on the table. As Johnny and Omar have sex in the back room before the opening, they become an audience watching Rachel and Nasser dancing in the front. The laundrette’s paying customers contribute to the notion of its being an emporium in which secrets are revealed, stories evolve, and events come to a head. This visual self-consciousness extends beyond the laundrette: at home or in cars, the characters frequently look at other characters through windows or at their own reflections. The film is constructed as a Borgesian hall of mirrors for existential self-interrogation that demands the audience enter in.

Frears and Kureishi do not provide solutions to the problems the film raises. At the end, Britain’s rich are still getting richer and its poor are still getting poorer. The beautiful laundrette has been trashed, Nasser and Rachel have parted, and Tania has evaporated. Only Omar and Johnny’s unity is hopeful—they’re left flicking water at each other in a final positive image of hybridity, the cares of the day forgotten with its soapsuds.