The South Asian Britain of My Beautiful Laundrette

On Film / Features — Jul 30, 2015
My Beautiful Laundrette Omar

My Beautiful Laundrette was both a product of and a response to the social and political landscape of 1980s Britain. The film depicts the lives of Pakistani immigrants with wit and brio, in a style that borrows from both realism and fantasy. It was commissioned by Channel 4—Britain’s fourth television station—which had been created in 1982 with a specific remit to be innovative and provide a platform for fresh and challenging new voices.

Only a spiky upstart like Channel 4 would have given another spiky upstart like Hanif Kureishi the opportunity to write his first screenplay and work with experienced television director Stephen Frears. The South London son of a Pakistani immigrant father and an English mother, Kureishi was a promising new playwright with a punkish modern sensibility. (He had written his first novel, Run Hard Black Man, at the age of fourteen, and by eighteen was working for the Royal Court Theatre.) When Channel 4 approached him, his first instinct was to write a sprawling multigenerational family epic that did for Pakistanis in Britain what The Godfather had done for Italians in America. Originally intended to be a film for television, My Beautiful Laundrette was ultimately a far more modest affair than Coppola’s masterpiece, but both films are about immigrants fighting to be accepted in their new homeland; when one of the characters says “I believe in England,” there is an unmistakable echo of the opening line from The Godfather.

My Beautiful Laundrette is the story of Omar (Gordon Warnecke), a British Pakistani with big ambitions to renovate his uncle’s laundrette, and Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), the former skinhead he enlists to help him, who becomes his lover. The London that is the backdrop for the story was a city struggling through hard times. The film was released in November 1985, deep into Margaret Thatcher’s second term as prime minister. The Conservative government that Thatcher led was deeply polarizing; the hard-edged economic policies initiated by the administration had savage consequences: towns and communities ravaged by high unemployment, a few grown rich but many more left behind. Immigrant communities were particularly affected—not only by unemployment but also by a police force that would later be condemned as institutionally racist and a society where racism still impeded the job prospects of young black and South Asian people. Riots had erupted in 1981 in cities across Britain, and civil unrest returned to the streets of London, Birmingham, and Liverpool in the fall of 1985, only months before the release of the film. These riots occurred in areas with large ethnic minority populations, which were the participants in disturbances seen by some as an articulation of an anger felt by these communities, an anger rooted in feeling marginalized, victimized, and discriminated against.

I was fourteen in 1985, and I recognized those feelings of being marginalized. I was the son of a first-generation Pakistani immigrant father who worked on the production line of a car factory. My dad was ambitious and intelligent, but he was also brown-skinned, and that third fact meant he was never able to achieve the success his talents should have merited. Being a teenage British Pakistani in the eighties was to be aware that one’s ambitions necessarily needed to be smaller than those of one’s white friends. That was the experience of most Pakistanis in Britain.

Kureishi wanted to engage with this experience, but he did so in ways that were more playful than polemic and that referenced his own family and upbringing. He told one interviewer that his grandfather was “a hard-living, hard-drinking gambler. Womanizing. Around him it was like The Godfather. They drank and they gossiped. The women would come and go.” The Pakistanis I knew worked in factories and corner shops and drove taxis, or they were unemployed; alcohol and homosexuality were completely absent from this world. In the film, the characters drink, some have bohemian sensibilities, and others are successful entrepreneurs. In Thatcher’s England, Omar’s enterprising uncle Nasser, played by Saeed Jaffrey, claims, “there is money in the muck” for those who have the energy and drive to “squeeze the tits of the system.”

This depiction of Pakistani immigrants as Thatcher-loving capitalists was not universally welcomed. Mahmood Jamal, a member of the first British Asian film and video collective, set up in 1984, complained that the film expressed “all the prejudices that this society has felt about Asians and Jews—that they are money-grabbing, scheming, sex-crazed people,” and that Kureishi was someone who liked to “reinforce stereotypes of their own people for a few cheap laughs.” For those who saw it in the Asian community, the film did offer much to be shocked about; if the money grabbing didn’t prompt outrage, My Beautiful Laundrette also offered scenes of interracial sex, a young Asian girl pulling her top up, and a gay romance, between Johnny and Omar. In truth, most British Asians would not have seen the film—they were more likely to be watching the Bollywood movies that Channel 4 broadcast at weekends, movies that offered easy escapism, singing and dancing, and no interracial sex. Nevertheless, for many of those South Asians who were curious enough to look beyond Bollywood and did find this film, it proved to be hugely influential and inspiring.

It is now thirty years since My Beautiful Laundrette was released. The Britain of 2015 feels very different from the one depicted in the film. It is a country that is far more comfortable in its skin—whatever the color—than it did. It is fascinating to watch Kureishi’s film and note how often the characters refer to Pakistan or being Pakistani. In the eighties, most of those whose heritage was South Asian identified themselves simply as Asian. This changed following the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses,three years after the release of My Beautiful Laundrette. The protests sparked by the novel marked the emergence of an identity based on religion, and this hardened following the terror attacks of 9/11 in New York and Washington and 7/7 in London. Today, young men and women whose ancestors are from Pakistan are more likely to refer to themselves as Muslims than British Pakistanis. My Beautiful Laundrette belongs to a more innocent age—a time when saying one was Pakistani was not synonymous with being radical and dangerously religious. It also belongs to an age when there were very few actors or writers of Pakistani heritage; My Beautiful Laundrette was a film about Pakistanis, and yet none of the key figures who created it or appear in it are fully Pakistani: Kureishi, as already noted, is of mixed race; Warnecke is of Indo-Guyanese and German descent; many of the other actors are of Indian heritage.

At the time, there were so few opportunities for Asian actors that trying to find a genuinely Pakistani actor to play Omar would probably have been impossible. Today that is not the case, and that is in part a tribute to this film. Without My Beautiful Laundrette, there would have been no East Is East—that 1996 play and 1999 film’s writer, Ayub Khan-Din, had a minor role in the film. Without My Beautiful Laundrette, there would have been no Bend It Like Beckham—that 2002 film’s director, Gurinder Chadha, was given the confidence to become a filmmaker by watching Kureishi and Frears’s effort. The long-running BBC comedy series Goodness Gracious Me—whose cast were all South Asian—also owed a debt to My Beautiful Laundrette, as, in truth, does pretty much every British Asian filmmaker, comedian, and writer, including myself. Those who have followed in that film’s wake have taken differing stylistic paths. They have not always been as political or as spiky as Kureishi—who went on to revisit his own childhood in the 1993 BBC miniseries The Buddha of Suburbia and continued to explore the lives of British Pakistanis in the 1994 short story My Son the Fanatic andthe 1995 novel The Black Album—but they have been emboldened and inspired by him, because what My Beautiful Laundrette proved so decisively and thrillingly to the generation of South Asian writers and performers who saw the film was that, if they believed in their stories and told them with wit and humanity, those stories would find an audience, and they would find a voice.

Three images from the set of My Beautiful Laundrette. Writer Hanif Kureishi appears in the ones at left and center.