By Adil Bhat
In his screenplay, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), the British Pakistani author, Hanif Kureishi chronicles the life of Pakistani immigrant, Omar Ali, in South London inner-city of Battersea. It depicts the reality of the place through the squalid imageries of crime, sex, and drugs, laced with the complexities of postcolonial racial identity that travels through the borders. The narrative of the screenplay is set against the backdrop of twentieth century’s post-war colonial immigration to Britain. Ali is the protagonist in this screenplay. And it is through Ali and his extended family in London that Kureishi creates a complex gallery of Pakistani immigrant life that in the first instance defies stereotyping. The narrative, in Leonard Quart’s words, “never indulges in the kind of patronizing sentimentality that turns the Pakistanis into either social problems or mere victims of English racism.”
The themes running throughout the text of the screenplay revolve around multicultural identities that include alienation, exclusion, conflict, sense of belonging, and also the complexity of sexuality. Torn between the two extremes of tradition and modernity, each of these elements is represented by two characters of Omar’s family in the screenplay. While Omar’s father longs to go back to their home in Pakistan, Nasser, his brother, finds the country “sodomised by religion.” In the climactic conversation between the two brothers, Nasser tells him, “compared with everywhere, it [is] a little heaven here [London].” This is a powerful climax, which successfully attempts to bring to the fore the complexities of an immigrant life, the struggle to survive, and conflicts with the self. Kureishi brilliantly sums up the theme of his screenplay in the last five pages, leaving the reader to ponder over the profound questions of an immigrant identity – race, belonging, and sexuality.
In Kureishi’s work, we see that the burden of immigration falls on British multiculturalism, that is, any policy paralysis at the level of the Government is quickly blamed on the immigrants, who find space in a culturally diverse society. As Whiteman argues, “…the resentful, marginalized and disillusioned working class [fails] to control and integrate post-war immigrants into Britain. This political sacrifice blamed multiculturalism for white working class socioeconomic disparities, when, in reality, they were marginalized through ineffective housing and employment policies.” He depicts a time when “inequality became almost exclusively understood through the prism of race and ethnic identity.” In My Beautiful Laundrette, one observes that the link between race, inequality, and the rise of multiculturalism has led the white working class to think of themselves as a new ethnic minority with their own distinctive culture. The tension between immigrant and indigenous groups within Britain is realistically represented in the screenplay, as is evident in the declaration of Johnny’s disgruntled friend and National Front member:
I don’t like to see one of our blokes [Johnny] groveling to Pakis. Look they came over here to work for us. That’s why we brought them over, okay?
This colonialist mentality illustrates the resentment against mass post-war immigration, which many white working class people feel has resulted in their economic and social downturn. This story – a richly textured and most original account of a Pakistani immigrant life in London – is of particular interest because of Kureishi’s experiential epistemology. It recounts the author’s first trip to Pakistan, where he found a combination of servility towards Western culture and troglodytic calls for a return to Islamic purity. It is in Pakistan that Kureishi becomes aware of his British identity, but he returns to Britain only to see once again how he is still perceived by the English as the “other” – a “Paki.”
Alexander Whiteman writes that the text also “portrays the multifaceted relationship of two homosexual men, one of middle class, British-Pakistani ethnicity and the other of a white British working class background, struggling to live in multiracial London.” Here, Omar represents the British-Pakistani ethnicity and Johnny, his school friend, the indigenous white working class.
In My Beautiful Laundrette, one notices a negotiation of sexuality. The two men rekindle their teenage relationship when they are alone together in the laundrette. It is illustrative of how they escaped the ethical and moral boundaries that both society and Omar’s family had imposed on them. When they are left alone in the laundrette, they are able to surpass Omar’s family’s cultural expectation of a heterosexual arranged marriage between Omar and Tania. Similarly, Johnny is able to detach himself from his racist group of resentful white working class peers and form a relationship with the supposed “other” – the son of a Pakistani immigrant. In this sense, the laundrette further serves as an analogy for the individual fulfillment the two men feel, regenerating it from an abandoned, misused business to a successful one. Their relationship, like the laundrette, demands hard work and commitment through adversity, symbolised by their secretive relationship, which only allows them to show affection for each other in darkness, outside of the “real world”. The dominant discourse on ‘correct’ model of sexuality foregrounds the importance of spatiality in the screenplay. It is in these spaces, which are hidden and dark, that the less dominant form of sexuality finds form and expression.
My Beautiful Laundrette further illustrates the general ignorance attached to homosexuality – that is, it can be a conscious decision rather than always being a natural occurrence in human nature. This is evident when Omar’s uncle, Salim, questions whether his nephew’s penis is in working order, when he shies away from the idea of marriage with Tania. It did not occur to Salim that possibly his nephew chose to be a homosexual. However, some scholars have argued that there is very little scientific evidence that sexuality is a state we are born into. This means that homosexuality is still a choice. The film seems to critique this when Omar drunkenly proposes to Tania in an effort to both please his family’s expectations of heteronormativity and to deny his homosexual feelings. Both Omar and Johnny, however, are seen to struggle with their feelings of homosexuality after hearing the news of Omar’s engagement. In an attempt to bury his feelings for Omar, Johnny leaves the laundrette and decides to drink all by himself. The engagement unsurprisingly falls through, and Johnny, after failing to abide by expectations of heteronormativity, confesses his secret relationship to Tania. This illustrates how Omar and Johnny could not successfully deny their genuine sexuality. The case for innate sexuality is, thus, still unclear, both academically and scientifically. This means that any such investigation into the issue is limited.
In this ironic, intelligently structured screenplay, Kureishi succeeds in dealing with issues that still hold relevance in twenty first century. My Beautiful Laundrette provides a satirical, comic portrait of upper middle class Pakistanis in twentieth century England, where young, native Cockneys have only the dole and street violence to console them. The Pakistanis are ambivalent about Thatcher’s England, but are not put off by its racism, knowing that “there is money in the muck.” They feel contempt for the English, who lack the energy and drive to “squeeze the tits of the system.” Still, they become nostalgic about their past privileged life in Karachi. Nasser continues to run his home in the traditional way, with an illiterate wife and daughters clipping his toe nails, while he holds court like an eighteenth century Raja in an undivided India.
In the screenplay, the immigrant and indigenous idiosyncratic lives vividly reflect the social realities of the time – ambiguous and dark.
Adil Bhat is Assistant Editor at New York-based Magazine, Café Dissensus. He has contributed articles in Greater Kashmir, Himal South Asian,Kashmir Reader, Kashmir Life, and Café Dissensus.
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