The reshowing of Hanif Kureishi’s timely ‘My Beautiful Launderette‘, yesterday evening was a timely reminder of how far Britain has travelled on race, culture and sexuality. When first shown in the mid-80’s, there was controversy as many within the mainstream could not see the Britain of Hanif, whilst many within Black and Minority Ethnic groups could easily relate to it, yet homophobically, reject the gay relationship at the heart of the film. The open abuse, racism, economic disaffection and community based economics of self-sustainability were all things that many within BAME groups could relate to. The film touches on the ‘need to belong’ which was felt by many at the time within BAME groups and which is still felt by some within communities today. It highlights the fissure in belonging between an alcoholic once well renowned journalist, Ali who wants to return to Pakistan and his son Omar, who strives to better himself in Thatcher’s Britain by building a chain of launderette’s that could lift him out of poverty. The journey for Omar is one built on feeling that Britain is his home, yet it is a foreboding place, one where fascists, cultural baggage and lack of opportunity lurk at every corner. Allied to this is his gay relationship with Johnny, played by Daniel Day Lewis which shows Ali’s development as a person and his desire to be free to live his young life.
Kureishi picks up on a time in our country when unemployment was still high, racism and prejudice were open and where Asian communities were still trying to find their feet, whilst some were exploiting cheap labour within their own communities. It talks about mixed relationships and the relationship with the wealthy Thatcherite (Nasser Ali – played by Saeed Jaffrey), and Rachel (played by Shirley Anne Field), where it becomes clear that Rachel’s life is one shaped by a lack of attention, affection and care. The film also explores the views of a working class Rachel and aspiring Tory, Nasser, with a measure of voodoo thrown in, which many within Asian communities can relate to and dare we say, laugh at.
That Britain of Kureishi has changed and thank God for that. The showing of ‘My Beautiful Launderette,’ really demonstrates how far we have travelled as communities together, though there are continuing issues in some parts of our country and more work has yet to be done. Also, what is interesting to note is that lack of religious terms in the movie with the segmentation into faith identity politics coming very much after the Salman Rushdie affair and which was still to come a few years later. Today, unfortunately, we have a segmentation based on faith politics that has become embedded in our psyche and much of which has been driven by the press and events like the Salman Rushdie affair. Yet Kureishi’s film is also a refreshing look back at an Asian man of Pakistani heritage (Omar), who wants nothing more than to be comfortable and to live out his sexuality. If there is anything we can take away from Kureishi’s film today, it is this. That we all want the same things. Peace, comfort and to live our lives free from fear. In some small way, we are trying to support this reality by ensuring that those who continue to hate and play out the roles of Daniel’s hateful gang, find that the rest of the country sees them more of an aberration than the norm. Much more work has to be done, but Kureishi’s film is an icon in film-making that led the cultural revolution that took place in the 80’s led by black film makers that shaped Britain.