My Beautiful Laundrette by Shrai Popat
Illustration by Surya Shekhar
Shrai Popat is a writer and producer from London. He writes about the arts, culture and social justice issues. He is currently based in New York City attending Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
There is a moment in Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette when our protagonist, Omar, is handed over the keys to his uncle’s latest real estate acquisition: an ailing laundrette in South London. Overnight, he transforms from an acid-wash jean clad car washer into a double-breasted suit wearing business owner. He becomes both the very embodiment of his megalomaniacal uncle’s effusions of Thatcherite Britain, and the subject of his bed-ridden, Socialist father’s derision. Beaming as he walks around his new project, he sees potential in the stale wallpaper and the broken washing units. My Beautiful Laundrette was my first on-screen encounter of the immigrant work ethic of which I had grown up.
For most parents and grandparents who have migrated to the UK, the greatest inheritance they can pass onto future generations is the sensibility that working tirelessly can bring you the comfort you desire. For older generations, opportunity is the real commodity, and one that is readily available and should be seized. It’s something both sets of my grandparents professed throughout my adolescence. Despite coming to the UK as refugees, having fled as a result of Idi Amin’s expulsion of Indians in Uganda in 1972, the racism and xenophobia that came with this move was always suppressed in favour of middle-class aspiration. In My Beautiful Laundrette, as he ruthlessly evicts a black poet who hasn’t paid his rent, Omar’s Uncle Nasser is quick to point out that he is a ‘professional businessman, not a professional Pakistani’, and any question of race is irrelevant in the burgeoning enterprise culture.
Every time I watch My Beautiful Laundrette I find myself giggling at just how astutely Kureishi captured the essence of a generation riddled with contradictions. He took the South Asian caricatures that he had seen throughout childhood and layered them. The money-driven and patriarchal Uncle Nassar and Uncle Saleem have few redeeming qualities, but they are brilliantly nuanced examples of how likeability is the forfeit of diasporic success. In that same vein, Kureishi undoes the puritanical archetypes of strict South-Asian households and gives us human characters riddled with vices, urges and passions.
The missing piece of Omar’s new found success is a wife. He entertains the idea of marrying his cousin throughout the film, the fierce-spirited and unapologetic Tania. This keeps the veneer of a dutiful Pakistani boy in place as he rekindles the flame with old school-friend, and now full-time fascist and punk gang member, Johnny (played by Daniel Day-Lewis and sporting perhaps the only good example of frosted tips in cinematic history).
At first it appears to be an unlikely friendship, but when they share that first kiss you see the depth of the relationship. My Beautiful Laundrette’s magic lies in how Gordon Warnecke and Daniel Day-Lewis craft an untold history through the smallest of gestures. From knowing smirks that suggest an ancient- and unspoken- anecdote or in-joke, to neck-kisses and brief hand-holds in places where they know that one misstep will cost them everything. Their relationship is certainly established, but you get the feeling that they have had to hit the pause button so many times that resuming is always an ephemeral endeavour.
Long before Elio and Oliver were lingering among Crema’s porticos in Call Me by Your Name, Johnny and Omar were sharing stolen moments around Wandsworth. They make plans to transform the money pit Omar has inherited into the ‘The Ritz of laundrettes’. They decorate. They laugh. They kiss in alleyways, in Omar’s car, even in the laundrette. They craft a universe that is theirs and theirs alone. That was, and still is in queer cinema, so radical.
Released in 1985, the film was made for television, but as it picked up critical acclaim on the festival circuit it confirmed its place in cinemas. By 1985 the AIDS crisis had built momentum and homophobia was the mainstream antidote. Yet whenever Johnny and Omar are intimate there is a pervasive sense of authority, that they belong there and nothing can disrupt the utopia that they have carved out.
The laundrette’s renovation is really the process of camping it up. Most notably through a name change from the dowdy (and imperious) ‘Churchill’s’, to the brilliantly dubious ‘Powders’. With that it starts to resemble the 80s nightclub that its very name suggests, replete with neon light and lush plants.
Johnny and Omar become the proprietors of a space that they have built together and I remember watching and thinking that they were the precursors to the B&B owners, or the couple who run the trendy deli. These now seem like tired tropes of queer men as fabulous decorators and hosts, but as I sat watching my DVD in North London in the mid-noughties (still far too young to really appreciate it) there was something seismic about the pair’s temerity in the face of suspicion.
While they are not open about their relationship, Johnny and Omar push boundaries and take risks. The pair seem intent on making their relationship almost-public. Nerve-wracking moments occurs when Johnny surreptitiously licks Omar’s neck while hugging in full view of his fellow punk gang members, or when they are nearly caught making love in the laundrette office as Omar’s uncle arrives for the grand unveiling of the new space. The pair are both mischievous and genuine, which makes every moment of intimacy that bit more tender to watch.
But fault lines occur when race and queerness come into contact. Kureishi shows that immigrant success is not only predicated on your ability to assimilate, but it is tinged with a vengeance to make sure that any bigot screaming ‘paki’ or ‘wog’ is punished.
After Johnny observes just how ‘greedy’ Omar has gotten in his pursuit of his laundrette empire, Omar explains to him that wealth is only part of what he wants, he wants payback for every slur and moment of Johnny has ever thrown his way while they were growing up.
As Omar throws his power about he reminds Johnny that ‘you’re cleaning my floors’, we suddenly see every ounce of Omar’s burden weighing down on his shoulders. The deep affection for his white lover violently collides with his first-generation ambitions. In this way the film takes a pretty great stab at elucidating the fraught, queer immigrant experience: both mistrusting and enamoured with the Brits who make their lives impossible.
And that is how My Beautiful Laundrette’s brilliance still shines through, from the imperfect, yearning, angry and hopeful characters Kureishi renders. It’s at once a commentary of capitalist gain and queer fragility. In an interview with The Observer, Kureishi spoke about how after My Beautiful Laundrette was released, he felt ‘British writing had found a new voice and a new way.’ Yes, he sounds pleased with himself, but My Beautiful Laundrette is so fresh because it is a film that doesn’t compromise intersectionality, but embraces it. And for that, I am pleased with him too.
Surya Shekhar Biswas is a Graphic Designer / Visual Artist from India, with a special interest in minimalism, foreign typography, kitsch, queer art & design for change.