Director: Stephen Frears
Production: Working Title/SAF Productions for Channel 4; colour; 16mm; running time: 97 minutes; length: 3,507 feet. Released 1985.
Producers: Sarah Radclyffe, Tim Bevan; screenplay: Hanif Kureishi; assistant directors: Simon Hinkly, Waldo Roeg, Gary Davies; photography: Oliver Stapleton; editor: Mick Audsley; assistant editors: Jason Adams, Chris Cook; sound editor: "Budge" Tremlett; sound recordist: Albert Bailey; sound re-recordist: Peter Maxwell; designer: Hugo Luczyc Wyhowski; music: Ludus Tonalis.
Cast: Saeed Jaffrey ( Nasser ); Roshan Seth ( Papa ); Daniel Day-Lewis ( Johnny ); Gordon Warnecke ( Omar ); Derrick Branche ( Salim ); Shirley Anne Field ( Rachel ); Rita Wolf ( Tania ); Souad Faress ( Cherry ); Richard Graham ( Genghis ); Winston Graham ( 1st Jamaican ); Dudley Thomas ( 2nd Jamaican ); Garry Cooper ( Squatter ); Charu Bala Choksi ( Bilquis ); Persis Maravala ( Nasser's Elder Daughter ); Nisha Kapur ( Nasser's Younger Daughter ); Neil Cunningham ( Englishman ); Walter Donohue ( Dick O'Donnell ); Gurdial Sira ( Zaki ); Stephen Marcus ( Moose ); Dawn Archibald ( 1st Gang Member ); Jonathan Moore ( 2nd Gang Member ); Gerard Horan ( Telephone Man ); Ram John Holder ( Poet ); Bhasker ( Tariq ); Ayub Khan Din ( Student ); Dulice Leicier ( Girl in Disco ); Badi Uzzaman ( Dealer );
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Root, Jane, "Scenes from a Marriage," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), November 1985.
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* * *
In an interview, Haneif Kureishi, the writer of My Beautiful Laundrette , revealed that his original idea for the film was an historical epic tracing the fortunes of a Pakistani family from their emigration to Britain in 1945 until the 1970s. Yet the film was realised as a surrealistic comedy-thriller set exclusively in Thatcher-stricken south London, with the narrative drive supplied by the meteoric rise of Omar, a young Asian businessman. Commercial pressures may have insured this transformation of the My Beautiful Laundrette project but the end result suggests a transcendence of inevitable constraints. The film, which cost the meagre sum of £60,000, was commissioned for the "Film on Four" slot on television, but after a screening at the Edinburgh festival had received enthusiastic reviews, it succeeded on the international cinema trail, picking up prizes and helping to provoke numerous claims of a British cinema renaissance.
Critical and box-office success is unusual for a film in which the main protagonist is black and gay, a representation which until My Beautiful Laundrette had been virtually absent from British cinema. Kureishi has spoken of his positive prejudice against white middle-class heterosexual men within his work, a stance which is maintained by his subsequent script for Sammie and Rosie Get Laid . In My Beautiful Laundrette conventional heterosexuality is parodied in the scene which shows the opening of Omar's new laundrette. Here Omar's uncle waltzes with his mistress Rachel among the washing machines, oblivious to both the onlooking crowd and Omar and Johnny's lusty celebrations in the back-room. One camera position during this scene is a spy's view of Nasser and Rachel from this back-room. This contributes to the ironic treatment of the heterosexual pair because it provides the audience with a vantage point on their activity. It is noteworthy, however, that this position does not coincide with the point of view of the gay lovers and that the Nasser/Rachel relationship is not representative of heterosexuality in general.
The film's politics cannot be pigeon-holed. If it was a gay separatist film we might expect it to emphasize more strongly the oppression of gay sexuality and to depart from the romantic conventions of mainstream cinema. Instead the film shows to a degree how a gay relationship may be celebrated as an old-fashioned romance. For the most part other characters are unaware of Omar and Johnny's love. The audience is asked to cherish this love as a secret rather than dwelling on the problems of a relationship barred from the public realm. When the laundrette opens Omar looks into a transparent division and sees Johnny looking back. Their reflections are shown to overlap, an effect which intimates a sublime notion of romantic union.
Equally striking is the way that My Beautiful Laundrette departs from the liberal view that racial minorities require positive images in order to counter-act racism and under-representation. The men within Omar's family are to an extent selfish gangsters. Omar exploits his lover Johnny; Uncle Nasser is a Rachman-style landlord; meanwhile Salim, whose status as a relation remains enigmatic and dubious, shares a store of reciprocal contempt and violence with a National Front gang. The film is out to show that the Asian minority is not automatically in opposition to the dominant ideology, while shaking the conservative assumption that British identity is a stable property.
However, Omar's male kin are not all Thatcherites. In contrast to Uncle Nasser, Omar's father has a past as a left-wing journalist in Bombay. Despite being confined to bed and the bottle he continues to advise his son that education is the only virtue. We can see here how the film retains a sense of history alongside its innovative representations of the Asian community. The opposition established between the father and Uncle Nasser alludes to a complex heritage of conflicting ideologies within the community. The development of the narrative provides us with a sense of history in which beliefs from the past become the debris of today: Omar's triumph with the washing machines makes his father's humanistic hopes seem like futile idealism and brings the father and Nasser together again as a generation which has been superseded.
The emergence of a new era is conveyed by the refurbished laundrette where the task of washing is packaged as an entertaining past-time. "Powders," as they call the building, is not just an entrepreneurial investment but also a space in which customers can play out their fantasies, as Nasser and Rachel demonstrate. The spectacular interior of "Powders" reveals the deviation of My Beautiful Laundrette from the strict visual code of verisimilitude, which broadly speaking has had a certain hold on ideas about what constitutes "Quality" British cinema.
The menacing atmosphere which certain scenes achieve indicates the influence of director Stephen Frears whose previous work for the cinema included the stylish gangster film The Hit . In particular, the encounters between Selim and the gang are nightmarish, even though this troupe of thugs are at times comically grotesque. Critics have also praised Frears's capacity to let strong performances emerge, a quality born out by his Hollywood debut, Dangerous Liaisons . My Beautiful Laundrette provided a springboard to stardom for the actor Daniel Day Lewis, while Saeed Jaffrey and Shirley Anne Field received high acclaim.