My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985)
Updated: Oct 18
The current Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was born at a South London hospital and lived in a South London housing estate as a child. His grandparents migrated from Lucknow in United Provinces, British India, to Pakistan, following the partition of India in 1947. His parents, a bus driver and a seamstress, came to the United Kingdom shortly before Sadiq was born. His personal story is an exception, translated in the fact that he is the first Muslim Mayor of London. When Hanif Kureishi wrote the script for My Beautiful Laundrette in 1984, telling the story of an immigrant Pakistani family, Khan’s rise into a position of power was simply too unrealistic to imagine. So much so that a movie like My Beautiful Laundrette shook the conventions and still today remains a subversive work of social realism.
The movie begins with a scene of violence: early in the morning, two men break into a house, forcing Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his roommate to escape through the window. It’s not a police invasion, but some dodgy landlords who use strength instead of a Court order to make their business profitable. Johnny is a white racist and fascist young man who belongs to a punk gang in South London. He spends his days essentially selling drugs in clubs and terrorising immigrants on the streets. He is also very sexy, a cockney version of James Dean in Rebel without a Cause.
But Johnny has a childhood friend, Omar. a Pakistani son whose dad can’t work. Omar looks like a housewife: he cooks soup for his dad, cuts (badly) his dad’s toenails and hangs out the washing on the clothesline in the backyard. The backyard faces the London railway. Similarly to Johnny, he doesn’t have much privacy at home.
Omar’s dad is worried about his son’s future. He’d like him to go to college, but this is a distant aspiration. What he can do now to help his son is recommending him to work for his brother. Omar begins to work at his uncle’s car wash company, first washing cars, and then as an accountant. His uncle’s businesses are growing and diversifying. Omar asks to work at his little laundrette, a neighbourhood meeting point. Soon Omar realises he can grow too, so he refurbishes the laundrette.
We don’t know for sure where the money to invest comes from, but there is a suggestion of dirty business. My Beautiful Laundrette flirts with mafia films, though in essence, it’s a comedy. Omar’s uncle plays cards with his friends and male relatives; he is married to a Pakistani but he has a white lover (Rachel) and he is surrounded by drug dealers. It’s not a surprise that the main setting is a laundrette, as it refers to money laundering.
Omar is an ambitious guy. He employs his friend Johnny to help him refurbish the laundrette and he doesn’t discharge the family dirty business. Working for the Pakistanis transforms Johnny deeply. His character is a mass of contradiction. Omar’s uncle allows Johnny to live for free in one of his properties, and soon Johnny is doing the very same thing that he hated at the beginning of the movie: kicking out bad tenants.
The romance between Johnny and Omar comes naturally with their proximity. It’s hidden, because Omar’s family will never admit a homosexual among them, and because Johnny’s fascists friends will ostracise him from the group the minute all is revealed. Obviously, as a simple and honest punk, Johnny challenges the status quo and finds ways to express his feelings even with his gangster friends at sight. (see image 1 below). This will, of course, cause him trouble.
Omar’s journey is more complex. His inner conflicts are deep. He doesn’t want to distance himself from his family; on the contrary, he is determined to take advantage of his uncle’s prestige and his social position. His romance with Johnny turns into a game of power. At some point, he admits to Johnny: “You are working for me. That’s how I like it”. Exploiting a white British was not premeditated and it doesn’t diminish the love Omar has for Johnny. Objectifying the recipient of love is as odd as the title of the movie itself. It juxtaposes two uncommon notions: a laundrette is not usually beautiful.
The redecoration is in fact another way to refer to sanitised environments. Let’s wipe what’s dirty; let’s eliminate immigrants; let’s arrest rioters.
Ingenuously, Kureishi mixes class, caste, race, sexuality and politics into a contemporary satirical romance. His screenplay was nominated for the Academy Awards. Most recently, Kureishi adapted his screenplay to a theatre play that was on at The Curve Theatre in Leicester. Asian or Asian British (Indians and Pakistanis) population sums up to 28.30% in Leicester, according to the 2011 Census. About its relevance today, the author affirms that: “The flag-waving, the nationalism, the racism, the betrayal and the abandonment of the white working-class” are very relevant today. He goes on: “We’ve made little progress in terms of race and racism, and the struggle against racism needs to be reviewed every single day.”
Stylistically Stephen Frears’s camerawork might seem a little dated at first. We are never really in the scene; we are just preying, snooping around. Frears makes us see the external structure of a building when we are following one character moving around the house. The British filmmaker devised the use of the two-way mirror (see picture 2 below). The technique brings another layer of meaning to the ideas of power and submission. This is a repetitive move throughout the film. It occurs again when a relative is spying Omar through a car mirror (see picture 3 below).
In terms of political references, there are three major quotes that situate us in time. Firstly, before its renovation, the laundrette is named after Churchill. The screenwriter ironically refers to its nationalist associations because Churchill was among the principal players of the partition. The real historical conflict numbers are as follows: the death toll has been estimated at 200,000 to two million. Between 10 million and 20 million people were displaced. It is understood though that ideologically many migrants support national heroes of the country they chose to live, so to be accepted in the new society. This is probably why Nasser identifies with Churchill.
Secondly, Omar’s uncle (Nasser) toasts to Thatcher. Again, without the lenses of Thatcher years, it is hard to follow the narrative. The plot keeps the audience nervous with anticipation similarly to what happened in Thatcher’s enterprise society.
Thirdly, Nasser lines are explicitly controversial: “I am a professional businessman, not a professional Pakistani”. My Beautiful Laundrette kicks out the conventional image of what an Asian should be.
Regarding the roles of women, here too we find complexity. It’s not Nasser that abandons Rachel, but the opposite. A submissive lover suddenly has control of her life to the point that Nasser admits to his brother he doesn’t know what he is going to do next. Nasser’s daughter recklessly tries to seduce Omar, but in vain. Traditionally arranged marriages among Pakistanis are a rule but soon she realises that she won’t succeed. Instead of accepting the next promised fiancée in line, she leaves home.
The score in My Beautiful Laundrette lacks originality. The emphasis though is on the soundscape. Many times, we hear the sound of bubbles. The bubbling effect stands for eroticism and for certain Frears influenced other filmmakers. The same erotic washing machine is in The Neighbouring Sounds by (Kléber Mendonça Filho, 2012).
The washing machine also stands for the turmoil that increases from the mid-point to the end. Things are turning upside down inside the machine and also for every character. All the characters suffer deep transformations. The washing machine at work is a symbol of agitation for flipping dramatic setups.
My Beautiful Laundrette is more than an LGBT movie. No matter how much it takes into account the resistance of minorities, identity policies and the portrait of the London suburbs, the narrative converges to the discussion of the unreferenced subject, distant from what it was and what it intends to be. When Omar categorically states that he does not want to be defeated by this country (England), we understand that the real tension is inserted in the idea of impossibilities.