Kureishi’s England

Margaret Walters

  • The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
    Faber, 284 pp, £12.99, April 1990, ISBN 0 571 14274 5

The ‘beautiful laundrette’ that provides the title for Hanif Kureishi’s first film catches the flavour of his very personal brand of humour – off beat, off-the-wall with a cynical twist. Indian teenager Omar, working for his uncle while he waits to go to college, takes over a dingy, run-down laundrette, and tarts it up – with orange walls, fish tanks, hanging ferns, muzak and a glittering, picture-palace neon sign – till it’s ‘a ritz among laundrettes’. He hustles, steals from his family, and bosses his white friend Johnny into doing the dirty manual work, then stages a grand opening ceremony, champagne corks popping while eager customers queue outside. (The movie has quite a lot in common with that notorious strip-teasing Levi’s ad: Omar knows a launderette is a refuge from the drab, lonely streets, a meeting-place that promises entertainment and sexual or at least voyeuristic excitement.) Kureishi gives an exuberant account of one South London kid who makes his kitschy fantasies come true; at the same time, his movie is a chilling anatomy of a Thatcherite businessman in the making, and already on the make.

Hanif Kureishi found the perfect foil in the director Stephen Frears, who’s proved again and again, in films as different as Prick up your ears and Dangerous Liaisons, his talent for black comedy, and his eye for the perverse and grotesque, for characters who are both farcical and pathetic. Five years on, My Beautiful Laundrette looks as fresh and inventive as ever. The love-affair between boyhood friends Omar and Johnny (complicated by the fact that Johnny has recently been turning up at anti-Pakistani demonstrations in full Nazi gear) is handled easily and unemphatically. The movie offers a shrewd, sympathetic and unclichéd view of an extended Asian family who are thoroughly at home in Britain; its wickedly precise wit spares none of the characters.

The second movie from the Kureishi-Frears stable, Sammy and Rosie get laid, is more ambitious – where the first made sly, glancing comments on the greed and impotence of Eighties Britain, this grapples with Thatcherism head-on – and less satisfying. In spite of the provocative title, in spite of its disarming extravagance and flashy, often flippant style, it frequently seems heavy-handed. It opens with Margaret Thatcher pontificating about renewing the inner cities, as police shoot a black woman cooking her son’s supper; the action plays out against an apocalyptic vision of looters and rioters in burning streets. South London is a permanent (and perversely exciting) combat zone, which looks as if it should be ‘twinned with Beirut’. At the close, bulldozers – to the ironically rousing strains of ‘I vow to thee, my country’ – wreck the caravan camp under Westway, an idyllically multiracial community of transient street-people and buskers who are seen, sentimentally, as the only hope for contemporary London.

The movie’s strength is in pinpointing the gap between the characters’ actual lives and their self-flattering fantasies, political and personal. Sammy and Rosie are a relentlessly trendy married couple (he’s an accountant, she’s a social worker) who sleep around on principle, and wonder why their own relationship seems so empty. Sammy is childish, irresponsible, greedy (in one scene he shuts out the world with his headphones while simultaneously snorting coke and gobbling a Big Mac) and still resentful of the Indian father who abandoned him as a baby. Rosie – feline, self-satisfied – is a right-on radical and feminist (photos of Lacan and Virginia Woolf are pinned on her study wall; she claims she’s writing a politico-sociological study of snogging), who gets her kicks from the picturesque violence and chaos on the streets. Their friends – a pretty American photographer, who’s bedding Sammy and who treats the whole world as her department store, and a couple of stridently self-righteous lesbians – are no more successful at combining freedom with commitment.

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