Taking Britain to the cleaners

Most of the features at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival arrived trailing some kind of reputation in their wake; Back to the Future was the big summer hit in the ‘States, Mishirna had knocked them for six at Cannes and the mere mention of Hail, Mary has provoked fits of apOplexy in the Vatican. It was a real pleasure therefore for audiences and critics alike to make a discovery of their own in the delightful form of My Beautiful Laundrette, a modestly budgeted feature about contemporary Britain. In the film two young men, former schoolfriends, team up to turn a rundown laundrette into a glittering monument to entrepreneurial flair. The fact that one ofthem is a middle-class Pakistani and the other a working-class white with National Front associations and that they become lovers are just some of the unpredictable elements of an economically structured film that totally subverts convention as it comments on issues of colour. love, class and politics in Thatcher’s England.

The film marks a remarkable debut by wn'ter Hanif Kureishi. Originally

Kureishi worked within the limitations of a Film on 4 slot; the budget had to be kept low, around £600,000, and the final result had to fit into a 90 minute time-slot. Nevertheless he seems well pleased with his first film experience. The latter is something he attributes to a genuinely collaborative relationship with the director Stephen Frears, who insisted that he be present during the filming, and the supportive stance of Channel 4. ‘I regard Channel 4 as one ofthe great outlets for writers. It has assumed the role once held by the Thursday Play and Play for Today as an outlet for work of a serious, intense and challenging nature,‘ he avows. ‘I’m surprised that we got away with what we did. After all the film has sodomy, nudity, drugs, violence. Mary Whitehouse will probably object. She pretends not to like sex and violence but its really people’s politics that she objects to as much as anything else.’

Kureishi himself is a member of the Labour Party though hardly enamoured by its stance over the years on issues of colour. His work is an attempt to cast up a mirror to society and reflect it in its entirety. ‘The British self-definition has never expanded to include people ofother colours,’ he affirms. ‘There is still an insulari‘" whereby the idea of blacks

between the lads and Omar. There wouldn’t have been the same pull if it had just been a friendship so the gay aspect is there to heighten that tension and flowed from the action. I’d often written about two close male friends and friends said, ‘You’re really writing gay plays’, so I thought why not go the whole hog?’ My Beautiful Laundrette is one of a mere handful of films reflecting on-going issues in British society with only Letter to Brezhnev and Defence of the Realm springing to mind as contemporaneous examples of this seemingly endangered species. It’s a situation that Kureishi finds regrettable. ‘There are so few films dealing with recognisable issues. In the 19605 there was a healthy school of social realism, now nobody seems interested in making films about racism, sexism, Thatcherism or whatever. Laundrette emerged as quite a light film but it could have been slower or heavier. The film uses irony because that is the modern mode of the dramatist. Everything is so gruesome that you’ve got to send it up. I would have loved it to have been an hour longer and created a Godfather-style epic about England since 1945 and expand some of the ideas present in the characters of Omar’s family but no one would have given me the money to do that.’

Although written before the recent riots and police violence the film will be viewed in the context of these

planned as a production for Channel 4 the wave of acclaim that greeted its

sterile aesthete horrifyingly engaged to Lucy Honeychurch. ‘He interested me as a character. He is unsympathetic for 99% ofthe film but he has that believable spark of humanity at the end. He shows his potential as a human being.‘

Human potential is something Daniel looks for and explores in his characters. The realisation of it in his own career is perhaps the ‘Clintian’ control of destiny he is working towards. At British Film Year’s Roadshow in Bristol recently Daniel found himselfspeaking out. ‘I’d like to feel I could contribute something to an industry my grandfather gave his life to.’

Not like Jonathan, not even like Kafka, his latest role in Alan Bennett’s new play, The Insurance Man, Daniel Day Lewis cuts an idiosyncratic figure as he crosses the West End on bike. No longer a poet’s son either, Day Lewis is about to enter his most significant phase as individualistic freedom fighter on Britain’s film sets.

Edinburgh appearance has swept it off the small screen and on to a national cinema release; a fact that he views with gratification and irony. The irony stems from his conviction that the script would never have seen the light of a projector had it been originally envisaged as a cinema film. ‘The British cinema is politically and culturally conservative and tends to replicate the dull state ofthe people at the top of the industry who try to cater for what they think an audience wants and really have no idea,‘ he believes. ‘My Beautiful Laundrette was always intended as a 90 minute Film on 4. If I’d gone to the British film industry and said give me a £1 million for a film about a gay Pakistani running a laundrette they’d have told me to fuck off right away.’

Born in Bromley in South London it was Kureishi’s previous work as a playwright and writer-in-residence at the Royal Court Theatre that brought him to the attention of Channel 4. ‘They had been looking to do something on the subject of ‘Asians in Britain‘ and because I’d written plays in this area they thought I might be the person to do it. I went off to Pakistan and wrote a draft and we had meetings at which other ideas arose. A friend of my family runs a laundrette and was. always telling us stories about the boilers bursting or the pipes freezing and people throwing sausage rolls in the spinners. He asked me to work there and I said, No way!’ Then, when I wrote this script I started to think what might have happened if I’d accepted his offer. Like Omar I’d probably have got someone else to do all the work because I’d have been so helpless.’

‘Mary Whitehouse will probably object’

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as British hasn’t permeated. I once approached the BBC with an idea for a series about a Pakistani boy coming to stay with an English family but they turned it down because Tandoori Nights was coming out and they thought that area ofdrama was being adequately covered. Channel

4 has an ethnic department which suggests something like Brazilian pottery makers to me, but ofcourse it isn’t. In My Beautiful Laundrette I wrote parts specifically for Saaed Jeffrey and Roshand Seth who’d played bit parts in the ‘Raj’ epics which usually consist of two Europeans copulating in front of the Taj Mahal in immaculately clean costumes.’

The sexual relationship between the main protagonists is neither over emphasised nor stereotypical and can be viewed as another example of Kureishi’s refusal to indulge in the conventional. ‘It isn’t a gay film,’ he explains. ‘The relationship between the two of them had to be intense so that Johnny is convincingly torn

events and a conclusion in which black and white are reconciled through the power of love may be construed as overly optimistic dramatic licence. Kureishi disagrees, ‘I don‘t think its unduly optimistic. It’s quite grim really because the laundrette has been smashed up and although Omar and Johnny are together Thatcherism goes on, capitalism goes on and the white kids outside are still there. The alternative would have been for the two of them to split up. I tried to write that but it just didn’t work and I wanted to write a gay relationship that survived instead of the usual bitterness or unhappiness.’

My Beautiful Laundrette opens in America in February and Kureishi is currently completing a play for the Royal Court Theatre entitled Swinging. He would like to work on film again although there have been no further offers yet and perhaps the unique experience of his first encounter has spoilt him for the less engaging traumas ofa writer’s life in the screen trade. ‘Maybe because I’d never written a film before I wasn’t hidebound by any conventions and felt freer to do whatever I wanted,’ he suspects. ‘Orson Welles felt something similar about Citizen Kane although I wouldn‘t presume to compare the two films but that innocence maybe gave it the uniqueness that people became so enthused about at Edinburgh because we were astonished by the reception there. Welles believed that you should concentrate on life not on other films. You can’t do anything like this in a calculated way; you just do your work with integrity and hOpe that people respond.’

The List 1—14 November 3