Shirley Anne Field
1 Hr., 37 Mins.
My Beautiful Laundrette March 7, 2018
mar (Gordon Warnecke) is young, Pakistani, and gay. In the British society in which he lives, such a combination puts him in a bind: he wants to be a successful business owner, good to his would-be boyfriend Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), and able to celebrate his national identity as best he can. But in his native Battersea, it’s impossible to do these things without plenty beads of sweat and teardrops shed.
If you’re going to have a lucrative small business, you’d better be willing to cut a few corners. If you’re going to have a romantic relationship, your
love interest better be of the opposite sex. And if you’re going to honor your Pakistani identity, you’d better not flaunt it. When a conservative, predominantly white population surrounds you, it is not so much a matter of pursuing your dreams as it is a matter of pursuing your dreams in ways that don’t threaten the status quo.
Yet the film in which Omar is the planet around which everything orbits, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), doesn’t underscore this cynicism. Observant and funny, it takes on the form of the classic underdog story, triumphantly allowing a character who has every reason to give up on many an occasion to win in the long run. It never, fortunately, selectively looks at the components of Omar’s identity as obstacles.
This shouldn’t suggest the movie is romanticized or idealistic: Omar’s arc comes with plenty hard maturation and obstruction that reminds us just how difficult his existence can be on the day to day. But it’s celebratory nonetheless, and this is reinforced by screenwriter’s Hanif Kureishi ensuring that not sliver of Omar’s being be untouched or disregarded.
We sympathize with him as soon as we’re first introduced. Presumably in his late teens or early 20s, Omar is hopeful but naïve, optimistic but trapped: he’s in need of a job or some sort of hobby, but isn’t so sure how to position himself. He spends most days, after all, acting as caretaker to his alcoholic father Hussein (Roshan Seth), who used to be a respected liberal journalist but has recently taken to the bottle with debilitating dependence.
Then an opportunity arises quickly and suddenly, as opportunities usually do. (Though part of that apparent suddenness comes from some string-pulling on Hussein’s part.) Omar’s loaded entrepreneur uncle, Nasser (Saeed Jeffrey), offers Omar a job as a car washer at one of his garages. Then, after Omar proves to be too smart to simply be washing and waxing slabs of metal day in and day out, Nasser makes the ultimate proposal: if Omar can renovate and then successfully manage a run-down laundrette he just bought downtown, he can keep it as his own.
The quick promotion might seem daunting to anyone else. But not in Omar’s case: confident about his decision to skip college and instead try to make it on his own, the idea of running a laundrette appeals to him, even if it isn’t the most glamorous of an occupation. Although closeted, he also enlists the help of former lover Johnny to assist him in running the place.
But there are snags. Omar unwisely takes up an offer put forward by one of Nasser’s pals to help smuggle drugs in order to pay for much of the laundrette’s makeovering, turning him into something of an increasingly dependent puppet. Johnny, while somewhat trying to reinvent himself, still comes from a thuggish background, and his old cronies aren’t so impartial to refraining from causing major, often violent trouble. Pressures from Nasser and Hussein to get married to a nice Pakistani girl taunt Omar; Omar and Johnny struggle to keep their relationship a secret.
Somehow all ends rather happily, but one of the best things about My Beautiful Laundrette is that its optimistic conclusion is rooted in reality: it’s of the temporary kind that you know was only placed there as a way to make sure audiences be appeased. Hardships don’t end forever once the closing credits start rolling, and Kureishi knows it. That’s in sync with the rest of the film – no plot point is ever more important than another (the feature moves with the same naturalism of a 1960s kitchen-sink sudser), and so we must have faith that simply watching these characters live will be a rewarding experience.
And it is, mostly because they’re all so well-defined. I particularly loved Omar, whose struggling to find a balance between his personal and professional lives struck a chord. I also took to Johnny, who is clearly trying to mend his life but is still consistently confronted by the wrongdoings of his past. We know these people and we have an affection for them – just like the actors portraying them – and that makes this relatively loose and ultimately ambiguous journey worth it. B+