‘All cultures are involved in one another, none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic’ (Said, 1993, p. xxiv) To what extent does thois quote apply to identity as it is presented in My Beautiful Laundrette and/or This Is England? The oscar winning film My Beautiful Laundrette was made in 1985 and directed by Stephen Frears. Hanif Kureishi was also nominated for best sreenplay, and it was heralded as one of Britain’s most comercial and critically successful films during various 1986 film awards.
The film is episodic as it was originally planned to be shown in episodes, it was made with television funding by Channel Four which explains why Oliver Stapleton the cinematograher sticks mainly to tight framing and close ups. It also intended to use elements of social realism as used by the British cinematic movement of earlier decades. The film can be used as a critique of Thatcherism, a time when ironically the political and cultural background of the era led to a revival in British cinema although there was little funding on offer to film producers.
The film is set in south London during the eighties, a time when there was industrial unrest in Britain, controling law and order was a problem for the government, over three million people were unemployed, there was poverty in many of the countries urban areas aswell as racial conflict which saw a string of rioting in areas of London and in other cities. Set within this Thatcherite context the film focuses on life for Asians in Britain and demonstates how eastern and western cultures are intwined to create a new hybrid culture and sense of identity.
The start of the film defamiliarises the viewer by inverting stereotypes as an Asian businessman Salim (Derrick Benche) flanked by black heavies to evict the poor white marginalised people living in his property and reflecting the social deprivation at the same time, he is portrayed as an interloper through use of cinematography as we are encouraged to relate with the evictees this is explained later in the film when Johnny goes with Nasser to evict some people stating that it looks bad Nasser replies ‘I’m trying to be a professional businessman not a professional Pakistani’, this scene can also have connatations of the racial conflict during the early eighties.
The film’s narrative changes the viewpoint of the audience throughout to tell the story of the film’s characters, the main protagonist Omar (Gordon Warnecke) is the son of a pakistani immigrant and portrays the dilemma of many young Anglo-Pakistanis of maintaining their Pakistani identity whilst also wanting to belong to western society. Omar is interpellated by his family and a capitalist society being offered a job by his uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey) an entrepeneur and Salim’s business partner, who sells cars and owns properties giving Omar a chance to grab a share of the wealth available in Britain. Nasser tells him about ‘squeezing the tits of the system’ and has largely abandoned his eastern roots and traditions embracing Thatcher’s culture of greed in the pursuit of money, wealth and success.
In a stark cultural contrast to Nasser, Omar’s dad Papa (Roshan Seth) and Nasser’s brother is an old school Pakistani who used to be a journalist and believes that education is needed to eradicate racism he is also a socialist who disagrees with the greed and economics of Thatcherism. Papa spends his time in bed drinking this decline is symbolic to the lack of importance connected with culture and education and the way that he thinks things are heading in Thatcher’s Britain. Omar’s story is complicated by his forbidden love for Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis) a punk who has marched with the National Front and whose friend’s are racist . ‘They come here to work for us. is just one thing uttered to Johnny as he works for Omar who has risen to be propriorator of a chain of laundrettes through hard work and familial support leading to acceptance with Salim saying ‘your one of us.. ‘. Papa tries to arrange a marriage for Omar with his cousin Tania (Rita Wolf) asking Nasser her father who despite his liberal embracing of western culture obliges to the tradition and tries to get them to marry. Omar rejects this tradition and is desperate not to get married, this feminist’s would argue shows the patriarchal side of eastern culture this is also supported along with the fact Tania is not allowed to work in the family business despite her modern outlook.
The relationship between Omar and Johnny leads to a significant scene in the laundrette on the day of it’s opening the couple are out the back engaged in sexual activity in their office when Nasser and his white mistress Rachael come in and start to waltz around the laundrette floor, this can be seen from the office through a one way mirror and as both of the couple kiss they seemingly merge together. This is symbolic to the hybridity of culture showing the viewer that all aspects of society have to merge together to create the whole picture as the couples are interracial and are of different generations and sexual orientation. This also shows how Omar’s character is transgressing social and familial boundaries and of course that of his ethnicity. Tania further emphasises her western outlook in this scene confronting Rachael whom she has met for the first time and calling her a ‘parasite’ for living off a man to which Rachael replies effectively saying that things are different for your generation.
The film ends ambiguously as in the final sequences there is no closure on any of the character’s stories of whom the film follows. There is a meeting for the first time between the two brothers Nasser who has just split up with Rachael and Papa during which Nasser states that England is ‘a little heaven’ where religion does not get in the way of making money, as he says this it cuts to Salim who is being violently attacked by the gang of racists outside the the laundrette. During the same sequence Johnny is also attacked for aiding Salim which shows a change in his character and Tania is spotted leaving by her father and uncle a sign of her independce and standing up to the patriarchal heirachy.
The film caused outrage amongst the Asians in Britain when it was released as they felt that it was not representative of the Asian community and portrayed them in a bad light due to the Characters taking part in illegal drug activities highlighted in the text with the laundrette being named ‘Powders’ also the greed shown and the way they went about their business and conducted themselves Nasser having a mistress for example. Kureishi acknowledges that his representation does not flatter the Asian community but points out that none of the characters can be classed as victims and ‘argues that he does not pretend to be a spokesman for the Asian community and therefore should not be expected to do PR for them’. ( Hill,J. 999,p210) A criticism of Frear’s and Kureishi’s work is that London seems to have endless possibilities for the Asians in the film who it seems are always reinventing themselves and taking control of their personal and business situations, where the English themselves seem to have no future and wander aimlessly as in the case of Johnny’s friends with this in mind it can be said that it is not an entire account or representation of Britain’s society but it does portray culture as being hybrid. The film does not then try to offer a straightforward authentic image of British Asians but stresses the heterogenity, ‘what Stuart Hall has referred to, as the ‘living, of ‘identity through difference’. (cited in Hill,J. 1999,p209). There is then an underlying theme that money is the equaliser in a capitalist society as if someone is affluent then it seems that creed, sexual orientation and all other barriers can be transcended.