How and to what extent can My Beautiful Laundrette be seen as a critique of Thatcherism? Essay

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) was released during Margaret Thatcher’s fifth year in power as the British Prime Minister. The “Iron Lady”, as she became known, labelled England as “sick, morally, socially and economically”.

Andrew Gamble suggests that Thatcherism is a word that is sometimes aimed at three different things. Firstly in relation to Margaret Thatcher’s political style, to the ideological doctrines of the New Right and finally to the policies of the Thatcher government.

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The film represents these times with unemployment at a high. The characters in My Beautiful Laundrette represent unemployment and the minorities throughout Britain in the 1980’s; Omar (Gordon Warnecke) the lead character is from an Asian background along with his family. Daniel Day Lewis’ character Johnny is a white male who is unemployed and homeless. After a few subtle hints, the film also reveals that Omar and Johnny are homosexual. The relationship between the two is actually the only part of the film that does not try to score political points, although their relationship does suffer cruel tests with the ethnic divide testing them when Salim sadistically runs over Moose and the brutal assault on Salim from the hands of Moose and Genghis.

Also their relationship is strengthened when Johnny and Omar both cross there ethnic boundaries when Johnny fights to save Salim from his brutal attack and Omar to save Johnny from the wrath of his friends. At the end of the film, it is hinted that although they have come together in a mutual love and devotion they could also bring the two divided countries together again and rebuild their trashed shop and possibly open more laundrettes,

“”thus this ‘hybrid’ community built on sexual diversity benefits from the Thatcherite vision of private enterprise that serves it” (Chari. 21)

My Beautiful Laundrette was directed by Stephen Frears and is taken from a screenplay by Hanif Kureishi. It was originally shot on a low budget intended for television only but due to an excellent reception at the Edinburgh film festival it was internationally distributed on cinema screens. It also earned Kureishi an Oscar nomination.

Stephen Frears originally intended the film to be broadcast through television because there was a shift towards television as a focal point in the 1980’s. 74 percent of Britain had never visited a cinema, but every adult watched at least twenty-five hours of television a week. Most television film-makers thought that by having their films on the television they were addressing the nation.

The film could be seen as a criticism of Thatcherism because its successes were great social costs to the public because industrial production fell rapidly during the iron lady’s government, which critics believed increased unemployment as it tripled during her reign.

Upon the announcement of her agenda, she uttered the statement “See just how far we have fallen.”

When she resigned four years after the release of this film, twenty eight percent of children were under the poverty line.

Thatcher was also mentioned a lot during the film. Omar’s uncle Nassar actually was shown to have abandoned his tradititional immigrant and Asian roots. With Nassar toasting “Thatcher and your (Omar’s) beautiful laundrette” deserting eastern traditions by money, success and a white mistress, although he does retain some aspects of eastern traditions by returning to his wife and trying to arrange his daughters marriage.

Nasser’s daughter Tanya also rejects her traditional eastern traditions by rejecting Omar’s marriage proposal and leaves on a train to get out of her fathers clutches. Perhaps another synonym of Thatcher’s government,

“Thatcher called for a return to Victorian roots, the same values that made the country successful. Her agenda could have been written on a sampler. The individual owed responsibility to self, family, firm, community, country and god in that order.” (Friedman L 1996)

Even the opening scene of the film where Johnny and his sick friend are squatting in an abandoned derelict house, the owner (which is later to be revealed as the character Salim), sends some heavies to kick them all out. As Johnny leaves the derelict house via a window they walk over a yard which shows yet more decay of the times. Again another scene that quietly scores political points on Thatcher’s government, representing decay;

“Thatcher has divided the country between north and south. Between the employed and un-employed, between the rich and the poor, between the people who have got and who have not.”

Stephen Frears views in the above quote are summed up in My Beautiful Laundrette. The film references most of this in the characters, rich and the poor. Nasser, Omar’s uncle, is rich while Johnny is the poor. This is highlighted when Salim, the more villainous character in the film, patronises Johnny and, for example, shuts the door in his face in the laundrette when speaking to Omar.

Thatcher praised the Indian and Asian shopkeepers in the 1980’s calling them the new meritocrats. The film constructs itself on a family of Asians who thrive in this downtrodden South London. Using their wealth to buy up shops and properties and easily make profit (helped on by Thatcher’s tax cuts for businesses) although this subtly offers a dig at Thatcher as Nassar and mainly Salim use most of these ‘profit-less’ businesses as a front of their crime dealings with drugs.

As demonstrated in the film, the native British and Pakistani communities switch roles in the 1980s. As Omar angrily shouts to Johnny during the film “I’m not going to be beaten down by this country. When we were at school, you and your lot kicked me all round the place. And what are you doing now? Washing my floor. And that’s how I like it”

Frears demonstrates this as early as the first scene when Salim orders some of his henchmen to kick out Johnny and the rest of the squatters in the house that he has just bought. Giving the power to the Pakistanis over the native British.

Nasser’s businesses take central stage in his life, with his mistress Rachel second and his family and wife back home last.

Johnny himself had fallen in with a bad crowd. A kind of neo-Nazi race hatred group. Referenced by Omar’s father when he mentioned the race hate marches in London. The group of so called friends that Johnny leaves for Omar remain throughout the film in a form of chorus continually taunting Johnny for hanging around with Omar and his family; the people he has been taught to hate.

My Beautiful Laundrette actually caused some controversy in the Pakistani community; they were disgusted by the degrading representation of their community. In a demonstration in New York, the Pakistani Action Committee wielded banners labelling the film of a “vile and perverted mind”, most of the outrage was because of the homosexual affair between Omar and Johnny.

Papa, Omar’s father, apart from a brief venture out to the laundrette stays in his small room drinking alcohol and smoking all day. It could be said that Papa could represent socialism, with Papa being old, ill and un-employed. Papa the character in the film is used in a form that he has snubbed Thatcherism. While his brother Nasser has embraced Thatcherism and used it to make him rich.

The film depicts the English soil as immigrant’s property. It is central to the racial and class conflicts. With the exception of the restaurant Omar is invited to, all the real estate featured in the film is owned by Asians Omar and Papa’s home, Nasser’s house. Salim with his luxury flat plus the laundrette and car garage. The white underclass is forced to remain outside all of these Asian spaces by being chucked out of the windows (first scene with Johnny being kicked out) or needing to be invited in. (Omar inviting Johnny to work in his laundrette, Johnny waiting to be invited into the car garage office to do a job for Nasser. And more importantly Johnny waits outside Nasser’s house. In which Omar states to Tanya that he would not come in unless invited. “The lower class are like that” he states). Although the film does leave out the higher class white population, who own most of the land. Most likely left out to keep the concentration on the Asian and under-class population.

“The stylistic features of British Cinema…invites the individual stories of its characters to be read in terms of ‘allegory’ of the ‘state of the nation’ they do however, to project a much more fluid, hybrid and plural sense of ‘Britishness’ than was seen in earlier cinema” (Murphy R, pg251 1997)

My Beautiful Laundrette is the model example of the above quote. It can be said the film represents the life of the under-class living in London in the 1980’s although from a small number of peoples views, (Kureishi and Frears mainly)

In Kureishi’s autobiography, he states that My Beautiful Laundrette was based on his experiences through his childhood (before Thatcher’s rule) how he socialised with a group of friends throwing bricks at shop windows but withdrew when he learned of their true nature, when the lads congregated to hunt down Pakistanis and beat them. This is represented in Omar’s childhood when he mentions to Johnny about their childhood at school, although this is pre-Thatcher rule. When the iron-lady took charge of the country she homed in on her skills to racist and navistic segments of the country to her political advantage.

Overall, My Beautiful Laundrette was written to display Kureishi’s understandings of the political scene in 1980’s London. Referring often in the film to “dirty money” earned from drug dealings and other black-market activitiesm Kureishi critiques Thatcherism by illustrating the corruption highlighted in private industry. The same sector Thatcher had praised as the solution to Britain’s diminishing international reputation and high unemployment throughout the country.

The Tory leadership was particularly disastrous for the British film industry as a whole.

“The quota ensuring that all cinemas showed a percentage of British films was abandoned in 1982; the films act of 1985 abolished the Eady Levy and pulled the plug on the National Film Finance Corporation, British films continued to be made but the infrastructure that ensured they reached an audience was kicked away.” (Murphy R, pg262. 1997)

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