There was a time in my life when, like most others have at some point, I was questioning a lot about my own identity and its place in my life. At the crux of an important self-discovery, I tried to find solace and answers about myself through films — did “There Will Be Blood” prove that Paul Thomas Anderson understood my perceived chaos? Did Casey Affleck’s obsessions in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” parallel my own? Would, as in “Y Tu Mamá También,” my strongest friendship eventually implode with its own power?
One of these films that I picked out for this ambitious mission was “My Beautiful Laundrette.” I knew very little about it, but any ‘80s made-for-television movie that holds a 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes has my interest.
“My Beautiful Laundrette” is one of Stephen Frears’ earliest works, adapted from Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay revolving around topics such as race relations and Thatcherism in 1980s London. The film is visually and sonically grainy. It features a very young Daniel Day-Lewis, with a harshness that has since mellowed into his affable current form, ensconced in a cast that has largely otherwise faded into obscurity. The score involves some cringe-worthy bubbling sound effects, supposedly to evoke the titular laundrette. It’s an hour and a half of hot mess. It’s also still, 30 years later, one of the best, most important films made about minority identities.
One of the protagonists, Omar, played by Gordon Warnecke, is an Anglo-Pakistani in his early 20s. Having dropped out of school, he is jobless and caring for his father, Hussein, who, believing in Omar’s greater potential, sends him to work for his business magnate uncle Nasser. Nasser is every bit pro-Thatcher, bombastic Boss Tweed to Hussein’s ascetic, Marxist “medieval Christ,” as he is described in Kureishi’s screenplay. Expectedly, Omar is pulled between loyalty to his father and the promise of wealth.
Omar’s childhood friend Johnny, played by Day-Lewis, enters the scene soon after; a former skinhead punk, he dredges up the question of identity — Omar has to wonder whether he relates more to the white children he has grown up around or to his Asian relatives. Johnny’s friends criticize him when he eventually works directly under Omar; Omar’s relatives and family friends pressure him to stay close to his roots and remain wary of anyone not South Asian, including Johnny.
While discussing their business expansion plans, Johnny and Omar naturally, unquestioningly kiss each other, providing a smooth exposition to the fact that the two were and are romantically involved. Now, adding to the tension of a mixed race friendship, there was also an undercurrent of the anxiety that comes with a hidden relationship.
With so many plot details about Johnny and Omar’s personal lives interwoven with overarching social critiques of Thatcherism, “My Beautiful Laundrette” might sound at risk of being overstuffed; put more thought into it, though, and you realize that the only potential remedy would be to cut out an element of Omar’s identity. It could have been a straightforward film about racism, or a documentarian examination of Margaret Thatcher’s policies or a queer coming of age film — but none of these would have been entirely faithful to Omar’s mixed identity.
During my own earlier period of sexual questioning before coming to terms with being bisexual, my whole concept of my identity was thrown into chaos; as far as I knew, I could be “that Indian girl” or “that queer girl.” I had already had my period of race angst in middle school — I wanted nothing more than to be white back then, and I lived in fear of the dreaded identifier “fob.” I came out of that phase strongly proud of my ethnic identity, though. To have, a couple of years later, this entirely new question confounded me with that age old question: “Who am I?”
Omar, a gay South Asian in England, became immensely important to me. Kureishi and Frears had made the decision not to trim away parts of him like fat from a piece of meat, and in doing so, he could become just Omar — not Omar the gay man or Omar the Pakistani. These parts of him didn’t take over his life — he didn’t live to fulfill some unspoken set of rules to identify as either. He just lived.
In existing, he inspired me to do the same.