My Beautiful Laundrette (dir. Stephen Frears) is a beloved British film of the 1980s. It was pioneering in its depiction of a romance between a young Pakistani entrepreneur, Omar (Gordon Warnecke), and his lapsed-fascist former schoolmate, Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), as they strove together to revive Omar’s uncle’s failing laundrette in South London. While it was originally made for TV, the critical buzz around the film led to a cinematic release. In the decades since, My Beautiful Laundrette has gained a spot in film history as an important, but not self-important, document of an immigrant family’s experience in London and of cross-racial, queer love. The film was not free of controversy, however. When it was released, protesters took to the street in New York to denounce it as “the product of a vile and perverted mind.”
That legacy lives on today. Kumail Nanjiani, most recently of The Big Sick fame, is planning an adaptation of My Beautiful Laundrette as a TV series, which he will both co-write and star in. Kajal‘s Politics Editor Nooreen Reza and Staff Writer Aziz Adib sat down to watch the film and chat about Nanjiani’s source material, wondering how My Beautiful Laundrette would translate to the screen in 2018.
Nooreen: Let’s start off by stating where we’re approaching this from. Had you heard of My Beautiful Laundrette or watched it before hearing the Kumail news?
Aziz: No, never. I was shocked that it was voted as a top 50 Brit movie or something.
Nooreen: Ok, so I bet you were confused as to why on earth Kumail Nanjiani wanted to make a TV adaptation of this film.
Aziz: Yeah, it just seemed like a really obscure choice. But after watching I think it could actually be a fun series—like, there are enough things and story lines you can dig into.
Nooreen: Right. So, for me I had heard of My Beautiful Laundrette for the first time probably in college, on one of my late night procrastination journeys, and not having access to the full film (also, fail at the internet to find a not-dodgy streaming site), I just watched all the clips I could on Youtube. So actually, this was the first time I watched the film in its entirety.
I think I agree with you that there are a lot of storylines to explore, but I have reservations about how the plot and ideas would translate to American TV circa 2018-2019.
Aziz: Yeah, I think you have to modernize a lot of it. But I think the general framework of it though, I think you can apply a lot of contemporary tropes to it.
Nooreen: Also, I will admit to being viscerally taken aback by anything that would replace a young Daniel Day-Lewis with anyone, lol.
Aziz: …I didn’t care for him.
Nooreen: Gasp, Aziz, why?
Aziz: He was fine, he didn’t stand out.
Nooreen: The acting or the character? I’m curious what you think about the characters.
Aziz: Acting. Character I think would be way more interesting when given a backstory in a series. So because this movie came out a decade before I was born, there is something inherently cheesy to a lot of the dialogue and interaction. I thought the relationship between the dad and uncle was very very very interesting and I wanna know more about that.
Nooreen: Mm yeah, you mean Omar’s dad and Uncle Nasser?
Nooreen: Yeah, there’s an interesting juxtaposition of life outcomes there, in terms of how (or do) you “assimilate” and what does that look like? Is it just, make bank, like Uncle Nasser, and just navigate around racism, or even make strange racial dynamics work in your favor? You can see hierarchies of race and class play out in scenes like when the uncle gets Johnny to evict a black tenant in one of his run-down properties. Meanwhile, Omar’s dad is mostly drunk and sad and occasionally saying rousing leftist things.
Aziz: Ya bro being woke doesn’t pay.
Nooreen: Or you could be like Uncle Salim and deal drugs. Also, that was the most 80s subplot?
Aziz: Oh yeah I was all about that.
Nooreen: Mysterious uncle “picking up VHS TAPES,” cocaine in beards…
Aziz: I chortled when I saw the cocaine beard—innovative.
Nooreen: Haha, pretty genius! So here’s a Q: going back to racial dynamics, and viewing this from America in 2018, one of my reservations about the TV adaptation—which granted, we don’t yet have much info about—is that this film is uniquely British in its racial politics, right? And, crucially, that 80s atmosphere of like, Thatcherite economic decline.
Aziz: Is it? I think you can actually simulate a similar economic feeling in a modern adaptation. I think the overarching dynamics still exist.
Nooreen: In what ways?
Aziz: Taking our jobs + they’re less than us?
Nooreen: The general racial tensions are universal I guess.
Aziz: I think in a modern adaptation you have to present that subtly—like, you could say that shit in the 80s (I’m told) and that was it, but if you say that today it’s unrealistic/unrecognizable/dated.
Nooreen: But that’s not what i’m saying. Hmmm, Lemme think a second. Ok here’s my “controversial statement”:
Aziz: Oh boy.
Nooreen: If you made this in 2018 it would be a Trumpist film, lol.
Nooreen: Ok, so the dialogue, as you mentioned, and the plot are pretty straightforward. So the way it plays out to me is that all emotional statements made by and about characters should be taken at face value. And therefore the film comes off as sympathetic to the perspective of, as you expressed, “the browns are taking our jobs,” whites in decline, etc. For instance, Johnny is portrayed as a victim, at times, of class exploitation, in ways that are inevitably racially charged.
Aziz: Okay I didn’t pick that up when I watched it. I think I was already rooting for Omar. So, I didn’t view it as a like “them vs us” thing. I was just like, I’m here to watch Omar do okay.
Nooreen: Ok, so how do you think that affected your reading of Omar’s interactions with people? TBH I think he’s kind of a dick.
Aziz: Oh yeah, he immediately turns into a dick. I just meant like, I wanted this weird brown mafia family do well. That’s what this was for me, a mafia film! Also, I do think nowadays you have to make your stories/context factually accurate. There wasn’t the pressure to do that back then.
Nooreen: How so?
Aziz: In 1985, I think you had no pressure/awareness on the West to view films with an accurate historical context because they seldom had to answer for it. And you had a lot of poc with self internalized stuff.
Nooreen: Explain self internalized stuff.
Aziz: Like, for example, when his Uncle Nasser is like, in this capitalist economy all that matters is money. To use that as a thesis sentence, that type of speech was normalized. I’m realizing now I meant to say normalized and not internalized.
Nooreen: You think it’s really different now though? Perhaps in media depictions. I still hear that shit in brown communities a lot.
Aziz: I think it’s a different type of it. I mean, regardless of all of this though—feel like this could become a rabbit hole—I think the bones of the movie are well suited for a modern series. I think you can make slight character adjustments and quirks to the plot and easily mold it into a modern setting. I’m curious as to, if Kumail is going to play the lead, how that would impact the relationships because he’s a visibly older character. Like Kumail can’t pass for early 20s.
Nooreen: Yeah, I think my position is the same on the overall. You would have to tinker with the racial dynamics in ways that would make this at best a very loose adaptation, which I guess is fine…and also, Laundrette to Laundromat transition, lol. Dealbreaker. But yes, I was thinking about that too with Kumail. If anyone, I’d be down with him being Salim.
Aziz: Lmao no he’s too fucking goofy!
Nooreen: If he’s Omar I’m defs OUT.
Aziz: Imagine Kumail stepping on Omar’s face.
Nooreen: Dude Salim was a clown!
Aziz: Making that angry little face. You can’t put that shit on TV.
Nooreen: LOL, that scene where he’s wearing that dumb showercap.
Aziz: I was so confused, and like impressed at his confidence because I don’t believe he took it off in his interaction with Omar.
Nooreen: Manspreading in a towel…
Aziz: That was…
Nooreen: Such uncle behavior!
Aziz: Oof, too much.
Nooreen: The other big part of this that has to be adapted are of course the romantic storylines.
Aziz: Yeah yeah, no way they hook Omar up with the first cousin [Tania] in 2018; they’ll bring in new characters in a series too.
Nooreen: lol yeah.
Aziz: Don’t worry he won’t recreate The Big Sick in this. I know you’re thinking it—
Nooreen: Won’t he though?
Aziz: No the mistress will be white…
Nooreen: Just with a male Zoe Kazan; “1400 year old culture”…
Nooreen: Burn some photos of Tania… brown girl bonfire…
Aziz: Yo Tania was wild! Can we talk about Tania?
Nooreen: Yes, I think we should talk about the gender politics more deeply. There are basically four speaking female characters, but more like two who have actually storylines. How do you feel about the place the film situates women in the “immigrant experience?” It’s also important to note there’s a ghost woman character, Omar’s mom.
Nooreen: I think about Tania specifically. I’ve come around to feeling that she did actually have a fair amount of depth as a character, but I think her motivations weren’t given due time and exploration. Ultimately the women’s actions are dictated by, or as a reaction to, the behavior of the men around them. Hers included.
Aziz: So my thing is, personally, I think we have to also judge the film within the context that it was made, specifically the 1980s. You can absolutely use this film as a criticism of how women + immigrants + female immigrant experience is portrayed. But at the same time, from my (albeit limited) research and opinion, this film was notable for (a) having a gay character of color, (b) a movie about brown people that wasn’t fixated around arranged marriages in the context of relationships.
Nooreen: Yeah, I think that’s a valid point.
Aziz: I 100% understand and empathize the argument and need for better representation, but I also think in the context of a 90 minute film, there are priorities in character development. Because if you try to unravel and give everyone a back story–you’ll have a TV show, which in the case is good because there will be one. At the same time, I see your point, yes all the women’s actions were at the whim of male actions, but in a way, could you argue that that is a somewhat accurate representation of how women were/are treated in many a immigrant household? Specifically in the 80s? With all that said, I think that Kumail absolutely cannot ignore or silence the story lines of women, because one of the best parts about TV vs movies, in my opinion, is the ability to really build out a number of characters and create storylines and nuance to said characters.
Nooreen: Yeah, I think that’s true. On the scale of a film, it is very much a man’s world. I suppose I automatically question the notion of limitations of structure when it comes to things like this because at the root of it is more likely not a lack of scope or time for a male filmmaker, but lack of interest. Or the greater ability to get away with using women as archetypes: “Scorned wife, hapless mistress, righteous daughter.”
Aziz: In a way–and not that this erases any of the issues of how they are portrayed–I thought having Tania pack up and leave is a total move.
Nooreen: Yeah, giving her agency in that moment to say fuck all of you is powerful. Points for that. Let’s see if/how many women/LGBTQ writers are on Kumail’s production team.
Aziz: Overall though, I’m into it. Movie was goofy and cheesy but I like it, I’m curious as to what sort of modern treatment this will get in terms of the plotline. I’m confident dialogue and acting will be less goofy.
Nooreen: Yes, I agree…well, yes, I do. lol. I am curious for sure and will try to be open-minded about it. They should keep the oversized jumpers.