By William Repass.
“You’re dirty. You’re beautiful.”
“What is it that the gora Englishman always needs? Clean clothes!”
In the world of Stephen Frears’ and Hanif Kureishi’s 1985 cult classic, My Beautiful Laundrette—a world meant to recreate, in-miniature, a South London turned upside down by Thatcherism—cleanliness is not only a political category, but life’s underlying imperative. Kureishi’s script (worth frequent quotation) is rife with allusions to the fact, and even Frear’s pink and blue color palette seems derived from bar soaps. The film’s opening scenes encapsulate this clean/dirty tension at the film’s core. In the first, we see a pair of filthy street punks, Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his friend Genghis (Richard Graham), ejected from a squat by the Pakistani landlord’s clean-cut enforcer. The second shows Pakistani protagonist Omar “Omo” Ali (Gordon Warnecke) hanging clean laundry on a clothesline outside his apartment, presenting a stark contrast. He cleans up—in the old way—after himself and his alcoholic father Hussein (Roshan Seth). His living situation is not in jeopardy. Nevertheless, he lives on dole, “like everyone in England,” according Hussein, a one-time Socialist reporter. Over the course of the film, the eponymous laundrette will mechanize Omo’s washing-up and drive the action forward—just as the bicycle in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (Ladridi di biciclette, 1948), mechanizes Antonio’s life.
Alongside its literal meaning, cleanliness takes on a massive symbolic load. For the characters in My Beautiful Laundrette, cleanliness is always tied up more or less unconsciously with issues of sexuality, class, race, and nationality. In this post-colonial context, where the notions of purity and contamination that underpin Pakistan’s caste-system rub shoulders with similar stereotypes in the deeply stratified society of Thatcher’s England, cleanliness is supercharged with connotation. Omo thrives among his “own people,” as his entrepreneur uncle Nassar (Saeed Jaffrey) puts it, and to some extent his success with the laundrette hinges on his family’s wealth and connections to London’s Pakistani community. But Omo doesn’t share his family’s preoccupation racial self-containment. When he hires Johnny, a childhood friend—white and working-class—to help him clean-up and remodel Nassar’s laundrette, their romance takes up where, presumably, it left off in school. Johnny, meanwhile, doesn’t “get on” with his family and, over the course of the film, distances himself from his friends and their racist National Front politics. Johnny and Omo repeatedly ignore the racial and class segregation demanded of them by both cultures. In fact, Johnny ends up as much a figure of post-colonial hybridity as Omo. Even his half-bleached hair becomes an emblem of racial reconciliation. In spite of the fact that, as Johnny’s employer, Omo exercises certain powers over him, their “impure” relationship comes off as remarkably balanced. Strikingly so, in contrast to the straight, “pure” relationships between the other characters, which typically rest on the economic power-imbalance between men and women enforced in both patriarchal cultures. Perhaps, in the context of the unstable community My Beautiful Laundrette so carefully depicts, this reversal of the white employer / brown employee trope is enough to keep Omo and Johnny on equal footing, relatively speaking. When Omo’s cousin Tania (Rita Wolf) reminds Johnny of his subordination and invites him to run away with her near the close of the film, he promises to stay and “fight it out.”
The suggestion of a lineage between My Beautiful Laundrette and Bicycle Thieves raises an important question: how might we distinguish the so-called “kitchen-sink” realism of the former, and the neo-realism of the latter? Shot on-location with a modest budget and purporting to show the lives of ordinary working people, My Beautiful Laundrette meets certain neo-realist criteria that neo-realist films rarely meet. Politically, the film endorses Hussein’s statement, that “we must have knowledge, to see clearly what is being done and to whom in this country.” And just as Bicycle Thieves turns Antonio’s job bicycling from place to place to hang movie-posters into a metaphor for the illusion of movement built from still images that defines cinema, My Beautiful Laundrette combines complex framing and mise en scene to similar ends. Throughout the film, we see a photograph of Omo’s mother, a suicide, prominently displayed beside his father’s bed. At one point, Frears shows Omo looking at sepiad family photos arranged on the wall of Nassar’s home. The significance these framed frames becomes clearer when Omo visits his cousin Salim’s home, where he maintains a collection of modern Indian paintings. These static images depict a former life—everything the family left behind in Pakistan where, as Nassar claims, religion has started to “interfere with the making of money.” If stasis represents the colonial past, movement stands for a post-colonial future. The neon display Johnny mounts above the laundrette, with its three-frame animation of a detergent box pouring out, links cinematic movement directly into the theme of cleanliness. Tellingly, Johnny spends whole chunks of story time cleaning windows.
The sheer preponderance of frames within the frame—of picture frames, of door frames, window frames, mirrors, and so on—pushes My Beautiful Laundrette out toward the fringes of a pure neo-realist aesthetic. Frears fragments cinematic space to the point of mise en abîme, supplying a multiple, “impure” perspective—while at the same time playing-up the framedness, the constructedness, of that perspective. Frames, like international borders, stand to be crossed, and the artificially clean views they circumscribe, reframed. Even as My Beautiful Laundrette realistically portrays the intersection of race, class, and sexuality, it crosses over into fantasy: a potential but as-yet-unrealized reality. For a moment, when Johnny and Omo’s faces appear to merge in a two-way mirror, this fantasy of post-colonial hybridity feels close. But just as it comes into view, the fantasy retreats. Omo, tempted by Nassar’s greed, begins planning “an armada of laundrettes” (note the reference to Spanish colonialism) to be financed by Salim, who desperately needs another outlet to launder (get it?) his drug money. The drive for cleanliness as a class marker is revealed to be a sham, a dangerous colonizing fantasy. Whether or not Omo eventually realizes his ambition is never shown. The film closes with Omo and Johnny playfully splashing each other with water—cleansing each other, not the gora Englishman’s clothes, and not for money but for love.
William Repass is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
My Beautiful Laundrette was released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection.
 The National Front is a white-supremacist political organization in the UK.
 Who, on a second viewing, turns out to be the “clean-cut” enforcer from the opening—not so clean-cut as he appeared.