Hanif Kureishi and Stephen Frears‘ My Beautiful Laundrette makes most of its viewers laugh a lot. My personal favorite of its many rib-ticklingly subversive moments came–as it seemingly did for many others–when the gay street punk Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) helps the Pakistani Nasser Ali (Saeed Jaffrey) evict black West Indian tenants from his slummish property, and struck by the incongruity of a ‘colored’ immigrant evicting others of his ‘kind’ bursts out:
Doesn’t look too good, does it? Pakis doing this kind of thing.
The equally perplexed Ali retorts:
Johnny points out the obvious:
What would your enemies have to say about this? Ain’t exactly integration is it?
At which point, Ali disabuses Johnny of any naivete he might still entertain about the society he lives in:
My dear boy, I’m a professional businessman, not a professional Pakistani.
I guffawed and chuckled loudly when I heard this line and have, over the years, repeated it with much relish to anyone whom I might subject to my usual glowing review of this modern classic. Saeed Jaffrey is a comedic genius of sorts himself, so part of the reason so much mirth is provoked by Ali’s pronouncement is because Kureishi’s line is delivered with such pitch-perfect elan; but the rest, almost certainly, is because we recognize a very uncomfortable truth about our modern world.
In the Thatcherite England of the 1980s, it had become rapidly clear that older verities mattered for little in the reworkings that the Iron Lady and her associated ideologies sought; traditional bonds of association–between communities and their members, between citizens and the state, between members of a non-economic class like an ethnic group–were to be sundered by newer ones, not founded in family or religion, and impelled only by adherence to the unblinkingly sterile bottom-line of economic advancement.
The immigrant, always on the lookout for a leg-up that would allow him to transcend his inherited handicaps of skin color, accent, and mysterious origins in indeterminate ‘backward’ cultures, was often best placed to take advantage of these reorderings of national and cultural priorities, best positioned to become the most enthusiastic proponent of their new strategies for empowerment. He thus provided endless material for ironic takes on his experience: family-centered social groupings reveled in enthusiastic betrayals of kith and kin; brown placed itself in implacable opposition to black and vice versa; all that mattered was a demonstration that the lessons of the new times–those of non-stop hustle, the limitless and unbounded pursuit of the profit margin–had been suitably internalized.
Nasser Ali had learned those lessons well; it is tempting to view him as a mere cynic, a vulturous nihilist of sorts, picking at the carcasses of those claimed victim by Thatcherism. But Ali is much more enlightening than that. He is the modern man, one quick enough to reconfigure himself to take profitable advantage of his changing environment and its associated moral realities; he will buy for himself the respect he had previously sought in an appreciation of his intangible qualities.
We laugh hard but ruefully. This is a man who has nimbly enriched himself in a world seemingly gone just a little nuts. Then, he was the oddity, the outlier; now, he is the norm.