by Don Larsson
The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has been doing a month-long retrospective of films written by, adapted from, or directed by Hanif Kureishi, the British-Pakistani writer. Beginning with My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (Frears, 1987), the series led up to the first public screening of Intimacy, based on Kureishi's novella. (Intimacy will be featured at the New York Film Festival later this fall.)

The culmination of the series was the Sept. 29 "Regis Dialogue" between Kureishi and A.O. Scott of the New York Times. (The Regis Dialogues occur at least once a year. Past featured filmmakers and artists have included Terry Gilliam, Agnes Varda, Stan Brakhage, and Jessica Lange.) Although the horrible coincidence of this series with the news from the last three weeks was only alluded to a few times, Kureishi's interests and themes stand out all the more strongly for their relevance now.

The program opened with an early scene from Intimacy, the first of what Kureishi called a "series of copulations" between a couple who meet almost anonymously in a grungy apartment. The coupling (graphic but not pornographic) is fierce, physically passionate, and ultimately disappointing (in that scene, at least). Kureishi worked closely on the script with French director Patrice Chereau, a relationship complicated by the fact that neither could speak the other's language. Still, the two managed to create a film that extrapolates from the novella, which is an interior monologue set in a single location.

Kureishi talked about his background, coming into adulthood as the son of a Pakistani father and British mother in the era of Enoch Powell and Mrs. Thatcher. He would encounter disdain and be spit at by people who called him a "Paki" - but he identifies himself as British in a country whose own self-definition continues to evolve (mirrored visually in the changes in London, which was the focus of the Walker retrospective). He found himself observing the assimilation of "Asians" and other "Blacks" and foreigners into British society, while some newcomers in the Muslim community became attracted to religion and fundamentalism - a conflict explored most openly in My Son the Fanatic (Udayan Prasad, 1997). At the same time, he grew up in a working-class suburban neighborhood, where immigrants and poorer whites grew up side by side. As in My Beautiful Laundrette, he would not be invited to his friends' homes because the parents would not let him in, and some of the friends grew up to be racist skinheads. Still, as a young man he could go to clubs and hangouts in the city where white and Asian, gay and straight would mingle.

An unabashed liberal, Kureishi seems above all to want to avoid easy labels - not just a "Paki," not a darker-skinned Brit, not a revolutionary "Black," but a male heterosexual who could also be friends with gays and oppose the oppression of women. His ideal, he said, was not mere "tolerance," but a society in which all kinds of people could talk together and be friends. The clips from his work and his comments on them, though, show that Kureishi realizes the idealism of that goal.

In Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, the young man explains to his father that Pakistan is not "his" country, but that he is British and a Londoner. The beauty of city life is seen (with a rather sardonically melodious music track) as Sammy and Rosie walk hand-in-hand in public, go to bookstores, and enjoy life as they could not in Pakistan. The scene, though, ends with Sammy looking rather bored and puzzled at a lecture on semiotics (by Colin McCabe, now director of the British Film Institute).

Kureishi said that he finally knew he was an adult when he was working on My Son the Fanatic . In the story, also extrapolated in the film version, the Pakistani taxi driver (Om Puri) is a social outcast, as much an outsider in his way as the prostitutes he shuttles back and forth to clients. But he is in love with Western ways, a jazz devotee who becomes close to one of his fares, a prostitute played by Rachel Griffiths. He is puzzled and increasingly frustrated as he sees his teenaged son becoming a fundamentalist Muslim and growing farther and farther away from him, in a nostalgic quest for cultural "purity." The generational ironies in the clip were underlined by the father's thicker accent and the son's British pronounciations. Kureishi remarked that he had always felt himself to be an adolescent, identifying with the younger people in his works, until this one, when he realized that he had much more in common with the father. That would lead to Intimacy and its much more desperate and dark view of sexuality than the celebration of physical spontaneity in the earlier works. Now sex becomes a refuge and a drug to dull the pains of age, but still a possibility for connection and release.

In the clip from the BBC mini-series The Buddha of Suburbia (Roger Michell, 1993), a young man is urged by the director of his radical theater troupe to go to his own family for inspiration. After a conversation with his embittered uncle, he creates a tour-de-force performance for his group that is then raked over the coals for promoting stereotypes of how "Blacks" are perceived in Britain. "I'm really more beige," he complains to no avail. The scene's final irony comes when the group's director, a white "radical," tells him to do something else, "Because I say so!"

Kureishi finds himself more to character than plot, he said, in order to see where people go and why they behave as they do. (He found inspiration, he said, in Dickens - not the novels, but the BBC adaptations he grew up with!) He saw the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in both Britain and abroad. The mosques, he noted, were the one place where young people would gather to talk about social and political issues, but framed in the context of the mullahs' discourses, replacing the political rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s and even Mrs. Thatcher's 1980s. As centers for discourse and indoctrination, they were far more potent than clubs or universities. On his first visit to Pakistan, he saw the members - especially the women - in his own middle-class family in social retreat, forced to wear the veil, to modify their work or even quit their jobs as office managers. (One aunt was even an airline pilot.) He noted that although Pakistan had been founded as an Islamic state, its leaders were more or less secular until General Zia (the leader who fostered the war with Bangla Desh and was eventually overthrown). Zia began the institution of Sharia, the law based on the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet, and would act on what he believed to be revelations from his dreams. In contrast, Kureishi remains resolutely secular and democratic, even while he tries to puzzle out the problems of life. The utopias on earth promised by both politics and religion, he said, really promise just stasis and death.

Some other points: How did he work with his directors? Each has been different, which he appreciates, since the films then each have a different way of approaching his work. Stephen Frears liked having him on the set and would often defer to his interpretation of a scene or character. Roger Mitchell did not want him around the set at all. Chereau fell somewhere in between, telling him he was welcome but seeming uneasy at having him around.

Why was the geographical sense of London more confusing in Intimacy than in his other films? Because the director was French! Not a glib answer - since only someone who has lived in a city can understand the nuances of its neighborhoods, its layout. The themes were still there, and probably a non-Londoner would not notice the lack of those nuances, which emerged in other ways.

What was his reaction to East is East, which starred Om Puri and seemd to have similar themes to his? A mixed reaction - it was good to see new faces, actors and talent emerging from the immigrant community, but, yes, it did seem like a lighter ripoff of his work.

What did he now think of the only film he actually directed himself, London Kills Me (1991)? He discovered that he had to make a choice to continue writing or to become a director. He could not do both, and has chosen to stay with writing.

How would he compare himself to Salman Rushdie, who deals with similar themes? Rushdie had encouraged his work and they were friends, but they are also very different. Rushdie comes from India, Kureishi from London. Rushdie is enamored of "magical realism." "There wasn't any magic where I grew up; it was just fucking realism!"

What was his reaction to Pakistan's uneasy position now between Afghanistan and the US? He hoped that it might lead to a revival of the democratic and middle-class communities in the country, away from its growing fundamentalism. But the refugee situation alone makes it a very uncertain time. Kureishi's skepticism and passionate detachment are rare qualities in anyone. He's the kind of person I'd like to get to know.

"But to be able to bear one's own mind, to wait while the inner storm of intolerable thoughts blows itself out, leaving one to contemplate the debris with some understanding - that is an enviable state of mind."

-- Hanif Kureishi, Intimacy

©2001 Don Larsson