'My Beautiful Laundrette' Taught Me I Deserve Love

I saw something I'd never seen before from the Western films of my youth: a gay man of color fall in love.

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Oct 3 2016, 8:41pm

Omar and Johnny from 'My Beautiful Laundrette'

Growing up in India, homosexuality was treated like a mysterious foreign disease. Even in the mid 90s, it was not something to be discussed among polite company. When it was, it was whispered about as a shameful, isolating thing.

Like many closeted teenage boys, I sought out anything I could to better understand the life that was possible for a gay person like me. Before widespread internet access, that meant searching for subtext in the limited selection of movies available at our local library in Madras (now Chennai). Suffice to say, the pickings were slim. Or grim.

The Birdcage and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert were too campy and far-fetched to feel realistic. Gay characters that popped up in teen flicks like Clueless and Cruel Intentions were throwaway roles at best. Those in critically acclaimed films—like In & Out (forced out of the closet), As Good As It Gets (a victim of a gay bashing), and The Talented Mr. Ripley (a psycho killer)—hardly painted modern homosexuality in the best light.

For the most part, the gay men I saw in the Western films available to me were white and either American or British. Generally, they were very good-looking, and served as eye-candy. Some were exaggeratedly promiscuous, others nearly virginal. Some found love; more often, they lost it.

As a South Asian, I never felt included in the conversation. We didn't have out gay celebrities or gay characters in Indian media, so I kept searching these foreign films for some sense of representation, of belonging. It seemed impossible to find a character or plot line to which I could really relate.

That all changed the day I stumbled upon a VHS tape of My Beautiful Laundrette in the library's drama section. I remember how the cover set my gaydar on fire: a simple shot of two men in front of a laundromat, one white, the other brown. They stared out at me, and I knew that this movie would be different. I smuggled it home in my backpack.

Set in Thatcher-era England, the 1985 film follows Omar, a young man of Pakistani descent, navigating the expected duties of his family and their launderette business while dealing with constant harassment from a gang of racist white thugs.

Through the first half of the film, while the plot developed (slowly), I felt a sense of disappointment—a sad realization that this might not be about what I had hoped it might. But hey, I thought, that Daniel Day Lewis guy is really cute! He played Johnny, the sympathetic leader of the gang and Omar's childhood friend.

In a scene in an alley, after putting aside their differences, they discuss the possibility of teaming up to make the launderette more successful. Then, suddenly, Johnny pulls Omar toward him and delivers a deep kiss. Omar returns the kiss with both passion and familiarity. They fade back into the darkness, wrapped in each other.

I was dumbstruck, then teary-eyed. My teenage heart raced as I rewound that moment over and over—it was the first time I had seen anyone who looked like me be with another man. It showed me that I could be happy, that there was hope that I too could find love. It wasn't just for one kind of people in this world.

The film itself was no box-office smash. Despite near-universal critical praise and an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, to this day, many of my friends have never heard of it. But even a supposedly dismissible piece of cinema can have a huge impact on the world beyond the audiences it was made for.

Think of Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet, in which a gay Chinese man struggles to choose between the male partner he loves and the family he must honor. Or Yossi and Jagger, where an unexpected romance blooms between two male soldiers amid the bloodshed on the Israel-Lebanon border.

India ultimately joined the fray with the 1996 Indo-Canadian English-language film Fire, in which two women in unhappy marriages find solace in a forbidden love. It was lauded internationally and banned locally; I still remember watching news clips of riots outside movie theaters that dared to screen such a blasphemous film. There's no doubt that for all the controversy it caused, the film must have stirred within a generation of young, queer Indian women the same things I felt when I first saw Omar and Johnny embrace.

The West certainly has a long way to go until LGBTQ persons achieve a full measure of equality, but its reached a level that the rest of the world has yet to reach. That progress is reflected in Hollywood today, where queer films are far from taboo—they're celebrated, with Carol, Milk, and Dallas Buyers Club as just a few recent examples.

But now that LGBTQ stories are being told, Hollywood's focus must shift toward showing the world the many faces of our community.

On television, diverse queer storylines abound. Orange Is the New Black and Transparent feature positive portrayals of transgender and queer women of color. How To Get Away With Murder features a gay Asian man in a loving relationship who gets diagnosed with HIV. A slew of LGBTQ characters of color feature on a number of popular shows today, from silly (Broad City, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) to serious (American Odyssey, The Good Wife, Empire).

For every Tangerine or Viva that dominates the indie and foreign film circuit comes another whitewashed rehash of queer history, like Stonewall, or pandering attempt at inclusiveness with a mostly straight, white cast, like Jenny's Wedding.

The thumbnails in Netflix's LGBT section primarily show pretty white boys and girls in various states of undress and embrace. It reminds me of when I went to my first Virgin Records in Times Square, not far into the new millennium, and gleefully beelined to the Gay and Lesbian DVD shelf.

Before me laid a sea of creamy-skinned perfection. Beautiful Thing, Come Undone, Edge of Seventeen, Get Real, Trick—I've seen all those movies at some point. They rightfully deserve their place in the history of queer cinema. But it would be nice if they felt a bit more universal. There are millions of people of color who could have been a part of those stories.

That day, I actually ended up buying a copy of My Beautiful Laundrette. I still have it. And even now, years after coming out and after having fallen in love several times over, when that scene in the alley comes up, I hold my breath and feel once again like I'm part of the story.

Follow Reneysh Vittal on Twitter.

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