In 1984, when My Beautiful Laundrette was released it seemed to come as a bolt from the blue. Stephen Frears had not made a theatrical feature since Gumshoe (1971) and the writer of the film, Hanif Kureishi, was an unknown. Or at least I did not know that he already had had a number of plays produced on the London stage and had won the George Devine Award in 1981. I did not know he was not a novice. Laundrette went on to be nominated for an Oscar and was quickly followed by Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987).
Since then Hanif Kureishi has continued to work in the theatre and has turned his hand to novels, short stories, adaptations and other film scripts for other directors. He has also directed a feature film himself, London Kills Me (1991), and has adapted his novel The Buddha of Suburbia into a two part BBC television series directed by Roger Michell. Kureishi was in Australia earlier this year to launch his new novel Midnight All Day. He visited Canberra at the invitation of the Australian National University. I spoke to him about some of the aspects of his writing career particularly his work in film and television.
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GG: Is there a different kind of imagination required when you write for the movies?
HK: I write for the movies first of all because they asked me to when Channel 4 had just started (circa early ’80s). Channel 4 were making feature films which was quite unusual in Britain. There were not many movies being made. Channel 4 were making quite small movies with a lot of new directors like Neil Jordan, Peter Greenaway, Stephen Frears and Derek Jarman. Angela Carter was writing for them and Salman Rushdie also wrote a movie script for them, which was never made.
It was quite an interesting time so I thought I would have a go. I didn’t know how to do it so I kind of figured it out by getting all these videos and their scripts and figured out the relation between them. The cinema and the novel are the same in the sense that they are mostly concerned with telling stories and creating character and narrative. Stuff happens and then it ends.
But mostly the cinema is collaborative. It’s very boring being a writer. I go into a room every day. I shut the door. I stay in there and that’s it. I come out after a couple of hours with a headache. So working with Stephen Frears or working with Udayan Prasad who directed My Son the Fanatic, or working with the other directors in the theatre or the cinema enables me to collaborate with other imaginations. Then the actors come in and take their part. When Rachel Griffiths came in to My Son the Fanatic (1997) she made it a very different kind of film.
It’s exciting for a writer to have their work taken away from them and to have other people mess with it. They might mess it up and it might be a disaster. On the other hand working with other people can sometimes really open up our heads to something new. So I do it for the fun of it, but also because sometimes it works out well. I also do it because when I was a young man I thought that one day I would find out what I wanted to do – be a novelist or a screenwriter or write stories or whatever it was. Then finally I decided I quite liked doing all of those different things. I get bored doing just one. I wake up in the morning and think what can I do today that’s going to keep me awake. That’s the main thing. Sometimes I think I’ll do something really hard – write a film about so and so or whatever.
Most of the time when you are creating something you really don’t know what you’re doing. You are trying to find out. I sit down in the morning and I don’t know what I’m going to do and so I start to write. You are working in the darkness, but that’s what exciting. I don’t really want to know what I’m doing. I want to find out. It’s going to be an exploration. It’s like falling in love. You fall in love but you don’t know what’s going to happen. You hope for the best and then you find out what a person’s like and then after some time you find out how it’s all going to work out.
GG: In the edition of your published plays you have written a long introduction about the social environment at the Royal Court theatre where the plays were first performed. It was intensely competitive and there was a lot of ambition on display. You give the feeling that you had to be fairly tough to survive in the theatre at that time.
HK: The art forms that are usually the most unpleasant to work in are usually the most competitive. They are also usually the ones where the least amount of money is involved in some odd kind of way. I’ve been told, though I don’t know this from experience, that the poets are the worst. They are the most horrible to each other. They fight each other and tend to punch each other out at parties in ways that screenwriters don’t. When I first went to the Royal Court Theatre I was about eighteen and I was at university in London. I could work at the Royal Court at the same time. I found it was like a bag of bitches in there. They were vicious. But it was fantastic for me because it was the first time in my life when I was amongst people who were passionate about culture. I grew up in the suburbs and you were lucky if you saw a book in anybody’s house.unless it was the phone book. People didn’t read. Culture didn’t matter to them. They weren’t interested in ideas. You couldn’t talk to them about books. If you talked to them about books they thought you were being pretentious, that you were showing off. It was impossible to have a conversation about the stuff that was important to me.
So going to London and then working in the theatre was really a big breakthrough for me because I met people for the first time who lived in and through culture, through ideas, through the cinema and through literature.
GG: You did the television adaptation of The Buddha of Suburbia yourself. The thing that impressed me was how much of the book you managed to get in. There were very few of the key moments that weren’t included without you having to simplify the characters down. Does TV allow you to do this sort of adaptation better?
HK: Well it’s pretty long, about four hours if you sat through it from beginning to end! The BBC are very good at costume dramas. The Buddha of Suburbia was set in the ’70s. It was a kind of period piece by the time it was finally made in the ’80s. The BBC are very good at the wallpaper and the carpets. My mum said “Cor, it’s just like our ‘ouse isn’t it”. Which it was. The BBC just do all that stuff very well. I wrote the adaptation with the director Roger Michell who later became known for making Notting Hill (1999). He’s a good director and it was a good collaboration. He fought to keep the book. I kept saying: “We could change this. Why don’t we do that? Wouldn’t it be better if we did that?” Having written it, it was rather tedious to go over it again. It was quite an unusual situation where the director fought for the integrity of the work and the writer was fighting to dismember it.
GG: There all these references in both the book and the TV series to other cultural objects, authors, books, films and so on. At one moment you describe a character as “a man who looked like he would know the names of all the actors in Vincente Minnelli’s films.” If the reader is not on your wavelength about what you’ve been reading it might be a little hard to understand.
HK: .who the hell these people are! Like the judge said: “Who is Bruce Springsteen?”
GG: The music and other pop culture references are also among your interests.
HK: I grew up in all that stuff in the ’60s. All that stuff was happening near me. I was a suburban boy and I suppose that was the culture that we had. We were amazed that there were boys in bands called The Beatles and The Rolling Stones who were suburban boys making music. It was fantastic for people of my generation. Our destiny, being lower middle class, working in the suburbs, was to become civil servants. My father was civil servant and our jobs were to be administrative. Then suddenly you thought hey Mick Jagger’s not being administrative at all. There are these other lives that are possible.
We lived about twenty minutes on the train from London and we would go up to the King’s Road and suddenly see these people walking up and down the Kings Road and we’d buy stuff from fantastic shops like “Granny Takes a Trip”. It was incredibly exciting and I was a boy living in the suburbs, sitting in my bedroom, listening to Jimi Hendrix records, reading Jack Kerouac and thinking I want to be there. I want to live that life, I don’t want to stay on here in the suburbs any more. It was really pop and Vietnam and all the American stuff that was going on that got me out of the role that was expected of me. The book is full of that stuff because our lives were full of that stuff.
You went to school and you talked about King Crimson. It’s amazing how children who are not very good academically always know a lot about pop music and manage to retain enormous amounts of information about football. That’s how we talked to one another. That was our common culture. That book was soaked in it. Maybe now it’s of historical interest. there will have to be little footnotes in it!
GG: I assume The Buddha of Suburbia is autobiographical and I’d like to ask you how much your work is autobiographical and how much you try to hide.
HK: The Buddha was kind of autobiographical but it was revved up autobiography. One’s childhood is mostly composed of very long tedious stretches when you mostly sit around wishing that exciting things would happen. In a book you put the exciting things one after another. When you read the book you think wow that guy had a really good time down there in the suburbs.
The relation between autobiography and your writing is a complicated one. I did have an uncle who had laundrettes. I had left the university and I was writing and he used to take me around to his laundrettes in his car. He wanted me to join the Thatcherite world of which he was a part. He would point at the laundrette and say come on you could work here and if you do well you could run one of these and I’m getting on and we could do this business together. These laundrettes were wretched. There was water all over the floor and boilers always bursting on Christmas day. So being a smart guy I decided not to go into the laundrette business. But I thought that laundrettes were funny. I don’t know why, I just thought they were odd places. So, much later on when Channel 4 began, I started to write a film about a bloke with a friend running a laundrette. I never actually ran a laundrette but I knew someone who did and I knew a bit about them. It became a part of the film and the uncle got into the story and other elements were introduced.
It came out my experience in that sense but it’s not a direct one-on-one thing where something happens and you go and write it down. It’s not like that. For instance, with The Buddha of Suburbia my father was very interested in Buddhism and would talk about Buddhism to my friends. And there were characters in my life who wanted to be pop stars like Charlie Hero. You mix all that stuff up together and then you get a good chapter. But it never happens quite in that way. Life’s too disorganised and messy.
GG: How much opportunity have you had to be involved in films recently?
HK: I’ve done a new movie. I wrote a film called My Son the Fanatic. It has Rachel Griffiths in it. We showed it in Sydney (at the Writers’ Week – May, 2000). I don’t know if it’s going to be released here in Australia. I doubt it. I think it’s been bought by a distributor. I’d love people to get the chance to see it but it seems to have been overshadowed by East is East (Damian O’Donnell, 1999). This is rather ironic for me since East is East is written by Ayub Khan-Din an actor who was in Sammie and Rosie and obviously thought he’d try some writing. Having done so he’s done very well out of it. Maybe my film will be shown on TV.
GG: My Son the Fanatic is based on one of your short stories which you have extended quite a lot in the adaptation to paint a picture of what you’ve called the phenomena of fundamentalism among British-born Muslims. They are taking quite radical action against some of the ills they see in Western society. We haven’t experienced the level of fanaticism that’s shown in the film.
HK: Well you’ve got something to look forward to. My Son the Fanatic is a film not unlike a novel I wrote called The Black Album. It’s about a middle class Asian taxi driver who is quite a liberal man – a Muslim but quite a liberal man and one day he wakes up to find that his son has become a Muslim fundamentalist. The boy turns against his father.
After the fatwa against Rushdie I took some interest in fundamentalism because it fascinated me that these guys wanted to kill writers (1). It never occurred to me that writers were so important that people wanted to kill them or burn their books. It really woke a lot of us up as to what books were about. So I went to see some of these young fundamentalists who were active in colleges near me. It was very interesting to see how they repudiated the West. They felt that they had been dumped in the West by their parents, who were immigrants, in a place where they weren’t really wanted. You could see that fundamentalism was a good way for them of finding an identity, finding a place and sealing themselves off from the rest of society.
I was also shocked by it because some of the things that they said made your hair go white with a kind of terror. They didn’t like women, they didn’t like gay people, they didn’t like this they didn’t like that. They didn’t like anything much. It was kind of terrifying and rather moving because these children were rather beautiful and intelligent. It seemed as if life would offer them everything yet there they were hemming themselves in with this terrible ideology. My Son the Fanatic is partly about this story.
GG: I have just one more question. In your new collection of stories, Midnight All Day you tell a story about a writer who is rung by an ex-lover who complains that she has been unfavourably drawn in the writer’s new book.
HK: Yes.Evelyn Waugh said this wonderful thing about putting people in books. He said that people don’t like it if you put them in a book but if you do put them in a book as long as you say that they are very, very attractive to the other sex they don’t mind what you say about them.
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(Note: My Son The Fanatic was screened in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 1997. It remains un-released in Australia and there are apparently no plans for the film to be given cinema distribution here. The film is available on video and DVD in the United States.)
For more information on Hanif Kureishi, in particular, the essay “The Boy in the Bedroom” which is an account of transferring The Buddha of Suburbia from a novel to the BBC mini-series and his new short story “Straight”, visit the website: http://www.hanifkureishi.com