Dialogue: Hanif Kureishi with A.O. Scott
- Retrospective: September 5–29, 2001
- Regional Premiere: Intimacy
Hanif Kureishi may have directed a film called London Kills Me, but few contemporary writers in any medium have so vividly proven Henry James’ contention that “to be tired of London is to be tired of life.” In Kureishi’s imagination—which owes more to the comic realist tradition of Dickens, Waugh, and Amis than to James—the city is exhausting, baffling, and dangerous, but its antic vitality is undeniable. And by rendering, in meticulous detail, the big ideas, grand ambitions, and base desires of the city’s immigrant strivers and bohemian outriders, Kureishi has illuminated something much larger. Even if you’ve never been to London, you can’t watch Sammy and Rosie Get Laid or The Buddha of Suburbia without thinking at some point, “Yes, that it. That’s me. That’s my life.”
When Jay, the hero of Intimacy, impulsively walks out on his wife and two sons, he takes with him a signed photograph of John Lennon. He leaves the tasteful comfort of his handsome townhouse for a filthy basement room where he lives surrounded by CDs and vinyl albums and where, every Wednesday afternoon, he meets a woman for anonymous, uncommitted sex that seems anything but casual.
Sex and pop music are vital elements in Kureishi’s world, at once metaphors for the ardent confusion of contemporary urban life and primary ways of escaping its dreariness and drift. A track from Jimi Hendrix, The Clash, or Prince has the power to make us simultaneously forget ourselves and understand, for a moment at least, who we really are. Kureishi’s films, to anyone who has lived through the noise and tumult of the last 30 years, offer similar jolts of recognition and surprise. His collaborations with Stephen Frears in the mid-1980s—My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid—are among the definitive portraits of the Reagan-Thatcher era. And The Buddha of Suburbia, the BBC miniseries that ends on the night of Thatcher’s election, is one of the earliest and best attempts to grapple with the confused legacy of the 1970s.
Kureishi, who nursed his talent in the ideological and artistic hothouse of the Royal Court Theater in the 1970s, has ranged effortlessly across stage, page, and screen. The son of a Pakistani father and an English mother, he has been particularly interested in the ways the empire’s former colonial subjects have tried to find a home in the postimperial metropolis. But though his stories, novels, and films explore the generational conflicts within immigrant families and confront the persistence of racism in British society, they eschew the pieties of identity politics and smiley-face multiculturalism. The conflicts between lower-middle-class immigrant parents and their children are not simply between repressive tradition and youthful freedom. In My Son the Fanatic, a secular father grapples with his son’s turn toward militant Islamism, a force whose pull is also felt in The Black Album. In Buddha, father and son are both sly hedonists exploiting their era’s apparently inexhaustible opportunities for self-invention and erotic adventure.
Such adventurism, as Intimacy especially proves, is not without cost; the scary underside of freedom is soul-emptying anomie. Where there is pleasure—in drugs, sex, or the heady rush of fanaticism—there is also danger. Like the best pop music, Kureishi’s films are at once celebratory and mortally serious, dense with peril and delight. His energy may wear you out, but to be tired of Hanif Kureishi is to be tired of life.
A.O. Scott is a film critic for the New York Times.