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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Buddha of Britannia

When things in the real world get confusing, I sometimes turn to movies to try to make sense of it all. Maybe this is silly, but for some reason, it works for me.

For example, during this period of uncertainty over recent and possible future terrorist bombings in Britain, my mind has been turning to the screenplays of Hanif Kureishi. Born in England in 1954 to an English mother and a Pakistani immigrant father, he has penned numerous plays, books and screenplays about what it is like to be caught between cultures. Often this takes the form of the British/Pakistani confluence, as exemplified by Kureishi’s own life, but also frequently the collisions of various economic, social and sexual communities.

His first screenplay was for the 1985 Stephen Frears film My Beautiful Laundrette. It showed 1980s London in a way that most of us outside the UK had never seen it before. We saw a British Pakistani community that was more British than the Brits. The immigrant drive to succeed in a foreign culture was exemplified on a personal level by the industrious young Omar, who makes a success of the titular launderette turned over to him by his Uncle Nasser. Tellingly, the object of his romantic desires is a white Briton, his old classmate Johnny (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), who suggests a generation of Englishmen not nearly as motivated as Omar to push themselves. Kureishi followed that screenplay three years later with another portrait of multicultural inner-city London in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, again directed by Frears.

Kureishi’s single film directing effort was the 1991 movie London Kills Me. Perhaps anticipating Trainspotting by half a decade, it dealt with the drug-filled lifestyle of living rough on the street, but its poor critical reception suggests that Kureishi was a bit too far ahead of his time.

In the 1990s Kureishi adapted his own novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, into a four-part miniseries for the BBC. One cannot help but suspect that this work was strongly autobiographical, since it deals with the experiences of a young man, Karim, whose father is an immigrant from southwest Asia and whose mother is English. It is set in England in the 1970s, and it is the sort of coming-of-age story that is familiar to anyone who reached maturity in that decade—but with the additional component of the protagonist coping with the fact that he is neither completely at home nor completely accepted in any world. Many of Karim’s adventures are sexual, but once again there is a thread through the entire story of his longing for and attraction to (and maybe a wish to be?) a blond, white-skinned English lad. Another theme, as suggested by the title, is the spiritual poverty of 20th-century Britain and the attraction of Asian religion.

The one Kureishi screenplay that is bouncing around in my head these days, however, is the one he adapted from his own story for a 1997 film directed by Udayan Prasad. To hear or read today the very title of this tale of the Pakistani community in Britain delivers a an ice-cold frisson: My Son the Fanatic.

The film’s plot sounds as though it could be a classic comic farce, updated for modern-day multicultural Britain. Om Puri plays a taxi driver in northern England, who has thoroughly embraced life in the west. He likes to sit in the basement and drink whiskey while listening to jazz records. He has become emotionally close to the prostitute (played by Rachel Griffiths) who uses him for transportation during her nightly work. But his son has become drawn to strict Islamic teachings and has joined a group that wants to cleanse the community of flagrant immoral behavior. Square in their sights are Griffiths and her fellow prostitutes. But the generational clash does not turn out to be funny. We are left with a portrait of British Pakistanis divided by their Islamic roots and western assimilation. Eight years ago this movie was tipping us off to the ideological forces at play in Britain.

So what insights do this movie and the others give us about the appearance of home-grown terrorists in the UK and, by extension, elsewhere in the west? At once it tells us everything, and it tells us nothing. They certainly give us a view of modern Britain unlike those of any screenwriter, and with that view comes a fuller, if not necessarily complete, understanding. But any lessons drawn are totally in the mind of the viewer. Kureishi is extremely non-judgmental in his narratives. There are no heroes or villains, just complex individuals who are largely victims of circumstance. But, in the end, there is nothing inherently wrong for people to want to get in touch with their roots or to decide to adhere to strict religious teachings.

In the end, movies don’t seem to tell us any more about the roots of the current batch of terrorists than do the news media. After 9/11 we heard that the terrorists were from backward medieval Moslem countries and resented the west’s progress and dominance. Then we realized that they were actually from middle class backgrounds and educated, and the story was that they had been fired up by fiery fundamentalist teachers. Now the media are telling us that they are mainly the products of the western world, seduced by an ideology that is a corruption of traditional Islam. Writing a couple of weeks ago, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius alluded to reports that the July 7 London bombers “may have gotten together for a pre-attack white-water rafting trip in Wales” and drew comparisons with American and European students of the 1960s: “The kids from elite public and private schools who went to college, felt guilty about their comfort amid a brutal world, and joined the Progressive Labor Party to ally with oppressed Third World workers.” New York Times columnist David Brooks picked up the theme last week, paraphrasing French scholar Olivier Roy in pointing out that “today’s jihadists have a lot in common with the left-wing extremists of the 1930’s and 1960‘s. Ideologically, Islamic neofundamentalism occupies the same militant space that was once occupied by Marxism.”

Until the media give us the next vision of just who the “enemy” is, we might as well keep going to the movies. The next question: what do movies tell us about terrorists themselves? Maybe we will examine that next time.

* * *

I feel compelled to say a few words about Peter Jennings, who died last weekend—even though he had virtually nothing to do with the movie world. Still, it was a mere 21 months ago that I damned him with the faint praise by saying that he anchored the best nightly news program of the major American networks. Less than two years later, all three men have ceased to preside over our TV news, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather having since retired from anchoring duties.

In the 1960s, Walter Cronkite was the dominant face of TV news, but for some of us Peter Jennings was a refreshingly welcome alternative. He brought two important qualities during that extremely divisive decade: 1) he was young (26 when he first anchored for ABC), and 2) he wasn’t American (he was Canadian). That gave him street cred for us rebellious youth. As the years wore on, he always seemed so much smarter than Brokaw or Rather, and maybe he was. Or it could have been elitist bias against the two men who hailed from Middle America. In fact, Jennings had by far the least formal education of the three. But there was something about the way ABC was entwined with National Public Radio (getting a fair amount of its talent from there), The New York Times and the BBC. And there was something refreshing (if a bit affected) about Jennings’s occasional apologies for not having time to provide more information or for possibly distracting viewers with broadcast set changes. In fact, he always gave the impression of being frustrated that he didn’t have more time and resources, and he may well have been.

Listening to Cokie Roberts on NPR pay tribute to her friend and colleague, I was surprised to learn that Jennings had only recently become a U.S. citizen. She spoke movingly of how excited he was to vote for the first time in the 2004 presidential election, not realizing it would be his only vote.

She also joined the chorus of people who said how reassuring and calming he had been during moments of national crisis. This is one of those things that journalists say about other journalists, but which I have never actually heard any regular person say about a TV anchor. Personally, I was unnerved and unsettled by Jennings’s on-air commentary on the morning of 9/11, as he second-guessed and expressed skepticism (punctuated by his trademark raised eyebrow) over President Bush’s various movements during the day. But, if he hadn’t reassured me, then at least he distracted me for a few moments by reminding me of why he was such a breath of fresh air on television back in the 1960s.

-S.L., 11 August 2005

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