Overlooked & Underseen: The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
For my final column for Pride month, I wanted to spotlight the work of Hanif Kureishi. He’s a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter from England who has won numerous awards for his work. I was going to write about 1996’s My Beautiful Laundrette, written by Kureishi and directed by Stephen Frears. It’s certainly an important work, garnering critical acclaim for all parties involved and it vaulted Daniel Day-Lewis into the spotlight, so you should absolutely watch it. Then I remembered another Kureishi work that needed more awareness than Laundrette, his four-part television serial The Buddha of Suburbia based on his debut novel of the same name. The series tackles everything from sexuality, racism, and class warfare all in the midst of 1970s England. If that weren’t enough for you, the soundtrack, overseen by David Bowie (who also provided the score) is phenomenal.
Naveen Andrews plays Karim “Creamy” Amir. He’s 17 and, to quote Valley Girl, “You know when you’re young and you don’t know why you’re here,” he’s just trying to figure shit out. His father, Haroon (Roshan Seth) is from India and is beginning to become a famous guru, even though he has no idea what the hell he’s talking about (white people were willing to buy it). He’s also cheating on his wife. Karim’s mother, Margaret (Brenda Blethyn), is English and just puts up with everything. Karim’s best friend is Jamila (Nisha K. Nayar). Unlike Karim, she has direction, hates the government and wants to do something about it while also having to deal with an arranged marriage. The two are also sleeping together. Throw into the mix, Karim’s other friend, Charlie (Stephen Mackintosh), who is becoming famous as, essentially, “Johnny Rotten”. Karim and Charlie also have had a somewhat sexual relationship. Whew!
Karim’s sexuality in the show is pretty fluid. At one point, during an acting workshop, when asked “Do you fuck white women or black women?”, he responds “I’ll fuck anyone”. And he does. He doesn’t label himself. If he fancies someone, no matter the race or the sex, he’ll go after them. We’re all adults reading my this piece but, in case you are offended by sex scenes and nudity, be warned, this show has a lot of it.
Karim and his community are dealing with racism through the show. They are harassed by whites wanting them to “go home”. The National Front is running a campaign similar to the one happening right now, both in Europe and in the United States, where perceived foreigners (Karim was born in the UK) are told to get out of the country. Jamila is out there on the front lines protesting such treatment. When she tries to get Karim involved, he’d rather stalk a former lover than go to a sit-in. Karim is also under fire from his family for not conforming to their way of life. He’s getting pressure from all sides and all he wants to do is live his life without complications.
Because the show is four hours long, there isn’t any way to cover everything that happens in the show. Karim’s dealing with a lot of shit over the four episodes. He goes from a pot smoking horny school boy to a pot smo- who am I kidding, he’s the same way at the end of the show, BUT he does discover a lot of things about himself and life in general.
In terms of the production, Naveen Andrews (of Lost fame) is really fantastic. He is in just about every scene and holds his own against some heavyweight actors. Roshan Seth and Brenda Blethyn are amazing, too. Lots of familiar faces pop up in the show including a very young (with hair even) Mark Strong. Roger Michell's (Notting Hill) direction isn’t anything flashy as he let’s Kureishi’s story take center stage. My only complaint is the length, clocking in at exactly 3 hours and 41 minutes, I think it could’ve lost an hour. The story (which has a loose plot to begin with) would’ve still held up by cutting a lot of extraneous shots.
I have to mention David Bowie and the show's soundtrack. There was an album released by Bowie and it’s considered a “soundtrack” even though only the title song actually appears on the show. The album is still available for download on iTunes. Other music in the show includes stuff by T Rex, Pink Floyd, and several other Bowie songs.
Buddha of Suburbia is available on DVD from BBC DVD. It could do with a remastering to be sure. The DVD features an audio commentary by Kureishi and Michell. It also contains a music video of Bowie’s “The Buddha of Suburbia” theme song.