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His beautiful Britain

In his writing, including the upcoming `Venus,' Hanif Kureishi chronicles a nation's harsh, ugly cultural angst -- with copious sex and humor.

November 12, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

London — HIS next project, Hanif Kureishi is saying, will be a fat, juicy novel about a shrink, chockablock with "all the stuff that I'm interested in -- you know, race, sex, politics, psychoanalysis, literature, TV."

The time frame? The 1970s through July 7, 2005, the date of the suicide bombing attacks that rocked Britain. Got a title yet? Yes, Kureishi replies while crunching his way through a salad at a favorite haunt in his funky Shepherds Bush neighborhood. It's going to be called "Something to Tell You."

Maybe he should make that "I Told Ya So." Because the England that Kureishi evoked in his prophetic screenplays for the mid-'80s art-house smashes "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," and more recently in the under-seen "My Son the Fanatic" -- a country of ugly ethnic tensions, dreary politics and deep cultural angst -- bears an uncanny resemblance to the actual England of today.

But those films, like Kureishi's novels and short stories, somehow balance their seriousness with a tone that's light, playful and shot through with carnal heat. For Kureishi, the political is always passionately personal, and intemperate sexuality inevitably spews over every form of social prophylaxis.

An assiduous observer of cross-cultural give-and-take, Kureishi has a knack for diagnosing what's ailing his fellow Brits, individually and collectively, at any given moment. His writerly signature of spot-on social witness and gritty poetics is again on display in his latest script, "Venus," a Pygmalion-themed drama starring Peter O'Toole in bravura form as an aging wreck of an actor playing Svengali to a young would-be model. The film will open in U.S. theaters next month.

Kureishi says the idea for the film, which partly centers on the relationship between O'Toole's character and another hoary thespian played by Leslie Phillips, was inspired by an offhand remark by Kureishi's friend Stephen Frears, who directed "Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy and Rosie."

"On Fridays I have breakfast with Stephen Frears and various other mates of mine, and we all sit around and just gossip, read the paper, shoot the breeze," Kureishi explains. "And I remember Stephen Frears saying to me, he said, 'I'd like to spend my retirement like this, like sitting in a Cairo cafe, sitting around with my friends, smoking the hookah, talking, reading the paper, it's a very comfortable way to live.' And I thought, yeah, why don't I write a film about that?"

Getting an actor of O'Toole's stature to play one of the leads was an unexpected bonus. "Very brave actor," Kureishi says of O'Toole. "He's not afraid to show himself being ... derelict, old, despair. He just looked at the camera, shows himself."

Though Kureishi's screenplays and novels tend to be very character-driven, they always keep a close eye trained on the story's social context. In Britain, that backdrop has changed radically and rapidly over the past quarter-century, and Kureishi has been one of only a handful of writers to keep pace with it.

His 1995 novel "The Black Album" deals with a young Pakistani British man from the provinces struggling to reconcile the different sides of his divided cultural heritage. Tellingly, it's set in 1989, after a fatwa was issued against Kureishi's friend Salman Rushdie for writing "The Satanic Verses."

In the short story "My Son the Fanatic" (1999), the title character, the son of an immigrant, assimilated Pakistani cab driver, voices his revulsion toward his family's adopted England, which he sees as decadent and two-faced. "They say 'integrate,' but they live in pornography and filth and tell us how backward we are," the son bitterly tells his bemused father.

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, Britain was becoming obsessed with the cultural stare-down between its white, secular majority and its estimated 1.5 million Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Middle East. Last month, a public row erupted when Prime Minister Tony Blair and other politicians criticized the wearing of veils by Muslim women as a slap in the face to mainstream British society. "It's an important debate about the relation between Islam and liberalism and the kind of society we want to make," says Kureishi, who was born in southern England in 1954 to a Pakistani immigrant father and an English mother.


No pulling punches

FOR a guy who always seems to be writing from the eye of a cultural whirlwind, Kureishi in person seems improbably even-keeled. A compact man of medium height, with tightly cropped gray hair and a stare as focused as a peregrine falcon's, he chats with amiable forthrightness about an array of booby-trapped subjects: Slavish materialism in the post-Thatcher era. Inter-religious strife. The nasty, as well as euphoric, things that can happen between a man and a woman in bed. (His 1998 novel "Intimacy," which he wrote around the time he and his wife were splitting up, was both reviled and praised for its wince-inducing honesty.)

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