England in the late 1970's and early 1980's, especially in the metropolitan centres, was incredibly volatile. Unemployment was high and prospects were bleak for any type of quick recovery. As is usually the case in these sorts of situations people began casting about looking for somebody to blame. It just so happened that around the same time Idi Amin Dada, President of Uganda, expelled everyone of South East Asian ancestry from his country, instantly creating tens of thousands of refugees.
Forced to flee with almost nothing but the clothes on their back they were initially dependent on whatever country took them in for survival. In England, where there was already a sizable South East Asian community, the sudden influx of these refugees brought long simmering racial tensions to a boiling point and gave people a target for their resentment and anger. Neo-Nazi groups like the National Front fanned those flames into open hatred that resulted in waves of rioting sweeping through London.
In the early 1980's an adaptation of Hanif Kureishi's novel My Beautiful Laundrette into a movie captured that time period beautifully. In the 1990's he adapted another of his novels set in the same time period. This time instead of a movie, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), took The Buddha Of Suburbia and made it into a television serial. Now for the first time, through BBC America, it's available for home viewing as a two-DVD package containing all four of the original episodes.
Set in the suburbs of London in the late 1970's, The Buddha Of Suburbia tells the story of a young man trying to find his place in the world. Karim's life up until now has been quite conventional; his father is a civil servant, his mother is a house wife, and he's been living the life of a typical teenager. He listens to The Rolling Stones, The Beetles, and Frank Zappa; he wears jeans and is just like the rest of his crowd at school. He might be Indian by birth but he's assimilated by choice and habit.
However this comfortable little world is going to start crashing down around him, precipitated by his father's version of a mid-life crisis. Spurred on by an attractive English woman, Karim's father begins to instruct his neighbours in the delights of Indian mysticism. Despite the fact that he's easily as assimilated as his son, he not only becomes a hit as a guru, he scores a hit with the English woman Eva, and eventually leaves his wife for her.
As his family life disintegrates Karim tries to find his way in the world beyond his home, but is lost and unsure. The confusion extends to his sexuality as he finds himself attracted to Eva's son Charlie, but at the same time continues his relationship with his cousin Jenna. When Jenna is forced into an arranged marriage by her family to a man she's never met, Kalim finds himself even further adrift. He flunks out of college because he can't even be bothered to show up for the exams.
Eventually Karim follows his father and Eva to London where he embarks on a career as an actor and his old friend Charlie gets swept up in the Punk Rock scene. While the theatre takes Karim to New York as part of a touring show, eventually he realizes his success is illusionary, and he soon finds himself returning to London after one too many betrayals. After the harsh realities of the real world, even his father dispensing wisdom to the masses is a welcome relief.
One of the wonders of the BBC is the calibre of actors they have at their disposal, and The Suburban Buddha is no exception to that rule. Well known now for his continuing role in the television series Lost, a very young Naveen Andrews is wonderful in the lead role of Karim. He manages to capture both the false bravado of youth that Karim affects and the genuine insecurity that he feels with his performance. As Karim experiences more of the world's harsh realities he is able to depict his gradual increase in awareness, without once making him appear cynical or world weary.
Of the supporting cast, Roshan Seth as Karim's father, Brenda Blethyn as his mother, and Steven Mackintosh as his friend Charlie give especially good performances. Blyethyn in particular is quite wonderful, because in spite of being the woman wronged, she has created a character that at first you feel sympathy for, but who she gradually reveals to be a manipulative and unpleasant woman. Her forte is subtle emotional blackmail, and she does her best to make Karim's life as miserable as possible.
While The Buddha Of Suburbia is set in a time, place, and environment that will be quite foreign to most North American audiences, the subject matter it deals with is universal. Most of us will be able to recognize, if not the specifics of what Karim is going through, the idea of being lost and confused because of the onslaught of choices facing us as we enter adulthood. The fact that this further complicated for him because of the disintegration of his home life is something that far too many of us are probably all too familiar with from either personal experience or observation of others dealing with a similar situation.
The score for The Buddha Of Suburbia was written and performed by David Bowie, and the music captures the spirit of the times perfectly. As a special feature the DVD includes a video of Bowie performing the title song from the movie, and its vintage Bowie in all his ironical detachment and cool aloofness. The thing about Bowie though, is that you just know beneath the surface there is a cauldron of emotions that are just waiting to boil over, much like Karim in this movie. There couldn't have been a better choice for creating a soundtrack.
The Buddha Of Suburbia is a great coming of age tale set amidst a very turbulent time period. It's beautifully written, wonderfully acted, and full of moments both funny and sad. When all is said and done, its nearly four hours is some of the best television you'll see in a long time. If you wish to pick up a copy you can order it directly from the BBC America web site or any other online retailer.