Apparently, according to the 1993 BBC miniseries The Buddha of Suburbia, the mid to late 70's was a crazy, mixed-up time. Well, I just needed to look no further than my childhood photos to know that.
Written by My Beautiful Laundrette scribe Hemit Kureishi and directed by future Notting Hill, Changing Lanes, and Venus helmer Roger Mitchell, Buddha of Suburbia follows Indian/Brit, half breed Karim Amir (Naveen Andrews- Lost, The English Patient). Over the course of four hours and covering five years (1974-1979), we see Karim go from clueless and confused (everything from his biracial roots to his bisexuality) young adult to slightly less clueless and confused twenty-something and along the way see touches of the changing times from hippie to punk, avant garde theater, and careless pre-Aids sexual freedom.
Casting aside his Muslim roots for more digestible Buddhist rhetoric, Karim's father (Roshan Seth- Gandhi, Monsoon Wedding) takes advantage of the decades burgeoning new age spiritualism by becoming a guru of sorts for the middle class suburbanites in their area. His fathers partner in crime in this endeavor is his mistress Eva, whose wannabe, troubled art rocker son Charlie becomes a friend and object of crushing affection for Karim. His parents split (Karim's mother is played by Brenda Blethyn in a thankless role) and Karim, his father, and Eva move to London where Eva and his father try, less successfully, to ply their trade with the more sophisticated crowd. Charlie goes from glam rocker failure to drug-addicted punk before having success with his music career despite his self acknowledged lack of talent.
Because his old world values don't mesh with her more modern ones, Karim's best friend and casual lover Jamila (Nisha Nayar) fields the pressure of her traditionalist father, who goes on a hunger strike when she wont commit to an arranged marriage. She does give in and marry a slovenly but good hearted guy named Changez, but the two don't have chemistry and Changez suffers with a wife who wont return his affections. The mini-series final plotline is the one that is most Karim-centric, his struggles to be an actor, which leads him to some success with a renowned director and a shaky relationship with one of his acting group female co-stars.
I expected to be totally uninterested in Buddha of Suburbia. Telefilm dramas are not really my niche, but I gave it a whirl and found myself fairly engaged, though I think that the piece has some pretty basic storytelling rhythms and cliched characterizations. It also has acting issues with a mix of capable and underwhelming performances. Hell, now that I write about it, maybe I didnt like it so much after all. Maybe it was just the Bowie soundtrack that kept me from dismissing it.
The oddest point is that Kureishi decided to underpin the drama and larger issues with humor. On one hand, I found it entertaining that every serious point seemed to have some kind of wacky punchline. Problem is the humor totally kills, or at least lightens, any humanistic topic that Kureishi is trying to address. Forward-thinking activist Jamila's begrudging arraigned marriage? Hilarious because her unwanted hubby is a fat, sex-obsessed, comic relief slob literally one step away from being Belushi's Bluto from Animal House. When Kamir does a bit of teenage pining by visiting a girl he's interested in only to be kicked off the property by her racist father? Oh, its not that bad because as he's leaving he gets pinned and dry humped by the families gigantic dog (with further dog spunk on his back joke in the next scene). Running into a near ruined, doped up Charlie in London? Oh, its not too sad because the scene ends with Charlie barfing on some guy at the bar. The list goes on and on.
It is a pretty standard coming of age story with the usual rote period (in this case, since it is 70's, bad hair and clothing) and racial dynamics (shocker, because of Kamir's ethnicity people only want to cast him in ethnic roles). Despite some overt sexual situations (full frontal male nudity!), that daring doesn't carry over the plotting. For the most part, Naveen Andrews moves through the story like a sweet-faced robot and isn't the most engaging protagonist. His characters ambitions as an actor and any hint that he has any artistic drive whatsoever don't come into play until the third hour. It is only at his point that his character ceases to be the satellite co-star and unfortunately it is still little too late and stifled by the fact that we are left to dredge through boring rehearsal scenes and the usual acting troupe woes (controlling director, actor jealousies, the standard emotionally fragile female co-star).
The DVD: BBC Video.
Fullscreen, standard. While the production values for this series is pretty good, no one who is any fan of Brit tv should be surprised by the actual filming quality, which is average at best. No technical problems. The source just inst anything that will amaze, slightly muted in all areas, sharpness, contrast, color, and standard for its era.
Stereo. Thankfully there are optional English subtitles because the dialog audio is very poor and should have been remixed. The vocals are often very low which is made all the more apparent because the soundtrack is bracingly loud. Casual conversation is kept to a mum yet every "Bang a Gong" or strains of Bowie blasts your speakers.
David Bowie music video. Good song. Muddy, bland video. --- Commentary by director Roger Mitchell and writer Hemit Kureishi. I just skimmed the commentary track- no way I was watching another four hours- and it seemed to be pretty low key and reserved touching on the usual generalities.
Hey, did you know being biracial is tough and that the world is full of prejudiced people? Did you know that the 70's was a strange time for music, that theater folk are wacky, and people used spirituality based self help hokum to take advantage of the weakly open-minded? Buddha of Suburbia hits on all of these points in unremarkable but fairly entertaining enough fashion, making it worth a rental for miniseries, Brit drama fans.