SOAP opera meets socio-economic satire in the low-budget "My Beautiful Laundrette," a gay romance set in a south London laundromat.

A Pakistani teen and his punk Anglo lover transform a coin-operated dive into a palace of purity called "Powders," where romantics waltz to classical Muzak amid the washer- dryers. But "Laundrette" is much more than sex and sweet-smelling clothes.

In the larger sense, it becomes a portrait of the Pakistani immigrant community, an earthy, extended family in conflict with London's lower-class unemployed.

Hanif Kureishi, a half-English and half-Pakistani playwright, observes the racial stress between the societies, sparing neither the nasty punks nor the smug Pakistanis in his acerbic, verit,e screenplay. The main focus, however, is on an archaic society in mid-assimilation. The Pakistani patriarchs still lie in bed like fat potentates while their children dance attendance, rubbing their temples and trimming their toenails. But the British-born daughters are becoming uppity and the boys are fraternizing with the WASPs.

The irony is that the exploited have become the exploiters in the foundering England of today. "What's left for you in this country?" says a well-to-do Pakistani to a young Cockney.

Stephen Frears of "Gumshoe" directs this low-budget comedy centering on Omar, an ambitious teenager who goes to work for his uncle Nasser, a wealthy entrepreneur who assures him, "There is no such thing as race in a free enterprise culture."

After an apprenticeship of washing cars, he becomes manager of his uncle's laundrette, later hiring Cockney schoolchum Johnny to wash the floors and empty out the lint. The two men fall in love in this heady atmosphere of suds and soap; their heads spin like the clothes in a tub. It all seems to come out of nowhere, but maybe non-Britishers just don't pick up on their sexual cues.

Gordon Warnecke plays Omar with flat- footed naivet,e turning to yuppie greed, and Daniel Day Lewis is the disenfranchised Johnny, who agrees to work as Omar's employee partly out of guilt over his former association with the fascistic National front, and partly for love.

The characters aren't always likable, their habits alien and offputting. But we can sympathize with Uncle Nasser, who's torn between Eastern mores and Western money. The distinguished Saeed Jaffrey is effortlessly amusing in this befuddled businessman's role.

Roshan Seth costars as the confused and perturbed Papa. Arriving at the gala opening of the laundrette, he ruefully comments on Johnny with his mop, "Ah, the working class is such a great disappointment."

There are insightful scenes, fragmented scenes and sudden outbreaks of violence. It's a little like mixing the white and the dark loads, but somehow it all comes out in the wash and love prevails.