Learning to Drive review: Ben Kingsley's moving avatar helps combat America's Sikh phobia

The film is as much about the universal themes of love and loss as it is about two different worlds.

Uttara Choudhury August 24, 2015 15:45:40 IST
Learning to Drive review: Ben Kingsley's moving avatar helps combat America's Sikh phobia

New York: Spanish director Isabel Coixet's new film, “Learning to Drive,” is a charming, coming of (middle) age comedy about a mismatched pair — a Sikh driving instructor and a liberal Manhattan intellectual — who help each other overcome life’s road blocks. As this movie, tracks the deepening friendship between a Sikh immigrant working two jobs and a well-heeled Upper West Side book critic, it builds a bridge for hope and tolerance.

In a raw, sensitive performance Patricia Clarkson provides the movie’s guts as Wendy, a fiery book critic, grappling with her philandering husband's desertion. As work-obsessed Wendy sets out to rebuild her life without her husband, she runs into a barrier common for New Yorkers: she’s never learned to drive. Of course, deliverance is round the corner in the shape of Oscar winner Ben Kingsley who plays to perfection Darwan Singh Tur, a chivalrous, dignified, resilient driving instructor who also moonlights as a taxi driver (and was witness to Wendy's messy breakup in the backseat of his cab).

Proud and Sikh

Learning to Drive review Ben Kingsleys moving avatar helps combat Americas Sikh phobia

Learning to Drive.

The film is as much about the universal themes of love and loss as it is about two different worlds. It comes with an uplifting message about tolerance; encouraging people to embrace change and difference. It exposes the stereotyping that's become all too common for Sikhs in 9/11-scarred America. Wherever he goes, Darwan, conspicuous in his bright pink or blue turban, faces possible harassment. When Wendy, flustered and fearful behind the wheel, hits another car in rain-soaked Queens, Darwan is subject to overt racism. A group of young men abuse him roundly, calling him a "raghead" and Osama bin Laden. The police are as unhelpful: he is assumed by the police to be responsible for the accident until Wendy steps in.

Kingsley said he was attracted to the film because of the "cast, director and script" but had a special reason for gravitating to his character Darwan. It represents the first time in Hollywood history that a Sikh character has been placed in a leading role. It's also the first time a Sikh character is being played by a big-name Hollywood actor.

“As a portrait artist, why would I want to paint a delicate portrait of Darwan? Why does any portrait artist, walking down the street, suddenly feel, ‘I need to paint her. I need to paint him’? They would say, ‘I don’t know, I just need to paint him.’ I was told in the aftermath of 9/11, it was the Sikh taxi drivers who turned off their meters, saw people in distress and asked, ‘Where do you want to go? Whom are you looking for? I’ll get you there.’ When I heard that story, having begun to occupy Darwan, a voice in me said, ‘Of course.’”

According to Kingsley, while filming in costume as Darwan at a car dealership in Queens, a passerby hurled a racist insult at him and the group of nearby Sikhs.

"So as I move through this film,” Kingsley said, “I’m getting angels and devils all sent to me, guiding me towards the way to tell Darwan’s story.”

Sadly, Sikhs have found themselves frequent targets of hate-based attacks in the US since 11 September. To undiscerning eyes, the turban has somehow got terribly mixed up with Osama bin Laden’s headgear. In August 2012, white supremacist Wade Michael Page strode into the Wisconsin gurdwara brandishing a handgun and killed six Sikhs. Despite America’s efforts at being a pluralistic society, the Sikh Coalition says 60 percent of turban-wearing boys are harassed in schools and the bullying has just got worse after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Director Isabel Coixet has taken pains to recreate Darwan’s Sikh immigrant world, right from his dingy apartment to the bustling life of the Richmond Hill gurdwara. Asked what she liked the best about the Sikh community, Coixet joked, “The food!” While filming in Queens, home to 50,000 Sikhs, the director often found herself in the gurdwara's langar, where everyone is welcome to a free meal regardless of their colour or religion.

Terrific Odd Couple Match

The director has created an impressive and perceptive portrait of two strong personalities in extreme circumstances and two worlds. Wendy is an Upper West Side liberal fighting to keep her beloved, book-filled apartment and way of life: novel launches, fundraisers, radio appearances. The “Sikh in the colorful turban” is a political refugee from Punjab and naturalized US citizen, who lives out in Queens in a drab basement apartment with fellow Indian immigrants, some of whom are in the country illegally.

It’s a terrific odd-couple match, and their car scenes are funny, moving and warm. The driving lessons become a metaphor for learning to live: Kingsley shows Clarkson how to take control of the wheel and the rapport between the gifted actors makes for on-screen magic. There's a moment of real connection, however ephemeral, between the two main characters which transcends race and status.

Learning to Drive review Ben Kingsleys moving avatar helps combat Americas Sikh phobia

Learning to Drive.

However, when we think this trip is veering toward an obvious love story, there’s an unexpected detour when Darwan’s arranged marriage bride Jasleen played masterfully by Sarita Choudhury enters the picture. Audiences who loved the sophisticated, urbane, sultry actress when she debuted in Mira Nair's "Mississippi Masala" will appreciate her acting chops as she transforms into her polar opposite: a proud Jatni born and bred in Punjab now thrown into the melting pot of Queens with a smattering of English.

“You know, all Indian fathers, when you say you’re going to be an actress, they just beg, ‘No, please. That’s not a job.’ But when I was talking to my father after I’d won the role, and I told him I was going to be working with Sir Ben Kingsley, it was almost as if he believed that I was an actress, and I did finally have a real job — because I was working with Gandhi! So, it was very moving,” Choudhury said after the premiere for "Learning to Drive" in New York.

The director acknowledged Choudhury's brilliant performance saying she brought a chameleon-like talent to the role. “Sarita is exactly the opposite of Jasleen. She is an amazingly cultivated woman, a thorough New Yorker, sexy and very smart but she transformed into this unlettered woman Jasleen. I love her and I want to work with her in a film in Italy.”

"Learning to Drive" is based on feminist author Katha Pollitt’s humorous, soul-searching essay that originally ran in the "New Yorker," relating her experiences taking driving lessons. In the original version, Pollitt's teacher is from the Philippines.

The film’s screenwriter Sarah Kemochan made the adjustment to allow viewers to witness turban phobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in 9/11-scarred New York, even towards people who aren’t Muslim. The writer also wanted two characters, who are both residents of New York but live worlds apart from each other, and "then just let them loose on each other.”

Despite a small budget, Isabel's directing creed attracted classy actors like Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Sarita Choudhury and Jake Weber. Isabel was also able to shoot efficiently as her actors knew each other, having acted together in other films. They have great chemistry and the director has tapped into that vibe to create a layered film. Moments of humor and a good script gently tilt “Learning to Drive” toward comedy. The film has an appealing honesty and an enjoyably low-key comic style.

The film is playing in US theatres this week and will have a limited release in India later this year.

Watch the trailer here:

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