What I learnt in Gandhi is paying off now: Ben Kingsley on playing a Sikh character in 'Learning to Drive'

Uttara Choudhury

Aug 29, 2015 09:03:14 IST

Academy award winner Spencer Tracy's advice to aspiring actors was delightfully straightforward: learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture. The problem — as many Indian actors have discovered over the years— is that there is a great deal more to it than that.

Kal Penn, Sarita Choudhury or Oscar winner Sir Ben Kingsley may be trusted to open a Hollywood movie in their own right but there was a time not so long ago when Indian actors kept their origins a secret.

Kingsley is honest about what prompted him to change his name from Krishna Bhanji. “It was a way to my first audition. My dad who is Indian was completely behind it. My first name, Ben, is my dad's nickname. My second name, Kingsley, comes from my grandfather's nickname, which was King Clove. It's a bit late to change it back now,” he told reporters.

Kingsley was born in Yorkshire in 1943, the son of a Gujarati doctor and a mother with Russian Jewish blood. He was given a knighthood in 2002.

He edged out actors like Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Richard Burton, to play Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi went onto sweep eight Oscars.

Spanish director Isabel Coixet who has directed Kingsley in Elegy and her new film Learning to Drive says; “In the film I did earlier with Ben he was a Columbia professor, an intellectual, and a womanizer. He can be British, American, Sikh — he can be anything. You ask Ben to play a chair, and he could play a chair!”

 What I learnt in Gandhi is paying off now: Ben Kingsley on playing a Sikh character in Learning to Drive

Ben Kingsley in Learning to Drive.

In Coixet's new film, Learning to Drive Kingsley plays a big Indian character after 33 years. Learning to Drive is a 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 the movie tracks the 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. Kingsley plays to perfection Darwan Singh Tur, a chivalrous, dignified, resilient driving instructor who also moonlights as a taxi driver. Wherever he goes, Darwan, conspicuous in his bright pink or blue turban, faces possible harassment. Sikhs have been targets of hate attacks in the U.S since September 11. To undiscerning eyes, the turban has got terribly mixed up with Osama bin Laden’s headgear.

Kingsley talked to Firstpost in New York about how this is the first time in Hollywood history that a Sikh character has been placed in a leading role and hopes the film will combat 9/11 scarred America's Sikh phobia.

You have one Gujarati parent and one British. Has it been an advantage or disadvantage having somewhat of an Indian face, but an English name like Ben Kingsley?

I have got nothing to compare it with other than my own journey which is beautiful. I have been accepted by so many diverse communities. I have had the privilege of working in three Holocaust films, the Jewish community have embraced me. After the House of Sand and Fog, the Iranian community embraced me, the Indian community embraced me and the London cab drivers like me after Sexy Beast. It's been a great journey. I do believe that story telling is fundamentally healing and I am a story teller. I hope that by telling stories, a little bit of help and healing is going on.

Gandhi was made in 1982, but substantial Indian roles haven't come your way for nearly 33 years.

Darwan Singh Tur is worth waiting for! Maybe I was very lucky, I wasn't inundated by them at all. Straight after Gandhi I played two Harold Pinter screenplays — Betrayal and Turtle Diary. Immediately I was plunged into London, 20th Century modern England. Fate gave me an opportunity to say actually I am quite versatile if you give me a chance. It's wonderful to keep the arc from Gandhi to Darwan Singh almost uninterrupted. It's really beautiful.

What made you gravitate to your character Darwan Singh?

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.’

It's important to understand Darwan's stillness and dignity in the context of a pretty well steady flow of abuse. I hope that the film may allow audiences to look at the next Sikh they see in the street, or in a supermarket slightly differently. There is something so noble, generous and compassionate about wonderful Darwan Singh.

The specificity of him being a Sikh and that silhouette is extraordinary, it's instantly recognizable. It has been confused for all sorts of, you know, ridiculous and tragic reasons.

What helped you to play a Sikh character so authentically?

When I was filming Gandhi in India I had a wonderful Sikh bodyguard-driver. I spent months with this man, one-on-one in a car. On one of the toughest days of shooting, I had to lie in the funeral wagon because the artificial body, the dummy didn't work. The director asked me if I would come out so I was on the back of that wagon for nine hours, people watching me, chanting and singing. It was like being on an extraordinary drug, very weird experience.

I remember I was lying on my back and at one point I asked the second AD how many people? He said 'Oh, 40,000.' And, I said 'I got to get up.' He put his arm around me and lifted me up as I was very stiff. As I stood up, there was a hush. I did pranam to the north, south, east and west. The crowds started to cheer. Women from Gandhi's ashram sang his favorite hymn and lifted me off the funeral wagon and carried me to my Ambassador. There my Sardarji, looked at me in the rear view mirror and said "Well Done, Sir!" I thought, there he is. There he is! When I started playing Darwan, my straight-backed Sikh driver came sharply back into focus.

For me it's memory and intuition. My memory of the wonderful people I met in India and also the massive generosity of Harpreet Singh Toor and all the Sikh advisers who were on the set. If I open myself things just start to flow. You just learn so much by being alert and observant.

I am fascinated by people. I love watching them. I do have a vast memory bank and I can access it. It's a very lucky gift that I have, being able to absorb things. I think it is because I bring a level of attention to life. If you bring a level of attention to life, there's so much information out there. If you are not alert to it, you miss an awful lot, particularly in the heightened environment of making a movie.

I learnt so much in a compressed space of time about India during Gandhi and it's paying off years afterwards.

Did you think that Learning to Drive would be so funny?

We didn't realize how potentially funny some of those scenes were. Isabel didn't direct them as scenes to make people laugh. Of course, she directed the truth, the polarity of Darwan and Wendy's backgrounds, their differences and we stayed in our bubble, each of us to play those scenes. And, only when we were in Toronto did we realize something in the middle was hilariously funny when these two cultures interact.

The people in the audience were moved, they were enchanted, they were troubled — all the things you could have hoped for from this film.

You have played diverse roles, but do people always go back to Gandhi?

I hope so. I am so deeply proud of that film and that performance. I hope I am always associated with that film. Gandhi was my first major feature film, my first leading role on screen, and I was surrounded by passionate people. I was surrounded by Indians who were passionate that this story should be told correctly and beautifully. It was humbling and an enormous responsibility.

Updated Date: Aug 30, 2015 09:04:55 IST

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