Ben Kingsley stars as Darwan in Learning to Drive. (Linda Kallerus/Broad Green Pictures)
For Ben Kingsley, the illusions of moviemaking aren’t simply on the screen but extend to the filming process as well. When he was filming the funeral scene from his Oscar-winning work in Gandhi, he was carried down the road for nine hours in which he could barely breathe, and when filming was finished, he wondered, “‘How am I going to stand up in front of 40,000 people?’ The Assistant Director lifted me up, and I saw 40,000 people go very quiet, because I had just broken the spell and come back to life.” He jokes that “fortunately I was wearing my dhoti just in case.” After the crowd saw Kingsley move after nine hours of stillness, he recalls how one pair of hands started clapping, then all of them, then the crowd started to sing.
Kingsley’s favorite memory of filming that scene, however, was returning to his Sikh driver who, while driving him out of that crowd of 40,000 people to return to the main road, said to him, “Well done, sir.” He used the memory of this driver to play a Sikh driving instructor named Darwan in his latest film, Learning to Drive, and says of that man who transported Kingsley to the set every day over 30 years ago, “I treasure that memory, and I’m playing him.”
Although Kingsley has an Indian background – he was born Krishna Bhanji in London to an Ismaili father, although his mother was partially English and partially Russian Jewish – playing a member of India’s Sikh community was still a departure for the man renowned for bringing Mohandas Gandhi to life. Kingsley approached playing the Sikh character of Darwan by noting that “if you know one Sikh man, you know all of them, because there’s a wonderful consistency in their behavior, their approach to life, their courtesy and kindness.” When his character says “This is the Sikh way,” according to Kingsley, “It is. It’s not something sentimental, it’s not something he made up, it’s the way they do things. From my perspective as a portrait artist, I see a warrior race of men and women.”
This is one of the few examples of a romantic role for Kingsley, who plays the Sikh driving instructor who develops an unlikely bond with a divorcée played by Patricia Clarkson, but he appreciates that their relationship in Learning to Drive is not a simple case of two people falling in love.
Quoting the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Kingsley says, “There’s a wonderful phrase about two people who meet, greet, and salute one another. I think that’s what happens in the film.”
Despite the differences between his character and Clarkson’s, Kingsley chooses to focus on how much the characters have in common, most importantly their shared intelligence and love of reading. Despite performing a sex scene with Clarkson in their earlier film Elegy, Kingsley is glad that this story focuses more on what the characters teach each other than if they end up together.
He says that “they take from each other the best: his appreciation of a liberated woman and her appreciation of a warrior man,” while noting that “the sexual content ends in fatigue and disappointment – not much fun.”
While Kingsley can find every trace of nobility in an immigrant cab driver, quote Rilke and offer his opinions on the best way to serve tea, not everything about Sir Ben is a model of upper-class behavior. When visiting the House of Lords in London, he was approached by two tough police officers who complimented him on his performance as a gangster in Sexy Beast. In a precise impression of a working-class patrolman, Kingsley recounts how they told him, “You played the underclass perfect.”
Learning to Drive is now in theaters.