Face to Face with Sir Ben Kingsley
Gandhi’s Death – and Millions weep…Just think about this: You are dead and covered with flowers and being taken on a brier surrounded by thousands and thousands of weeping Indians. Only you’re not really dead – you’re an actor playing dead and you have to remain still for many hours with the cameras panning on your face in the burning hot sun in Delhi’s Raj Path.
That was the surreal experience of Ben Kingsley in Gandhi as he played the famous climatic scene where the body of the Mahatma is brought before a distraught, weeping nation. Somehow the dummy which was supposed to be used as a body double did not work, and Kingsley had this challenging experience of near-death where he had to lie absolutely still for nine hours on the funeral wagon, with masses chanting and weeping around him.
“It was like being on an extraordinary drug, it was a very weird experience,” he recalled recently when I asked him for his most memorable moment shooting Gandhi.“I remember I was lying on my back and at one point I asked the second assistant director how many people? ‘He said ‘Oh, 40,000.’ And, I said ‘Well, I’ve got to get up. Got to pack up.’ He put his arm around me – because I was quite stiff – and lifted me up and they all went very quiet. I stood and pranamed to the north, south, east and west.
The crowds cheered and then they started to sing . Women from his ashram sang his favorite hymn and lifted me off the funeral wagon and carried me to my car and closed the door. Sardarji Ghumar, my driver, looked at me in the rear view mirror and all he said was ‘Well done, Sir!’ That was the biggest compliment in the world. I’ll never forget that moment!”Thirty years later, in his new film Learning to Drive, Kingsley plays an Indian character after many years – Darwan Singh Tur, a Sikh driving instructor who teaches Wendy, a Manhattan book critic (Patricia Clarkson) driving – and about life and living. The actor based this gentle, dignified character on Ghumar Singh, the wonderful Sikh driver-bodyguard who was with him all the time in India during the shooting of Gandhi.
Ben Kingsley’s Many AvatarsWith Ben Kingsley nothing is ever forgotten or lost – just filed away for the future.
“I am fascinated by people. I love watching them. I do have a vast memory bank and I can access them,” says Kingsley. “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.
Recently, five journalists had the chance to sit with the iconic actor at a table in a hotel room, discussing his new movie, Learning to Drive and I was the lucky one to be sitting right next to him. Having been brainwashed with his image as the Mahatma, it was surreal to be face to face with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi!
What all of us were pleasantly surprised to discover was Kingsley’s sense of humor and his accessibility. When it came time to take the inevitable selfie, he was just so easy-going for a celebrity, graciously posing behind my chair so that I didn’t even have to get up for the photo opp!
It’s a strange sensation, sitting right next to Sir Ben Kingsley and looking into his startlingly penetrating eyes. Were they blue or brown? Later, you’re not really sure. It is also certainly intimidating for not only has he been knighted by the Queen but is also the one that millions know as Gandhi, the Great Mahatma! You catch the forehead, the nose which you have always identified as Gandhi’s, ever since you saw the movie and are a bit confused.
Isn’t Kingsley also the mad psychopath of Sexy Beast? The mobster in You Kill Me? The hitman in War,Inc?Complications and layering are part of an actor’s makeup, part of his DNA but Kingsley seems to have more than most. No matter which role he plays, it’s no longer a role and he becomes that character.
Indeed, in the succeeding decades, Kingsley has played a whole gallery of heroes and rogues – entering the skin of diverse characters and it’s been a love fest of awards for the noted actor. After earning an Academy Award, two Golden Globes and two BAFTA Awards for his role of Mahatma Gandhi, Kingsley went on to earn three additional Oscar nominations for Bugsy, Sexy Beast, House of Sand and Fog.
This year alone Kingsley has starred in The Walk, Autobahn, Self/less and the mini-series Tut, and Learning to Drive. He’s also been seen in such films as the animated The Boxtrolls, which won him an Annie, Iron Man 3, Ender’s Game, Jerry Bruckheimer’s Prince of Persia and two Martin Scorsese films: Shutter Island and Hugo, which won five Academy Awards. He was nominated British Actor of the Year by the London Critics Circle Film Awards for his performance in Elegy, opposite Penelope Cruz.
In Learning to Drive, Ben Kingsley is excellent as Darwan Singh Tur, the Sikh cabbie, a calm man of faith. It’s hard to believe this same man has played diverse roles, and is also going to be the voice of Bagheera in Disney’s The Jungle Book! As Isabel Coixet, who directed him in Learning to Drive and has also worked with him in Elegy said, “That’s the good thing about Ben. In the film I’ve done earlier with him 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!”
Ben Kingsley’s TalesIn the course of our freewheeling conversation with Kingsley we discovered a lot of fun and little-known details about this intriguing actor. Each of us got to ask our personal questions and there was kindness too in his quicksilver responses. Asking him about his role as a turbaned Sikh taxi driver/driving instructor, one young writer actually blurted out, “Did you grow your hair for that movie?” – quite forgetting that he’s bald! While we all roared with laughter at the gaffe, he just smiled gently at the journalist.
He’s played many roles but for most of us he’s still defined by Gandhi, where he changed from a struggling, conflicted immigrant to one of the most enigmatic and powerful men in history. Asked if people still identify him with Gandhi, he replied, ” Oh, I hope so. I am so deeply proud of that film and that performance. I hope I am always associated with that film. ” He also recalls the extraordinary working relationship with Roshan Seth who played Nehru, and of being taken by him to the rough and tough places, to be shown the real India.As most fans already know, Kingsley’s real name is Krishna Pandit Bhanji, and he was born in 1943. He is the son of a Gujarati physician Rahimtulla Bhanji, who was an Ismaili Muslim from Kenya, and an English mother, Anna Lyna Mary. His grandfather, a successful spice merchant, had traveled from his roots in India to Zanzibar.
Kingsley, who has been married four times, is married to Brazilian actress Daniela Lavender since 2007. His four children are Ferdinand Kingsley, Jasmin Bhanji, Edmund Kingsley, Thomas Alexis Bhanji. And so the wonderful multicultural story of the Bhanji family continues.
Indian Face, English NameI asked him how he felt about having somewhat of an Indian face and an English name. At 71, seeing it all finally from the ramparts of age, experience and success, how did he feel about his mixed heritage?
” I have got nothing to compare it with other than my own journey which is beautiful,” he reminisced. “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. They love that film! 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.”
And indeed, being a story-teller has its priceless moments: in the assassination scene where Gandhi is walking with his nieces in the Birla Gardens, the grass covering over the actual spot where the Mahatma was shot was removed so that Ben Kingsley got to walk on that very soil. He recalls, ” That was so beautiful – nobody has ever been allowed to walk where his clay footprints are – it was generous, so generous.”
(This article was first published in Khabar magazine)
A Gallery of Ben Kingsley photos from his movies:
Ben Kingsley on Rotten Tomatoes