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You probably will never meet two more mis-matched people than the lead pair in ‘Learning to Drive’: Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), a frenetic Manhattan book critic whose relationships are falling apart and Darwan (Ben Kingsley), a gentle Sikh taxi driver and part-time driving instructor.
Both are from New York City but inhabit worlds apart.
Their lives intersect when Wendy, devastated by the fact that her husband Ted (Jake Weber) has left her for a younger woman, decides to take driving lessons to regain her independence. Darwan, who is about to be entering into an arranged marriage, sight unseen with Jasleen ( Sarita Choudhury) a woman from his village in India, has his own immigrant upheavals in a new world.
Learning to Drive
‘Learning to Drive’ is an absorbing, intelligent film and certainly about much more than driving lessons. It’s about the harder lessons of living, of heartbreak and resilience, of losing your very foundation and learning to live again. Aloneness and loneliness, ageism, racism, the expediency of one’s adult children all come into it – as does the despair of discovering a cheating spouse in one’s sunset years.
Learning to Live: Patricia Clarkson & Ben Kingsley
Can two middle-aged people sitting in a car for the major part of the movie hook you to their simple story? Well, when the couple is Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley they certainly do and these two consummate actors become their characters, drawing you into their intimate moments, the sadness, the joy, even the humor, of their lives.
This charming independent film, which was chosen as the Audience Award runner up at the Toronto International Film Festival, took over eight years to actually come to the screen. In a recent interview Patricia Clarkson spoke about the remarkable cast and crew, the warriors who pulled it off, and the Movie Gods who made it all happen: “It’s a difficult film – no doubt about it. It was a long journey but I never gave up. I just loved the film, I loved the story behind it, I loved these characters. I think they are unique and warm and complicated. I love the hot and the cold. I loved Darwan, this incredibly devout, beautiful, centered peaceful man opposite this fiery New Yorker, a fierce brilliant woman.”
She adds, “This is a film about a woman who had it all – she just forgot to take it all in. She’s not an easy character, she is not a sympathetic character at first, she has to earn your love and trust and affection and that perhaps is the best part of playing her – it’s the real journey she has to take.”
Ben Kingsley is excellent as the Sikh cabbie, a calm man of faith – yet very human – hard to believe this same man has played diverse roles from ‘Gandhi’ to ‘Sexy Beast’! As Isabel Coixet, the director who also worked with him in ‘Elegy’ said, “That’s the good thing about Ben. In the film I did 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!”
Lives Across the Cultural Divide
Sarita Choudhury, very much a New Yorker in real life, brings a quiet beauty and empathy to the role of Jasleen, an uneducated Punjabi village woman alone in a big complex city. As Coixet noted, “Sarita is exactly the opposite of Jasleen and is an amazingly cultivated woman, sexy and very smart. I love her and I want to work with her in a film in Italy.”
Coixet, who is from Barcelona and has worked in films all over the world, says about ‘Learning to Drive’ – “We are all the same – human nature is the same in every culture – the passion, the contradictions and the fears.” As she points out, crossing the divide is always rewarding but what’s intriguing is to find two such different people in the space of a taxi sharing very little space with each other and discovering the commonalities between them.
The Sikhs of Queens
In the film the borough of Queens is very much of a colorful character too and one must give credit to the filmmakers for recreating Darwan’s immigrant world so well, right from his dingy basement apartment to the communal life of the gurudwara to the multicultural ambiance of Queens. All the scenes of Sikh life are well researched and executed, and screenwriter Sarah Kernochan interacted with the Sikh community of Richmond Hill to give a very accurate picture of Darwan’s life, and of the faith which has shaped him. Everything revolves around the gurudwara.
Asked what she liked the best about the Sikh community, Isabel Coixet joked, “The food!” While filming in the Richmond Hill area she often ate langar in the gurudwara and even though she’s not a religious person, she loved the concept behind the gurudwara: “The fact is that the temple is a sacred place but also a very practical place where people are talking business, teaching music to their kids and it’s a combination of sacred and very practical things and I loved that combination.”
Wendy’s driving lessons with Darwan teach her about being independent and living life to the fullest. Darwan also learns something valuable about relationships and caring from Wendy. The positive vibes of ‘Learning to Drive’ are felt by the audience too, taking away some profound truths about tolerance, acceptance and survival, all with a dash of humor.
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