Some commentators have wondered why Sir Ben Kingsley was cast a Sikh professor-turned-American cabbie in “Learning to Drive,” apparently unaware of his deep Indian heritage. His father, though born in Kenya, was of Gujarati Indian descent, though that doesn’t mean he knew too much about the culture he was entering. Though Kingsley’s Darwan Singh Tur spends much of the film teaching Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), a divorcing New Yorker, to drive, he also spends much of it in Queens amongst an enclave of Sikhs. It was a world the Oscar-winner was eager to absorb.
Did you draw much on your Indian heritage for the role?
I didn’t, really, because it goes back so many generations. It’s been over 100 years since my family lived in India. It goes back too far for me to draw on that. I did have a Sikh driver and bodyguard when I was shooting in India. I remember his dignity and his stillness. I spent about three or four months with him, so I in fact had a Sikh driver for months. Surely that must have influenced me.
How much experience did you have with the Sikh culture before getting the role?
Hardly at all. But to inhabit a Sikh as an actor is a profoundly fascinating and rewarding way of examining their culture, because you put their skin on as well as their turbans. You absorb their attitudes. I spent a lot of time with [Sikh advisor] Harpreet Singh Toor, who helped me on with my turban every morning. I very gently, ever so gently chatted away with him — nothing invasive, nothing assertive, and just by osmosis took in his attitude to life. Of course, he’s exiled from India. They’re all exiled. And that’s tough. But they’ve managed to make a wonderful life here.
The film has a deep respect for the community, and it avoids condescension as well.
We had a lot of support from the Sikh community in Queens. There is a wonderful temple there that they let us shoot in. I thought that was a wonderful gesture on the part of the Sikh community, as, tragically, the temple was invaded and people did die, in quite recent history, after being mistaken for terrorists. [The temple] serves as an island of calm and order and respect and love and devotion in the sea of the big city. Isobel [Coixet, the director] wants to show a side of New York that is kind and gentle and also very abrasive and frightening.