From Gandhi to a Sikh Cabbie: Ben Kingsley’s Groundbreaking Turn in ‘Learning to Drive’

Quoted in this piece originally published on VICE.com

Whenever there are upticks in Islamophobia, Sikhs feel it too. Three years ago this month, a member of Hammerskin Nation, a white supremacist group, walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and killed six worshippers. Whether this act was directed at them as a minority group, or a misguided characterization of their religion because they wear turbans, is unclear. In the years since 9/11, a Sikh on the street in America might be called a raghead, Ali Baba, Gandhi, Muhammad, Saddam, or any other racist epithet used to describe Middle Easterners. This name-calling discounts the fact that Sikhs are a separate and distinct culture: not Muslim, not extremist, not Hindu.

The new movie Learning to Drive serves, in part, to educate viewers about what it means to be a Sikh while telling the story of Patricia Clarkson’s Wendy, a book critic whose husband leaves her for a younger woman. As part of her recovery, she initiates driving lessons from Darwan Singh, a taxi driver played by the legendary English actor Sir Ben Kingsley—representing the first time in history a Sikh character has been placed in a leading Hollywood role. The community’s response has been ecstatic.

“It is incredibly meaningful for the Sikh community to be featured prominently and positively on the big screen,” said Simran Jeet Singh, an assistant professor of religion at Trinity University and senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition. “Sikhs have been here in America for more than a century now, and they have been targets of ignorance and hate violence since that time. I am hopeful that sharing the stories, struggles, and contributions of Sikh Americans will help people of all backgrounds better connect with this community and, ultimately, make our nation a more accepting and understanding place.”

For accuracy, Kingsley’s people approached Harpreet Sing Toor, chairman of public policy and external affairs for the Sikh Cultural Society in Richmond Hill, Queens, to help show the English-born actor the intricacies of being a Sikh American living in New York, a neighborhood that’s home to 40,000 or 50,000 Sikhs, and where parts of Learning to Drive were filmed. Like Kingsley’s character, many in the community work in the transportation business, although cab driving is not always a first choice.

According to the Sikh Coalition’s Bay Area Civil Rights Report, 12 percent of Sikhs acknowledge they have been refused employment because of their identity. Many Sikhs with advanced degrees looking for other types of work are told to shave their beards, cut their hair, and drop their accents or else they won’t get hired.

Last week VICE spoke over the phone with Kingsley about his groundbreaking new role and tapping into “collective rage.”

VICE: Hi, Sir Ben, lovely to talk with you. I’m actually calling from a Buddhist Abbey in Canada. The monks and nuns here wanted me to tell you that they love all your movies—especially Gandhi.
Sir Ben Kingsley: Oh, how beautiful. Where are you calling from again?

Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia.
One of the most exotic phone calls I’ve ever taken.

There has been a huge response to news of the movie in the Sikh community. On the internet, many Sikhs are saying things like, “I’m really excited to see this film come to the big screen and to have our community humanized for people around the world.” As a storyteller, what influence do you expect, or hope this story will have on your audience?
Well, Pilar, let me simplify a huge question and not try and predict or preempt or persuade anybody to react in anyway. But let me simply say that I hope that we will provoke thought in people that they would not have had, had they not seen the movie.

I think that’s all an artistic gesture of any kind can offer—[whether it’s] paintings, choreographed dance, opera, sculpture—that you stand in front of it, or sit in front of it as it is the case with the movie, and thoughts pass through your mind that wouldn’t have passed through your mind had you not been sitting or standing in that particular place, being part of that situation.

So it’s going to provoke so many different thoughts on so many different levels about friendships about relationships—mother and daughter and family—culture, separation, loss, and exile. So many thoughts are going to pass through people, and I’m delighted that there is an enthusiastic response from the particular community that we are exploring. And we’ve had terrific support from the community in Richmond Hill. Even to the extent of allowing us to their temple to film, and I think… You’ve seen the film haven’t you?

I have—it was wonderful.
Oh, good. Well, you’ll see that in the temple scene, it’s like an island of peace in the midst of a crazy, thriving, sometimes neurotic metropolis. It was wonderful that they let us film in there. It was very steadying and informative for not only myself, but the crew. Many of the members of the crew took away their little Patkaa that you wear around your head in the temple. It was a lovely, lovely day—great bonding.

Wendy, Patricia Clarkson’s character, is full of defense mechanisms that lend her protection. She hides behind her work and isolates herself. And, giving her the tools that your character gives her, lends to her own development. It all ties in to this kind of warrior-like characteristic that is reflected in Sikh culture. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that.
It’s my duty and my job to create the finest and most accurate portrait I can, and I based it on observation of the Sikhs that I have met and worked with. Not only in the UK and America, but also my experience of the culture working in India, playing Gandhi [where I had] a Sikh bodyguard-driver. He was with me four or five months, every day, at the wheel of my car. And I would sit behind him and he would be very still—immensely protective of me, hugely respectful. When it came my turn to read Darwan Singh’s wonderful character and my turn to portray a Sikh, it had to come from my observation and my appreciation of that man and those like him.

So, in a sense, my character has to come out of me, and I should really take very little away from the character. It’s not entirely a one-way street, but the bias is very much towards what I can give to my character rather than what I can take away. I have to leave everything on the set, on film. If I were a painter, I’d have to leave everything on the canvas.

What I do take away is the joy of being a storyteller on their behalf. It is my role as a storyteller to hopefully enhance people’s lives by telling stories, by being an actor. Because I do believe, Pilar, that storytelling is profoundly healing.

So there were some instances in the movie where your persona is treated in a typical stereotypical fashion that kind of manifest everyday for some residents of New York—being called names like Osama, Muhammad. As someone who grew up in a dominant colonial society with a mixed heritage, did you face any stereotypes when you were younger?
No, I didn’t. [My family] was a middle-class family. My father is a doctor; my mother was English. I went to a great school. No. I’ve explored horrific European anti-Semitism. I explored it in Schindler’s List , my portrayal of [Nazi hunter] Simon Wiesenthal [in Murderers Among Us], and my portrayal of Otto Frank, Ann Frank’s father. And of course I spent time with Holocaust survivors.

[The Holocaust] is the extreme example of horrendous bias and prejudice, ignorance, and misunderstanding. And as a result, two-thirds of Europe’s Jews disappeared. It is unbelievably shocking and still can’t be quite comprehended and digested by the rest of the world. It will remain utterly incomprehensible, and yet it happened so very recently.

It’s tapping into that collective rage that I feel against the perpetrators of the Holocaust that fires me up in certain roles that I play—which goes way beyond any personal experience that I might or might not of had. To portray that hell in the middle of so-called civilized Europe is a real eye-opener.

Harpreet Sing Toor informed me that he wanted me to call you Sir Ben.
Aw, that is very sweet. I think that also is a kind of cultural respect because it’s very British. It’s very English, and I am very touched by that.

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