“Learning to Drive” actor Ben Kingsley’s latest film, is both poignant and emotionally satisfying.
Kingsley (Gandhi) plays Darwan Singh Tur, a taxi driver and driving instructor who came to this country for political asylum. One night he picks up a man hurriedly leaving his wife at a bar. When the wife jumps in the cab, too, Darwan witnesses the end of their marriage, right there in the back seat, the accusations and anger. The husband sends her home alone in the taxi, so Darwan must experience in his rear view mirror her desolate deflation as her life falls apart.
Movie poster for “Learning to Drive.” Courtesy photo
The woman, we learn, is Wendy, a New York book critic, played perfectly by Patricia Clarkson. We get to know Wendy through the breakup of her marriage, the normal stages of denial and loss, in her relationship with her grown daughter, Tasha (played by Grace Gummer), and into a period of discovering and embracing her new independence. The fact that Tasha lives on a farm in Vermont serves as Wendy’s motivation for learning to drive. She hires Darwan to teach her.
Darwan is, in his own way, “learning to drive”. He has been working the two jobs, attending Sikh worship, and housing several, apparently illegal men from India, including his nephew Preet (Avi Nash). It is Darwan’s sister, Preet’s mother Rasbir, who, via Skype from Punjab, is determined to find Darwan a wife. She sets him up with a woman named Jasmeen (Sarita Choudhury) who flies from her village in India to marry Darwan. When Wendy asks how an arranged marriage works, he replies that your family often knows you better than you know yourself. In the next scene, Wendy’s sister and brother in law set her up in a blind double date with a friend of theirs.
The key to this story is the odd friendship that develops between Darwan and Wendy, a respectful relationship that grows subtly through the course of the movie. As one learns to drive, the other learns how to listen to a woman’s ego needs. Without fanfare, they support each other during huge lifestyle changes—she to living alone and driving, he to getting to know his new wife. The depth of this cultural exchange is profound and, through it all, one’s honor remains intact.
As Wendy’s blind date ends in wild sex, and a few obscenities are thrown around, the film earns its R rating. The plot, however, is unique among current films and therefore delights. “Learning to Drive” is at once a drama, a comedy and a bit of a romance, all in one, with superb actors thrown in for good measure. It is worth seeing. (Currently playing at Regal DeVargas.)