Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley-starrer ‘Learning to Drive’ uses the metaphor of a driving lesson in New York to make a point about life and relationships.
Clarkson plays Wendy, a book editor, who’s husband has just left her for another woman. Kingsley is Darwan, a meticulous and gentle Sikh man, who is Wendy’s driving instructor.
During one of the lessons, Darwan tells his student – when you drive, you have to look straight ahead and not let your mind get distracted.
Doesn’t the mind wander? Wendy asks.
No, I pray. The sardar replies.
It seemed to me that the man was implicitly telling her about life, just when she was going through a divorce with her husband that she didn’t want, even though he had cheated on her.
But in life we do fumble, and flounder. Don’t we? Like one night, during an evening driving lesson, Wendy bangs another car. And then, just when the film may have been giving subtle hints – at least to me – of an impending romance or sex between the teacher and student, a hinterland woman from Punjab arrives in the U.S., who would be the sardar’s wife the next day.
When the driving lesson is over, Darwan asks Wendy if they can hang out. Wendy says no, because he’s a good man. But we don’t get to know what the man actually thinks of her. Does he see her only as a friend? Or does he feel bound by the morality of the country he comes from? Does it boost his self-confidence to be friends with a white woman?
The film is soon over; the initial awkwardness and diffidence between the Sikh couple wears off too. In the end, the whole film seems like a lesson in riding the steering of life. You can slip, but there are consequences too. You want to drive straight ahead and not get distracted by what’s happening left or right, you’d miss some things too, but it would be a safe drive.
What kind of a driver are you?
[Note: ‘Learning to Drive’ is based on an autobiographical short story by Katha Pollitt, a long-time political columnist for The Nation. In the original version, her teacher is actually from the Philippines.]