Learning to Drive is a film for adults and that is why you have probably never heard of it. The primary character is Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), a noted book reviewer who has been left by her husband just minutes before the film starts. She gets into the taxi of Darwan (Ben Kingsley), an Indian Sikh who also teaches driving. And through a series of cinematic cliches, she becomes his student and friend.
In India, Darwan was a teacher and still is an intellectual. This is why when you are on vacation, you should take taxis because the drives are very often interesting people. On my last trip to San Francisco, I met a driver who had a PhD in Social Linguistics, and we had a nice conversation about the subject that extended several minutes after I had exited the vehicle. Looking back, the most amazing thing was that there was not a hint of bitterness in him. He was just happy to talk about his love to another who was interested in it. If the roles had been reversed, I doubt the interaction would have been so pleasant.
Wendy Decides It Is Time for Learning to Drive
Wendy, being a New Yorker, has managed to never learn to drive. And now she needs to in order to visit her daughter who is living and working on a farm in upstate New York. Her first effort results in failing her test, so Wendy gives up. But one day, her daughter, Tasha (Grace Gummer) visits her and tells her that she has decided not to return to the farm. (It is some part of her college education.) She admits that she had been in love with a young man there, and he was going back to college. So Tasha wants to come and live with her mother. But Wendy says no. She would love to have her daughter around, but she must finish her farming experience. At this point, Wendy is determined to learn to drive so she can visit and support her daughter.
Wendy Tries Again
So Wendy calls Darwan and tells him that she would like to try again. At this point, Wendy and Darwan become true friends. Darwan is having problems of his own. His arranged marriage to Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury) is not going well. The biggest problem is that Darwan is an intellectual and Jasleen is not. They don’t connect. Clearly, Darwan and Wendy are better suited, although it is clear they could never have a romantic relationship because of their social differences. But clearly, they can be and are excellent friends.
Darwan’s Marital Problems
Darwan confides in Wendy that their relationship is not going well. Wendy asks him if he would ever cheat on Jasleen if she disappointed him. He says no in a way that implies that the very idea has not occurred to him. She says, “You are a good man.”
Eventually, Wendy passes her driving test and Darwan goes with her to help her buy a car. As they are saying their goodbyes, Darwan asks Wendy if they can have dinner or coffee sometime. He does not want their friendship to end. But she says no. She adds, “The trouble is, you’re a good man.”
This is a subtle film.
The Ending of Learning to Drive
It took me several viewings to understand what Wendy was saying. It’s clear that Darwan is not asking for a romantic relationship. He simply wants their friendship to continue. But finally, I got it. The problem was not him; it was her. If they continued their friendship, she would fall in love. She would want more and he could never give it to her because he is a good man.
Also, she respects his wife Jasleen, even though she has never met her. And she knows that if she provides the intellectual stimulation that Darwan needs, he will never form the bond that he must with Jasleen.
Thus the literal end of the film is unnecessary. Wendy is driving to her daughter’s farm. But we know this will happen. It is the entire point of her learning to drive. The true ending of the film is for Darwan. And it is a beautiful scene.
The Real Ending
Jasleen comes home from shopping to find Darwan sitting on their bed. She says, “Darwan, I didn’t expect you.” He moves on the bed to provide a place for her. She sits next to him, having no idea what to expect. Is he going to divorce her and send her back to India? It’s a reasonable assumption. He says, “Jasleen, maybe I will not work at night anymore. Would you like that?” Jasleen smiles slightly, turning her head away from him. Her smile widens — almost to a laugh. She says, with the relief of all months of loneliness, “Yes!” He puts his hand on her face. She takes it. He gently rests his head on her shoulder. They are happy for the first time in the film.
Then we see Wendy driving out of New York on her way to visit her daughter. But this is de rigueur — simply for completeness. The film was complete with the joy on Jasleen’s face. Wendy’s story arc is about finding her own power. It is the primary plot, but we know it. We’ve experienced it too many times. What matters — what affects us — is the story of a traditional Sikh man who sacrifices his idea of how the world should be for the happiness of his wife. It is beautiful.
See this film!