Driving with Selvi is a bi-lingual documentary (English and Kannada) which tells the incredible journey of Selvi, a child bride who escaped her marriage and made a life for herself. India's first woman cab driver, Selvi, who is now 32, runs a transport business near Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu.
Canadian filmmaker Elisa Paloschi first met Selvi in the year 2004 when she was a tourist in Mysuru. The filmmaker, who says she hadn't made a film in years, was inspired enough by Selvi's journey to follow her story for a decade and make the film.
Driving with Selvi has been screened all over the world and has also been used in gender sensitisation programmes to open up conversations on the subject. As part of the film's campaign to create awareness about child marriage and gender violence, it has been screened in various communities and colleges, too, including in India.
Elisa owned a production company in the '90s in Italy and was making short documentaries, television programmes, and so on. She had also done a lot of experimental films. At some point, however, Elisa says she felt disconnected from the people she was filming and stopped. It was not until she met Selvi that she felt the urge to pick up the camera again.
TNM caught up with Elisa to know more about Driving with Selvi and the relationship that has blossomed between the two women who come from very different worlds.
How did your first meeting with Selvi happen?
I was volunteering at Odanaadi (in Karnataka), a women's shelter, and Selvi was living there at the time. So when I set up with the shelter, I was supposed to be doing a puppet workshop for the kids who lived there but when they found out that I had a film background, they asked me to do something more for them.
I had not made a film in ten years at the time, on purpose. But I began getting to know the girls and women on camera. Selvi was one of the younger ones living there. What was interesting about her was that she was setting up a taxi company and learning to drive along with a couple of girls who were residents there. So, I was pretty impressed with her. There aren't many women driving, let alone driving a taxi.
And as I got to know her, I realised what an incredibly courageous woman she was. One thing led to another and I kept going back every year and filming her.
When you started doing the film, did you have a plan in mind?
It was totally organic. Selvi was just one of the girls running the taxi company in the beginning. But when I came back, I saw that she was running the business on her own. And when I came back the next year, she was no longer working there but was working as a driver for a medical clinic. So each time I came back, something new was happening. I kept coming back and there was more to the story.
To be honest, it took me a few years to realise what the story was. It was not until the fourth year that this was a story about her transformation.
Image: Elisa Paloschi
What brought you to India?
I've always wanted to come to India, even as a child I was fascinated by the country and its different aspects. But I never made it. I was living in Australia for 10 years and when I decided to move back to Canada I thought I'd stop in India on my way. I actually came to practice yoga but then I realised I didn't want to be part of that 'yoga world' and I wanted to see what the real India was rather than the Western ideal.
What kind of rapport do you have with Selvi? You've seen her over a period of 10 years.
In the beginning, Selvi was a little resistant to making the film. She'd ask why I was filming her and say, "I've done nothing. All I am is a driver, go find someone else!". It took two years of filming to make her realise that there was something unique about her. And then she became fully invested in making the film.
What I recognised in her was a courage that was really rare and she inspired me to be more courageous and to be a better person. So, I knew that if we took the film to communities where women and girls were facing the things that she'd faced when growing up, her story would inspire them and I told her that. She said, "Okay, I will make this film if my story will help one girl, one woman."
After that moment she became really invested in making the film and our relationship developed. We've spent 10 years together and in the last 2 years, we've no longer been director and protagonist but friends who have the same mission and goal to get the film to audiences and to create an impact, especially in communities where child marriage rates are high. We're partners on our campaign.
Why did Selvi choose cab driving as a profession?
She didn't actually choose cab driving as a profession herself. It was the directors of Odanaadi who suggested it to her. They saw in her the capability to handle any situation that arises, they knew she was courageous, open-minded, and a kind person. But she has continued to be a driver since, so she does like it.
What's Selvi's life like now?
She has remarried and she runs a transport business along with her husband. They own a truck and so yes, she has stayed in the driving business but she's driving bigger and bigger vehicles as she grows. She has two kids. So, there was a period of a few years when she wasn't doing much work. She was still working but she was more focused on her kids.
She has also started driving for the women in her community. So, she will take their car and drive them wherever they want to go.
Who else did you speak to while filming the documentary?
The film is very much Selvi's story. We talk about the other people in her life but we don't really see them step into the frame. That was a purposeful decision on my part. The founders and directors of Odanaadi who encouraged her and some other minor characters, a couple of relatives are the ones who appear. Otherwise, it's her portrait.
You've been visiting India for a decade now. What are your observations on women and their lives in the country?
I'll be honest. I don't think I can give you a really educated opinion on this. Because my travels in India are quite restricted to certain communities. On a more generalised level, I'm seeing more women in public spaces but I feel this is really limited to cities and certain economic and social groups in communities.
When you go to the villages, you don't see women in public spaces still or wearing anything other than traditional clothes or what is accepted by their peers. So, to be honest, there are some massive changes happening and that's really exciting to see but there's still so much work to be done. And I think it's going to take a long time to shift attitudes and combat patriarchy. It's really tough.
What insights have you gained from making this film?
Selvi personally has taught me a lot. About courage and never giving up. Even when making this film, if it hadn't been for Selvi, if it had been about anyone else, I'd have given up. There were so many challenges and roadblocks and confrontations.
What has the reception been to the film?
The reception has been incredible. So, we premiered in London at the Raindance Film Festival in 2015 and since then it has been screened all over the world. I think we've been to every continent except Antarctica! We've won lots of awards - Best Documentary, Best Director - in many festivals. We've been broadcast in Canada, the US, a couple of European countries, Jordan, Peru. It's probably the only Kannada film to have been translated to Swahili!