Doc Edge Festival: How female Indian cabbie inspired a movie

By Peter Calder

A child bride who became the first female taxi driver in South India is the unlikely star of an inspiring film in this month's Documentary Edge Festival
Driving with Selvi
Driving with Selvi

As the bus approached, the young woman stood on the brink of a decision: would she climb aboard or throw herself under its wheels?

Her name was - and still is, actually; she took the former option - Selvi. She was a teenager at the time, a child bride who had been a veteran of years of marital abuse.

Getting on to that bus set her on the road to becoming South India's first female taxi driver - and the most unlikely of movie stars.

Her story is the subject of Driving With Selvi, one of a big handful of films about gutsy and remarkable women that distinguish this year's Documentary Edge Festival, opening in Auckland next week.

It's an inspiring story rooted in a depressing fact: fully one-third of the 250 million women alive today who were married before they turned 15 live in India.

Telling Selvi's story has been a 10-year project for Canadian film-maker Elisa Paloschi, who was visiting India as a tourist and finding it hard to get immersed in the place when she volunteered to work at Odanadi, a women's shelter offering refuge from sex trafficking.

When the shelter's founders, former news reporters called Stanly and Parashuram, discovered she had a background in film, they dragooned her into shooting a puppet workshop they were doing. Selvi was one of a welter of women who stepped into her viewfinder. But she stood out.

"I had an instant connection with her as a person," Paloschi recalls. "She was very much broken, very shy and quiet. I didn't speak her language and she only knew a few words of English but I felt very close to her and very curious about her, because she was learning to drive in a country where hardly any women drive, let alone drive taxis. I wanted to understand what her story was."

Selvi, the star of Elisa Paloschi's documentary Driving with Selvi.
Selvi, the star of Elisa Paloschi's documentary Driving with Selvi.

You only need to see Selvi to understand the fascination. Belying an early life of appalling disadvantage and cruelty, her smile is dazzling enough to light up a small town; self-effacing and unassuming, she's a tiny tomboy equally at home slinging a Tata down rutted streets or driving a truck along dusty highways.

Odanadi raised money for training programmes aimed at making women economically independent and Selvi was a member of a taxi co-op set up with one of the organisation's micro-loans; other ventures included a beauty parlour and a bakery.

Paloschi started out covering all three but when she returned to Canada with 30 hours in the can and started editing it into a short film, she decided the taxi company made the best story - not least because women drivers were virtually unknown. But when she went back on the second of what would be more than a dozen visits, she found Selvi was the only one left driving. So she started making a film about Selvi finding her friends: one had returned to sex work, another had married and had a child.

Selvi at work as a cab driver in Driving with Selvi
Selvi at work as a cab driver in Driving with Selvi

"Each year I went back, things had changed and I just kept going back. I knew there was a story there. I didn't really know what it was and to be honest all the way through, Selvi wasn't the only person I was filming. It was just that hers was a story of hope and, in order to fill in her back story, I needed the stories of other women in India."

Paloschi sub-let her apartment, crowdfunded and secured grants from arts councils and private funds to keep going on a project whose subjects initially regarded her with suspicion.

"It took years to gain Selvi's trust. At the start, she refused to talk to me about a lot of things. But over time, she recognised that I wasn't going anywhere. As she gained more confidence in me, she also gained more confidence in herself and grew as a woman. She now wants the film to change the lives of a million women and she has become very ambitious for the film. She recognises how powerful her story is.

"She used to say, 'Why do you keep coming here and shooting me? I am nobody, I have done nothing in my life.' The process of making the film has helped her recognise that that is not true."

Director Elisa Paloschi filming her documentary Driving with Selvi.
Director Elisa Paloschi filming her documentary Driving with Selvi.

Perhaps inevitably, the film has become the platform for a larger initiative, Paloschi explains.

"The first time I shot Selvi, she said, 'I will only do this if it can change the life of one girl.' But as it got bigger, I realised that we could do more than just show it to a few girls in Odanadi. We could take it all across India. We would use the film to shift attitudes about child marriage and to promote dialogue about women's livelihoods.

"And I think it can do that because it's not an NGO-ey sort of film. It's just a story of one woman who has a hopeful future - and there aren't many stories like that coming out of India."


Lowdown

Who: Director Elisa Paloschi will attend the screening of Driving With Selvi on Saturday May 21 at 2.45pm.

What: The Documentary Edge Festival, May 18-29 at Auckland's Q Theatre.

Info: docedge.nz, drivingwithselvi.com, odanadi.org

- NZ Herald

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