Driving with Selvi is a crowd-funded project designed to raise awareness of a variety of key issues that many women in South India are still living with; child marriage, domestic abuse, torture, violence, oppression.
The film was ‘written’ (as far as a documentary can be written), produced and directed by Elisa Paloschi and will be released in the UK on October 7th. Paloschi first came into contact with Selvi, who the documentary follows, through an organisation known as ‘Odanadi’, which helps women who have been the victims of human trafficking and who have suffered violence at the hands of men. The name of the organisation itself ‘Odanadi’ refers to a soulmate, a friend who will work with you through life. Paloschi spent a year with Selvi, wanting to tell a story that she felt was important for everyone to hear. However, she soon found herself returning time and again to update Selvi’s story, and the film covers a span of no less than ten years.
The film leads with Selvi’s claim to fame; that she was South India’s first female taxi driver. When we first see her, as the title of the film would suggest, she is driving. As we hear more from her, it soon becomes clear that driving is one of the loves of Selvi’s life. Early on she relates how she was once so miserable in her old life that when she saw a bus coming towards her she decided to throw herself under it. However, when it arrived, she decided to get on board instead. It becomes clear that transportation is a liberation for Selvi. She is driving her own life, as much as she can. As a taxi driver, Selvi values her independence and as the film progresses we also see Selvi tackle some other ‘driving’ challenges.
Although a documentary, there are moments when it becomes apparent – as with any documentary – that a story has had to be deliberately crafted from hours of footage. After being initially introduced to Selvi driving her taxi, we are taken back “ten years earlier” to see just how far she has come. On other occasions, when Selvi is retelling moments from her life, Paloschi has also created moments of retelling. When Selvi recalls her childhood, we see a child; when she talks about being married at fourteen, we see a ceremony in soft focus.
It is Selvi’s confident voice which guides you though the film, it’s essentially a series of detailed interviews. However, Selvi will only allow this detail to go so far; what is sometimes more arresting than her words, are her moments of speechlessness. This is a woman who is still obviously inconsolable over the “torture” as she calls it, which she suffered at the hands of her first husband. She also becomes quiet, or is reduced to tears, when she explains how she was rejected by her brother and no longer speaks to her mother. The phrase “child bride” doesn’t come anywhere close to summing up the real-life effect that is evident when hearing about it from Selvi.
It is perhaps with some trepidation therefore that the audience hears Selvi is to be married again. Indeed, while it is clear that Selvi and her husband-to-be are very much in love, she admits when alone that she is still scared to marry. This is a society where women are very much at the whim of their husbands. Both Selvi and her best friend are later shown to experience extreme frustration when after having children they are both desperate to start driving again (and, crucially, earning again). Often, however, they are met with a blank refusal. Still, Selvi fiercely tries to be as independent as she can and even drives herself to her wedding.
As a mother, Selvi is shown to be tactile and loving; she has learned from the mistakes of her own mother and states emphatically that she would never, ever marry off her own child. She speaks about how she wants her child to be well educated and, when she does marry, to marry for love.
It would be easy to reduce the film to a series of pithy insights, of life lessons like “never give up on your dreams” or even “don’t let the bastards grind you down”, but that would be doing the film, and Selvi herself, a disservice. While these kinds of messages do naturally emerge from Paloschi’s documentary, it’s more about about watching an individual’s story and remembering that she is a representative of so many people out there who are still working to free themselves. As a woman, Selvi leads by example. She drives her own life.
The film has already done a circuit of festivals and there are now plans to take it around isolated parts of India in order to raise awareness amongst those very women who could be, or already are, in the situation Selvi once was. With any luck it will educate them and also give them hope.
Driving With Selvi is on at The DocHouse at the Curzon Bloomsbury, with a Q&A with director Elisa Paloschi, from Friday, October 7. Find out more here.