This week a powerful documentary premiered at the Raindance Festival. Driving With Selvi follows a young Indian woman, Selvi, a few months after she pitches up at a women’s refuge center, after running away from her abusive husband. It’s a work that has taken Canadian filmmaker Elisa Paloschi over a decade to complete, as she returned to India again and again to document how such a “powerful girl” reinvented her life after she got behind the steering wheel of a car for the first time. Now the director hopes that the documentary will be used as part of a grassroots campaign in the country to re-educate and inform Indians about child trafficking and forced marriage.
Selvi had been married off a month after her first period for a dowry consisting of a pair of earrings and some household utensils. She was 13 years old. After putting up with years of abuse and torture by her husband—and immediate family members including her mother and brother, the 18-year-old made a break for it and ran to the bus stop. “I waited for a bus because I wanted to throw myself under it, but when the bus came, I raised my hand and got on it instead,” she tells the camera. “If I died, I wouldn’t be able to prove myself. That is why I ran away.”
Paloschi had also, in a sense, run away, leaving her life as an interactive content producer in Italy to go on a yoga retreat. After volunteering to work at the Odanadi women’s refuge she met Selvi, who she says she was drawn to immediately. “She really is powerful and she has no idea of it, unaware of the strength and power she possesses. Even today she says, ‘Why are you filming me? Why is this film about me?’”
Selvi transformed her life in a matter of months. She was eventually taken in by the Odanadi women’s refuge in Mysore, where she was given driving lessons after a hunch by Odanadi co-director K.V. Stanly that she had the guts to do it. The plan was to create a taxi firm staffed and run by the women from the refuge, with a car bought by a micro loan from an NGO. “I don’t drive like a girl,” she warns, before confessing that she once drove M.L. Parashu, the other co-director of Odanadi, into a ditch, cracking his skull. Only Selvi continued the journey, becoming the city of Karnakata’s first female taxi driver, and then on to become a wife, mother, and truck and bus driver.
The documentary begins with a shocking statistic. Over 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday, 250 million of these were a wife before they were 15 years old. And India is home to one-third of these child brides. In a country where the patriarchy is the norm, where girls are married off for a dowry, where female foetuses are regularly aborted, where the rape and murder of women goes unchallenged, a story like Selvi’s is the exception. “Everything is changing in India quickly now,” says Paloschi. “Almost too quickly, so I expect that female agency and empowerment will be part of that change, but the main thing is to educate men and boys, because without doing that, nothing’s going to change at all.”
The making of the documentary may be over, but Selvi is taking center stage for some of the promotion. Trips to New York, the West Coast, Toronto and Europe have been pencilled in, but it is the grassroots campaign in Selvi’s home country that is the most interesting. “I’ve planned for the next couple of years to stay committed to this project, and we’ve developed audience engagement and an impact campaign,” says Paloschi. “The plan is to take the film on the road and have a million people see it. We are going to create a network, and the film will become part of a network of hundreds of thousands of Indian organisations that will use the film as part of their own programming. Our goal is that the film becomes an educational tool.”
Whilst employed as a driver for the speakers on a women’s health campaign, Selvi pushed to be allowed to speak at the meetings, working as an educator on public health issues. “She has always said to me, ‘the only reason that I’m talking to you is the possibility that this story has the power to help even just one girl,’” says Paloschi. “It was always very clear that I knew that her story and her voice would be a really great example for other women to understand that they have a chance and they have a choice for a better future for themselves. What I set out to do was work with Selvi so that she could become a spokesperson for a better life for women in India. I’ve gone far beyond what my expectations are, but I do think it was always part of the plan, I just didn’t know it would be such an ambitious plan.”
Now a mother of two young children herself, after she remarried—for love this time—Selvi has big plans for her daughter and hopes that she will eventually become a pilot. She is adamant that study will be a part of her daughter’s future. “I won’t be giving my daughter to anyone,” she tells the camera. “She has to choose her own future.”