Published: 21st December 2017
Meet Selvi who got out of an abusive marriage to become south India's first female cabbie
The story of Selvi, South India's first woman taxi driver, was documented over the past ten years by ace filmmaker Elisa Paloschi. Both talk about how they are taking Driving with Selvi to the masses
Benjamin Mee in We Bought a Zoo teaches his young children one important life lesson when he says, “All you need is twenty seconds of insane courage and I promise you, something great will come of it.” Selvi Kunjigowda's moment wasn't when she decided to run away from an abusive marriage. It was when she decided to get on a bus instead of under it.
Selvi was married off by her family at the age of 14 to a husband who slowly drove her to the edge of death, almost. After four years of being subjected to violence, at 18, she made a run for her life, only to try to end it. But instead of ending the journey of her life, she decided to take a diversion and embark on a new journey to prove herself.
When after the screening women come up to me to say that they will try harder, that's the moment I feel I have achieved something
Selvi Kunjigowda, South India's first taxi driver
In 2004, the worlds of Elisa Paloschi — a director — and Selvi collided when they met at Odandi, a shelter and NGO in Karnataka, where the former was volunteering and the latter was taking refuge. There was just something about Selvi that enamoured Paloschi and soon, she was convinced that this story needed to be told.
First glimpse: The poster of Driving with Selvi
With no clue of the narrative, the award-winning documentary filmmaker and cinematographer, Elisa Paloschi, intended to shoot a story around Selvi, who learnt to drive and with two other women, was starting a taxi company. But after a year, the two women left. Paloschi grew worried, terrified even, that she would not have a story and that she was simply wasting her time.
Paloschi feels that after the film, people must do what they can in their own way to make their life fair and shift the dialogues towards the persisting inequalities in the society
But that did not change the fact that Selvi had started to trust and open up to the director. "I began to feel an enormous responsibility towards her and her story," says Paloschi, who is the President of a Toronto-based independent production company, Eyesfull.
Just as Selvi's story began to become more eventful — she married a man from Tamil Nadu and started a truck and transport company with her husband in Mysuru — Paloschi realised that Selvi's story is indeed a transformational one. So, she honoured her story with ample amount of effort and time, ten years of it to be exact. "I am an impatient person, someone who likes to see immediate results, so, on a personal level too this was a learning experience for me," she admits.
I'm sure there are dozens of women like Selvi in the Indian society, but I feel particularly proud of having met Selvi and being a part of her story
Elisa Paloschi, director of Driving with Selvi
Paloschi preferred a more complex technique of storytelling, by weaving in narratives of other women who have surpassed obstacles to make something of themselves. But during the six months that she spent editing the 200-odd hours of footage that she had managed to shoot over a decade, the director realised that Selvi's story works as a standalone and is best told simply. Thus emerged a movie with a runtime of 75 minutes titled Driving with Selvi.
Selvi, being the positive person she is, truly feels that her story might reach out to the women who are truly suffering in the society and she gives them hope that things will be okay eventually
Story on wheels
Since October 11, Selvi and Paloschi have embarked on another journey altogether and this time a figurative one. On the occasion of the International Day of the Girl Child, Selvi’s bus tour was launched in Delhi in partnership with the Canadian High Commission and Miranda House University College for Women in Delhi. Since then, they have been screening the movie in rural parts of India including Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka.
And having Selvi on the bus journey made the experience more intense, especially after each screening. "Selvi is so open to conversations with the audience, most of whom want to be drivers just like her, after watching the movie," Paloschi says proudly.
Through her lens: Paloschi shooting with Selvi
The now 32-year-old is finally satisfied as she feels the real achievement is not the film itself, but the tour they embarked on. "When I see hope in the eyes of people who have suffered like me, I feel like I am finally giving back to the society," says Selvi, admitting that after her initial hesitation in front of the camera, she slowly realised what the film could mean to others who are suffering.
About the making of the film, Paloschi tells us how it wasn't easy for Selvi to open up about herself the way she did
Over the years, Selvi has ferried school children and even served as an ambulance driver before she started her own company with her husband and often gives thanks to the hostel she stayed at, who bestowed her with driving skills, which she felt made her independent.
But if anyone wants to witness misogyny in Indian society, they should look at the cars on the roads and the sneers that women drivers get, which we reckon Selvi gets too. What does the former child bride feel about this? "Men don't take such liberties with me because my confidence puts them off, the confidence that makes me want to prove that I can do better than them," she says with a steely resolve and a little something extra that we can't quite put our finger on.