The film about a former child bride who became a commercial taxi driver is inspiring young girls in some of India’s most marginalised communities
Driving with Selvi: documentary follows the life of a former child bride for a decade
With curtains drawn in a dark room, about 40 over-excited teenage girls are seated on a rug, waiting to watch a documentary on the life of Karnataka’s first female commercial taxi driver. As the film progresses, they learn that Selvi, the film’s protagonist, is a lot like them.
Every other day, these chatty young women living in and around Gambheerwa village in the Bahraich district of northern India, visit the Adolescent Centre run by not-for-profit international development agency the Aga Khan Foundation (AFK). Their parents, who are daily-wage labourers, rickshaw pullers or farm workers, rope them into household work instead of sending them to school. Most are married by 14 or 15, and get stuck in the rigmarole of early pregnancy and motherhood. They visit the AKF centre to hone their life skills and learn stitching, embroidery and computer knowledge in an attempt to eke out extra revenue for their family.
On a pleasant Monday morning, they are called in for a special showing of Driving with Selvi, a film in Kannada with English subtitles, by Canadian filmmaker Elisa Paloschi. The 74-minute documentary is dubbed in five languages, including Hindi, India’s national language.
The film follows Selvi, a former child bride from southern India, for a decade. The cameras start rolling from when she is an 18-year-old living at a women’s shelter run by Odanadi, an NGO that works to combat sexual violence in the south-western Indian city Mysore, in the state of Karnataka.
Born into poverty, Selvi was married away at 14 to a much older man who was abusive. Still a teenager, she stepped out of home one day thinking of suicide, but instead took a bus to Mysore. Her mentor at Odanadi asked her to learn to drive, which she initially resisted. “I had not even ridden a bicycle, so driving a car seemed difficult,” says Selvi. But with practise, she not only picked it up, but began enjoying being behind the wheel, and started her own taxi service in Mysore. She later remarried and had two daughters.
Driving with Selvi holds up a mirror to her life, which has been riddled with hardships, the challenges of stepping into a male-dominated career and living without family support.
“Selvi is much more than most people ever become,” says Paloschi, 50, who has fostered a special bond with her award-winning film’s protagonist since 2004, when she first started working on the film. It took Selvi some time to agree to be filmed. “Go for a girl who has achieved something,” the humble Selvi initially told Paloschi. “I’ve done nothing, I’m just a driver.”
“But early on in the process, I realised that she was not only a driver,” Paloschi says. “She had courage and persevered, is very smart and achieved what most women that faced such challenges wouldn’t. I knew she could be a big inspiration to other girls.”
After 10 years, Paloschi became more ambitious about the reach of the story. So did Selvi. “I thought, if my story could inspire even one girl, it would be worth it,” Selvi says. And with that thought, the idea of a campaign to take the film to India’s marginalised communities was born. Last year, screenings were held in north and south India, during a campaign dubbed Selvi’s Bus Tour. Selvi was often behind the wheel of a minibus as Paloschi and the film’s team drove to 30 communities across villages, urban and semi-urban slums, and schools with local NGO partners.
Shubhi Vijay, AFK’s programme officer for education, says that the film was an opportunity to show the community girls “a life beyond their own expectations”.
Her organisation motivates young women to take the responsibility of changing their own lives. “We work with girls who often don’t have a sense of self,” she says. “Most of them can’t think of a life beyond their village, of picking jobs in cities or even driving.”
A series of pre-screening questions were asked to open a dialogue on women’s empowerment and gender equality. “Should a girl be married soon after she starts menstruating?” and “Should the father or the man of the house make all decisions for the family?” were questions almost every girl answered in the affirmative, Paloschi says.
Many young women were inspired by the screening. Girls discussed ways of stopping child marriage and requested the film be shown to their parents so they could understand the value of education and financial independence, Paloschi explains.
“They also had this instant craving for learning to drive,” she says. After every screening, there were requests for Selvi to help them to learn.
“Selvi’s presence in the centre gave them a powerful message,” Vijay says. She told them about her plan to start a driving school for girls in Bhavani, a small town in south India, where she lives. “To see someone who went from living in a village to a city and is still reinventing her life was huge for them,” Vijay says. “The film became a celebration of Selvi’s journey; the girls thought that if she could become economically independent and succeed, we can too.”
The bus tour was just a beginning. Paloschi is in talks with the Indian government to screen the film at schools to raise awareness on the subjects of child marriage and gender equity. However, in the long term, she wants to pass on control of the campaign. “I’m nurturing this baby girl and will leave it to be taken care of by Indian organisations, schools and by Selvi herself,” she says.