Driving change for women in India

An interview with Driving with Selvi filmmaker, Elisa Paloschi

This May 17, the Human Rights and Arts Festival are screening Driving with Selvi, the beautiful story of South India’s first female taxi driver. We’re thrilled to be supporting it and had the chance to chat to the filmmaker Elisa Paloschi while she’s in Melbourne for the festival.

How did you meet Selvi and what drew you to her story?

I went to India as a tourist 12 years ago. I actually went there as a yoga tourist – I’m kind of embarrassed to say that now, maybe cut that bit out – but I guess the yoga part actually does fit into this because I felt like I was surrounded by other westerners who were really focussing on themselves and their personal growth and we have this world around us that was in desperate need of attention and understanding. I’ve always been a traveller, not a tourist but I found it really hard to connect to the community there, to get to know people because they saw me as the privileged, white, yoga student that I was. So I began looking into some volunteer work and I found Odanadi which is the shelter where Selvi was living. Within half an hour they found out that I had a video background so they put a camera in front of me and said “go shoot something for us”.  Having a camera is a really great way to get to know people. One, because some people just love to be in front of the camera, especially Indian girls – they love it. But also because I’m nosy, and I ask a lot of questions and having a camera makes it – I wouldn’t say easier to ask those questions but you know, there’s a purpose. So I just started filming the women girls and interviewing them and following them around and there was a group that were learning to drive so that they could set up a taxi company. And Selvi was one of those girls. I was drawn to Selvi instantly, in her eyes she just has this sparkle and she’s got such a great attitude. You know she was really shy at the time and she had that sense of being kind of small and broken but at the same time she was was looking out beyond herself to find something that would take her into the world and that was the driving. In India, especially 12 years ago you never saw a woman driving a car, let alone a young woman like Selvi who had no education and was extremely poor and from a village where she may not have even stepped foot in a car before she started learning to drive. I was really interested in how that was going to shift and change her life.

I think that Selvi wouldn't be able to do what she's doing now ten years ago. She was part of this movement.

How have you seen attitudes towards women and girls change in India over the period of time you were making the film?

That’s a really hard question – I hate answering it because I think in certain parts of India there has been a significant shift and women have much more of a voice and they’ve got a stronger potential for making their own decisions. I would say though that issues of child marriage – it’s still extreme and poverty and lack of education and everything that leads to child marriage still exists. I get frustrated every time I’m in India by how slowly things are changing. At the same time you go into the larger cities and there are women driving cars, there are women-led taxi companies all over the big cities of India now, there are conversations now about transportation safety for women, you know the government is trying to create a better place for girls with a real focus on girls’ education. But it’s still really difficult. Traditions are so embedded, the patriarchy is so deeply embedded. Often it’s the women who are treating other women badly it’s not only the men that are embedded in this patriarchal society. So has it changed? Yes, I do think so. I think that Selvi wouldn’t be able to do what she’s doing now ten years ago. She was part of this movement.

In the film Selvi struggled to talk about her life before she left her abusive first marriage. Did you have any concerns about asking her to reveal that part of her story?

When I first met Selvi the very first interview I did with her, before I even knew her, she told me everything and she was very candid about it. You could really see her hurt and her fear of talking about it but at the same time she was really open. Then when I went back to film the following year she was much more hesitant to talk about it again. In Odanadi they women who first arrive talk a lot, and as they heal they talk less and less until they get to the point where it’s as if not talking about it makes it not exist. When she finally did reveal it came out completely spontaneously. It was the beginning of something new for her. Having that conversation about that first marriage I think helped her reconnect with her family, reconnect with herself, really create new dreams for herself. So in a way it was cathartic.

The first year I was at Odanadi and I interviewed about 20 different women. I was being translated by someone who worked for Odanadi and when they saw the interviews and when they heard what the girls were talking about it really shifted the counselling work that they did, they could see that the girls were talking in a different way through the camera and with each other, so they started changing their style of therapy because of the interviewing.

Selvi’s second husband was both concerned for and supportive of his wife. What is their relationship like now?

They have a really interesting relationship, it’s a very rare one. I’ve seen very few Indian couples like them. They’re very much equals, they really make decisions together. Her husband admires her so much. He recognises in her power and her intelligence. He’s a shy man, he’s very quiet he’s not nearly as ambitious as Selvi and I think they make a really good couple because Selvi would just throw herself into anything so he’s sort of the harness and she’s the motor. So they make a really great couple. He does have significant concern for her and care, but he’s also a really great husband and father and is actively taking care of their two girls. He’s a really great guy. She made a good choice!

“why are you filming me? I’m just a driver. I’m doing nothing special.”

How has Selvi’s life changed since the film?

She’s travelled to North America four times and she’s been to Europe once so she’s seeing the world as she never had before. She’s also seeing the reaction that people have to her story because even really recently she’d say – “why are you filming me? I’m just a driver. I’m doing nothing special.” So for her to finally recognise that actually she is special, and the driving itself might not be what makes her special but it’s her fearlessness that makes her special, it’s her desire to grow I think that makes her really interesting and an inspiration to other women and girls. We started the film in 2004 and she didn’t really want to talk to me. She only did because she was asked to. But when I went back the next year I explained to her that her story could really help other girls in seeing their own potential and she was like “okay, I don’t want to talk to you but I will if this film can change the life of one girl.” So now we’re talking about something completely different and Selvi has very much engaged in the campaign that we’re developing. But her goal also is to change the life of a million girls and share the film with a million women and girls and see more women drivers and see more training opportunities for women. I think it’s incredible because what I saw in Selvi and what really was interesting about the driving was that if she hadn’t been driving she would have been closed behind the door of her house. Women are so veiled in India, they don’t have visibility in the community, in society. So Selvi sitting in the car basically taking the steering wheel of her own life, being in the driver’s seat, gave her visibility, it taught her to talk to people, it taught people to notice her and notice that she has a voice and she is a valuable person within society so I think her recognition of that is what’s driving her to use the film to create change because she’s really grown by being a driver.

So we have goals of partnering with organisations that are already training women to drive, we hope to partner with green initiatives so that we can bring more green transportation to the streets. We’re going to be taking the film through remote communities in grassroots screenings throughout India and not only will we be talking about shifting attitudes towards child marriage and talking about other opportunities but also promoting driving training for the women that we meet along the way. So trying to leave behind something sustainable and that is more women on the streets driving their own cars and making money through commercial driving - and Selvi is really keen on that.

How has your and Selvi’s intention for the film evolved over the 12 year process, and how has that compared to how it’s been received by the public?

It’s definitely evolved a lot over those twelve years. Really it was just to show the girls at Odanadi and then it became we’ll show the girls in the city, and then we’ll show them in the villages. It did get bigger and bigger each year that we went. We always had the goal of trying to shift attitudes towards child marriage. I think there was a big shift in 2012 after the Dehli rape and the conversation around safe transportation for women and I think that’s when we really began to think more about developing ideas of training women to drive. So things have shifted continuously and as I talk to another potential partner new ideas come and we’re very elastic in the sense that we want to work with people that are also working with girls and women and working at changing that gender divide so we see the film as a really great tool and I think it can be used in very different ways to be part of that dialogue, I think it’s got a lot of synergies with what you guys are doing here are Plan.

Driving with Selvi is screening at ACMI in Melbourne at 5:45 May 17. Make sure to grab your tickets and check out the trailer here. You can catch our team there during the show!

You can also host your own screening of 'Driving with Selvi' and help spread Elisa and Selvi’s campaign supporting women and girls in India at this link.

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