One didn’t speak any Kannada and the other barely any English. But Canada-based filmmaker Elisa Paloschi and Karnataka’s rare woman cabbie Selvi, who broke free from an abusive child marriage to start a taxi company in Mysore, bonded nonetheless. An easy connect that resulted in Driving with Selvi, a film by Paloschi that documents the life of a young woman who decided to be the driver of her own life.
“Do you like me?” Selvi asks in the film, her innocent child-like laughter echoing and concealing her life of struggle and triumph so beautifully captured on screen. The documentary is in its final stages of completion.
“I didn’t set out to make films that would send a message, but I gradually realised that I was drawn to people who had a spark in their soul and a powerful impact on those around them,” reveals the filmmaker, whose first documentary was about a homeless man.
That was 18 years ago when Paloschi was just 20. Her tryst with India began in 2004. That was when she met Selvi too. Feeling disconnected as a mere tourist in Mysore, Paloschi reached out to Odanadi, an NGO working towards the welfare of trafficked women and children, to help with an art programme.
When the directors of the NGO discovered her video background, she was given a camera and asked to shoot something. “Selvi was one of the many young women I interviewed. She barely spoke English and I didn’t speak a word of Kannada but I felt a strong connection with her,” says Paloschi.
Selvi’s struggle and her determination to never give up found an admirer in Paloschi. Selvi was just 14 when she was married off to a man who tortured her for dowry. She decided to run away and while thoughts of committing suicide often flitted across her young mind, there was also the realisation that she needed to prove herself.
And then came the turning point when she learnt to drive at the age of 18.
“In 2004 in Mysore, it was quite rare to see a woman driver, let alone a female taxi driver. I hadn’t made a film in 10 years when I went to India but I was fascinated by Selvi and three other young women who were starting a taxi company with a loan from Odanadi. Their strength of character inspired me,” says Paloschi.
She decided to make a short documentary about the taxi company that was started by Selvi and her friends in 2006. The challenges, though, were several and the film was finally made over a 10-year period.
“Each time I returned to India to shoot something specific, everything didn’t go as planned. Selvi had a new job, or she was engaged to a wonderful man she fell in love with, then there was the wedding, and then the pregnancy and the birth.”
Her biggest lesson, one she is glad she learnt, is that you can’t control anything in India. “I’ve always been a free spirit, but I perfected this while shooting the film. I went with the flow and the film turned into something that reflects that.” According to her, Driving with Selvi is a film that follows the rhythms of life.
A prolific photographer, Paloschi is a firm believer in the potential of art to bring about healing.
Through Odanadi, she also organised a photography workshop to help empower trafficked women in Mysore. “For me, the camera is the perfect tool for interpreting your reality. Discussing the photographs is a very helpful way of opening a dialogue about feelings and impressions.”
Driving with Selvi is close to completion and Paloschi is attempting to raise the final part of the budget. She is now busy developing an ambitious and far-reaching outreach campaign, which involves a 10-day bus tour around Karnataka with Selvi at the wheel.
“We will invite high-profile female role models, and other survivors of gender violence and will stage screenings, talks, performances and workshops in villages along the way. A group of journalists, bloggers, and videographers will also be invited to join the tour. We’re also planning to establish a driving training centre for women in Mysore.”
The campaign runs for 18 months and Paloschi is hoping that it gains momentum to carry itself forward. She firmly believes that her film has the potential of having a strong impact on not only girls and women, but also boys and men.
“I’ve never set out to make a film. A story that needs to be told intersects with my life and in this case, 10 years have passed and I have a powerful feature length documentary about the most wonderfully audacious, spirited, quirky, strong-willed young woman. Selvi is a survivor who will inspire others.”