How a child bride became South India’s first woman taxi driver

We see someone who defied stereotypes by learning to drive and starting her own taxi company

Published - December 02, 2017 04:10 pm IST

At the very beginning of Driving With Selvi , Selvi, South India’s first woman taxi driver, asks filmmaker Elisa Paloschi: “Do you like me?... Why?” She laughs — disarmingly and bashfully — when Paloschi says it’s for her personality. You can sense a rare comfort and camaraderie between the filmmaker and her subject.

The documentary itself is a series of vignettes of shared secrets and confidences; one in which the filmmaker and the audience get to understand Selvi’s strengths, vulnerabilities and insecurities. Paloschi prods Selvi but never pushes her too hard.

Selvi was forced to marry at 14. The marriage turned out to be a violent and abusive one. One day, in desperation, she decided to commit suicide by throwing herself under a bus. However, at the last minute, she chose to board the bus instead, kickstarting a remarkable journey to freedom and self-reliance.

Unwitting impetus

Selvi was initially reluctant to share her story with the world. “But when she realised that her story could change the life of even a single woman she was willing to come on board wholeheartedly,” says the filmmaker.

Paloschi came to India as a tourist in 2004 and was volunteering with Odanadi, an NGO in Mysuru, which deals with sexual violence against women and children. It was here that was introduced to Selvi. “Those were the days you didn’t see women driving commercial vehicles,” she recollects. Something that made Selvi stand out.

Little joys

Paloschi visited Mysuru every year to shoot and amassed about 200 hours of footage over 10 years from which Driving With Selvi has been culled.

There’s a moment in the film where Selvi talks about her abusive first husband. And about how he unwittingly led her to the life she wanted.

“If I hadn’t married him I wouldn’t have discovered myself or Viji (her present husband),” she says, while driving an Ambassador car to her own wedding, hands hennaed. Selvi herself compares life to roads — there are good as well as bad ones to negotiate and one needs to take both in one’s stride.

The film dwells on this overwhelming positivity that defines Selvi. Her life is as much about little joys as it is about big troubles. The negative people in her life don’t step into the frame — the first husband, hard-hearted mother and older brother are spoken of, not seen.

What is heartening is the support she gets from the community, the people around her — the social workers, the fellow drivers, the passengers. Not only did they encourage her to drive boldly but even made her learn to talk confidently. We see her building proxy families and a support structure for herself.

Over and beyond

We see someone who defied stereotypes by learning to drive and starting her own taxi company, giving it up for a while to raise her daughter and returning to drive heavy vehicles, emerging as a true inspiration for women in our patriarchal society. But we also see another side of Selvi — someone who believes in certain rituals: she pierces her own tongue to fulfil a vow at a temple.

It’s this duality that makes her human; progressive in the midst of patriarchy yet conservative in some ways.

How easy was it for Paloschi to reconcile with these contradictions? “ Reality is that every human being has multiple needs and directions in life. She is connected to her culture as much as she defies it,” she says.

The Selvi-Palsochi friendship thrives beyond the film, which has travelled to over 100 film festivals worldwide.

They work together to give the film a life beyond the screen, to make it a tool for social change. As I talk to Paloschi on the phone, they are together in Ballari in Karnataka showing the film to Adivasi women and initiating a conversation with them.

The documentary has led Paloschi, her team and Selvi to embark upon a 25 day bus tour through North and South India to reach out to communities.

The tour began in Delhi on October 11 to mark the International Day of the Girl Child, and will conclude with screenings of the film in Bengaluru and Delhi on December 4 and 8. All this with Selvi at the wheel.

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