I am a driver and a home girl; life is perfect," declares Selvi with a very wide and infectious grin at some point in the film on her life, Driving with Selvi. But by then, you have felt her loneliness, and know that life has been far from perfect. Which is why her positivity is all the more admirable. After running away from an abusive child marriage, and cut off from her family, Selvi, who was on the verge of suicide, decided to board the bus she was planning to throw herself under. In 2004, she became one of the first women taxi drivers in South India. Canadian film-maker Elisa Paloschi followed Selvi over almost 10 years, visiting and filming her every year in Mysuru, at every crucial juncture in her life, and documenting a very intimate story through an eye that's prying enough to capture Selvi's loneliness and her strength that grew from it. Elisa first met Selvi when she was in India as a tourist. She is president of Eyesfull, a Toronto-based independent production company dedicated to making non-fiction documentaries with social relevance.
Being a role model
In Bengaluru recently for the concluding screening of the Driving with Selvi campaign and bus tour, Elisa spoke of how it was compelling for her to tell Selvi's story, because "she has an incredible spirit and her courage is like no one I've met before. She has such a positive outlook, coming out of anything without being destroyed."
The campaign and bus tour looked to leverage the power of the film and Selvi's story as a catalyst for gender equality in India through grassroots screenings, education and commercial driver training and job opportunities. Selvi has been travelling with the film in rural areas around Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
"When Elisa first asked me to tell my story for a film, I refused. But now, I don't worry or care about what people think of me. I am thankful now that I am able to give back to my community, and am an example for others. Else, I would have just remained a driver," Selvi says, post-screening, standing up on stage.
Born in Kowdahalli in Karnataka, it was in Mysuru's Odanadi Seva Samsthe, an NGO that works to rehabilitate sexually abused women, that Selvi found direction in life, after running away from her first and abusive husband's home. "Stanley anna, the director of Odanadi, encouraged me to learn driving. I was looking for some opportunity to learn something and earn money. This was the first time someone showed confidence in me. So, I decided to learn driving," says Selvi. She has now also earned her heavy vehicle licence and can drive trucks and buses.
Selvi recalls her days starting off as a cabbie in Mysuru along with two other women drivers through an umbrella called the Manavi Mahila Sangha; the other two women dropped out soon. Selvi then became an independent taxi driver, picking and dropping school children, working part-time with a medical store and for a finance collector. Then a public health institute dealing with HIV and HPV awareness, Prerana, hired her as a driver, and Selvi soon took on the role of counselling and making presentations too for them, along with driving.
"I was always a confident driver. Initially, I literally went from door to door introducing myself and telling families about my taxi service and offering my number. My customers, mostly families who would feel safe with me, soon became regulars. They developed a confidence in me and would always treat me as family."
Elisa recalls how when Selvi drove her to the Tibetan settlement Bylakuppe once on work, she was worried and asked her to come into the monastery with her, rather than stay out with the other tourist drivers. "But she stayed out and sat like the other drivers. Her attitude has always been that 'people will treat you like you treat them,'" says Elisa.
Selvi, on her part, says that while no male driver ever treated her badly, she would always be asked jokingly by most of them, 'Why do you want to come take away our job?' "I would tell them 'I am also simply working and earning a living, just like you,' and that answer would quieten them!"