Reel Asian ’15: Driving change in South India with ‘Selvi’

Ahead of Thursday's premiere of Driving with Selvi at the Reel Asian International Film Festival, director Elisa Paloschi caught up with Playback sister publication realscreen.

The social impact campaign around the documentary Driving with Selvi (pictured) involves grassroots screenings around India, a hands-on training program teaching Indian women mechanics, and a 10-day bus tour with the documentary’s principal, Selvi, firmly in the driver’s seat.

Indeed, Elisa Paloschi’s empowering documentary – 11 years in the making – about a former child bride in a male-dominated profession hopes to be a vehicle for change. And in a year when another film out of South Asia – Leslee Udwin’s India’s Daughter, about the horrific gang rape and murder of a Delhi woman in 2012 – created headlines when it was banned in India, Driving with Selvi may keep the issues facing some Indian women anchored in the public consciousness.

Selvi is a young woman living in South India, who at 14 was forced into an abusive marriage, which she ultimately escaped. Paloschi first met her protagonist at the Mysore-based, non-profit women’s shelter Odanadi, where the director went to work as a volunteer in 2004. Then 18 years old, Selvi forged a new life for herself by earning her driver’s license and becoming Karnataka’s first female taxi driver – a true rarity in the male-dominated field.

elisa paloschi

Elisa Paloschi

“I wasn’t expecting to make a feature film at all, but over the next couple years I went back over and over again, and each time there was something interesting happening in Selvi’s life,” Paloschi, who is also a photographer, tells realscreen. “It took a few years of filming her before I even knew that there was a film.”

The Toronto-based director traveled frequently to India after her initial trip in 2004, often returning to see Selvi. Once she committed to the idea of making a doc, she figured she would focus on the taxi company Selvi hoped to form with other women, but when those plans fell through, the film became about Selvi’s personal journey into marriage and motherhood, her professional achievements – learning to drive a passenger bus and challenging cultural norms around driving, to name a few – and later coming to terms with the tragic events of her past.

“When I started coming back on my own outside of the NGO connection, it took a long time to gain her trust,” admits Paloschi, who filmed the doc almost entirely on her own, while using a translator to interview Selvi, who speaks Kannada.

“I would ask her questions about her past and she would actually grab her lav mike and say, ‘If you ask me that, I’m going to tear it off.’ In the end, she realized I didn’t want anything from her other than to collaborate with her on sharing her story. I wanted her to have a voice.”

Giving Selvi’s story a platform through the film, however, was consistently hampered by fundraising difficulties. Though Paloschi received three Canadian grants from provincial and national arts councils, she couldn’t rouse any interest from broadcasters, some of whom were concerned about the film’s extensive subtitle use.

The turning point for Driving, the director says, was an invitation to participate at Britdoc’s Good Pitch event in London in 2013, where she got the attention of American non-profit group Chicken & Egg Pictures, the Fledgling Fund and the Women in Film Finishing Fund, all of whom supported the film. Though an official broadcaster is yet to board the project as a coproducer, the Independent Television Service’s Women and Girls Lead initiative has paired the film with broadcast partners that will air the film in Kenya, Jordan, Peru and Colombia.

The doc – which last week screened at the Mumbai Film Festival – opens Toronto’s Reel Asian International Film Festival today (November 5) and will premiere in Amsterdam for IDFA later this month. Paloschi hopes that increased visibility will not only garner attention from broadcasters, but also raise more funds for the film’s outreach and impact campaign.

driving with selvi

Driving with Selvi

The goal, she says, is to start a conversation around the non-traditional but life-altering livelihoods available to women in India.

The campaign will kick off with a bus tour – driven by Selvi – from village to village across South India, where the team will hold screenings and forums within communities to gauge how the film can really propel change, while prominent Indian leaders and celebrities speak with the team on board. A grassroots screening campaign, meanwhile, looks to screen the film to one million people in India.

Finally, a planned summit for women is looking to partner with Indian organizations to provide women with lessons in mechanics and driving.

“One of the things I’ve found about Selvi that’s inspired me is how much agency she regained by driving,” says Paloschi. “Here she was, a small woman doing a man’s job, and in India there aren’t that many women in non-traditional livelihoods. A lot of organizations do work to economically empower women but often it’s about stitching and needlework and things that don’t take them outside of their community or their home.”

  • Driving with Selvi premieres tonight at Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theatre at 7:30 p.m. EST/PST. Click here for more information.
  • Check out a trailer for the film below: