Driving With Selvi: An Interview With Elisa Paloschi On Her New Film
A decade after Elisa Paloschi began working on her documentary Driving With Selvi, the film is finally in its last leg of production. The film follows the life of South India’s first female taxi driver, Selvi. In front of Paloschi’s lense, Selvi undergoes the metamorphosis from a victim of poverty and child abuse to empowerment and success. She was a victim of her circumstances, but Selvi managed to overcome and carved a unique path for herself rather than letting her fate be determined by the reality she was exposed to. “It’s really about her own agency,” Paloschi told me. Selvi is at the steering wheel of personal growth and change for women in India. Driving with Selvi gives the world a back seat view to her journey.
Elisa Paloschi is a photographer and filmmaker. She has travelled the world with her camera in hand, visiting the Roma camps of Palermo, the landscape of Karnataka, and the Coral Sea of Australia. Paloschi’s previous films include Radhamma’s Dream (2007) and Embracing Voices: The Woman Behind the Music of Jane Burnett (2012). Paloschi is also the founder of Eyesfull, an independent Toronto-based documentary production company. Here, Paloschi speaks to me about making Driving With Selvi, oppression and empowerment, patriarchal values, and hope for change.
Chelsea Rozansky: First of all, could you give me, in your own words, a summery of Driving with Selvi?
Elisa Paloschi: It’s a film about one young woman who basically challenges patriarchal traditions in India and overcomes a violent past to become south India’s first female taxi driver. And it’s really a film about transformation because it starts out ten years ago: she’s just ran away from her marriage and she was very shy and probably was still a little bit broken from her past. Over the course of ten years, she’s transformed into this incredible, strong, independent woman. So it’s really about transformation.
CR: Speaking of transformation, did you know when you initially planned making the documentary how it would manifest over the years of filming?
EP: No. I actually didn’t even set out to make a film about Selvi. It was something that was going to be quite different. But each time I went back to India, Selvi’s life had changed again. I just kept following her, so I really had no idea where the story could end and, to be quite honest, I could probably keep filming her for eternity (laughs). The thing is that, even though Selvi was really shy ten years ago and we couldn’t speak the same language, I did know that there was something within her, that she had an inner strength that was really rare. So I didn’t know how the transformation would manifest itself but I did know-or I really felt-that something good was going to happen to her. She had this strength to make that happen.
CR: How did you meet Selvi?
EP: I actually went to India the first time for yoga, and I just felt really disconnected from India, from the community. The place that I was doing yoga was for Western students and I had very little contact with the real India so I began volunteering at a shelter that takes care of young women and girls who are either at risk of violence or have faced violence in the past. That’s where Selvi was living at the time. I went there to do a puppet workshop with the kids on the school holidays but when the directors found out I had a video background, they found me a camera and asked me to start filming. The funny thing is, I hadn’t even made a film at that point for ten years. I hadn’t even touched a camera other than to do underwater videography. It was really unexpected. I certainly didn’t plan to make the film but I really felt like there was something important that needed to be told about these incredibly strong women and girls that I’ve met.
CR: So is that how you became in contact with “the real India”, as you said?
EP: It really is only one part of India. My experience with India is very rural and I see a lot of poverty. There is a totally different side of the country: growth, richness, culture.
CR: How does Selvi’s story parallel the culture of India, or the truth of India that you’re trying to capture?
EP: In a way, Selvi was born into the culture that we’re hearing about a lot in the media right now, which is rape culture and violence against women and all those issues that young girls and women face. She was born into that world, but in a way Selvi’s story reflects something completely different, and one of the things that I find, one of the main reasons why I wanted to make this film about Selvi is [that] she really challenges the stereotypes that we, as listeners, and probably people in India as well, have about Indian women and India. [For example] the tradition of child marriage. She was married at 14. She was born into a very poor family. She had no support from her mother who was a single mother. She was cast out of her family because of a sister-in-law. Those are all things that were happening in her life at the time. But in a way, India is changing— unfortunately very slowly— and I think Selvi is the face of that change.
CR: Is it fair to call Driving With Selvi a story of overcoming?
EP: Definitely. It’s a story of hope, and courage, and strength. It’s about agency. Selvi had some amazing opportunities when she ran away but she made the choice to take those opportunities and grow with them. So it’s really about her own agency.
CR: You talk about challenging patriarchal values. How do you see driving, or Selvi as a taxi driver, as a metaphor for empowerment and freedom?
EP: I think it’s a really obvious metaphor. Although maybe not so obvious in the West, because here we pretty much all get our licenses when we’re sixteen, if you’re a girl, if you’re a boy. We take driving for granted. The strange thing is actually, especially in Toronto, there’s this new call to leave the car behind and take a bicycle and other transportation. While in India, most don’t ever see the inside of a car. And it’s incredibly difficult to see a woman behind the wheel, especially in the smaller cities. Selvi came from a place of extreme poverty, and she was a young woman. Driving has given her an identity that really helps her feel empowered.
CR: Could you tell me a little bit more about your personal relationship with Selvi?
EP: We’re incredibly close. We’re definitely very good friends. Basically, over the course of the ten years, our relationship has changed and it does keep changing. In a way we’re like sisters, sometimes she’s my mother and I’m her daughter and other times I’m her mother and she’s my daughter. People, especially filmmakers all say, “oh wow, you have this incredible access”. I don’t feel like I have an incredible access. It’s just simply a mutual respect that we have for each other and Selvi really trusts me and I feel very honoured by that trust, and I wouldn’t do anything to break that. So we have a professional relationship where she’s the subject of the film and I have different responsibilities, but really we’re very close friends, and we support each other in different ways. Even though she doesn’t speak much English, I speak none of her language at all, somehow we manage.
CR: Did language play a huge barrier?
EP: Not really. For the film I’ve worked with translators and, depending on the relationship she had with the translator, it would sometimes affect the type of responses she would give during the interview, but it was always clear that the interviewer represents me so when we needed to talk about something really important or something complicated or something where we really needed to get the full details and the full accounts, then I needed to work with a translator. When it’s just Selvi and I on a day-to-day basis, we speak English, and most people are surprised that we can understand each other…. But somehow we do.
CR: Driving with Selvi has a strong feminist tone to it. I would just like to know, what does today’s feminism look like and mean to you?
EP: Its interesting there’s been this antifeminist movement, especially in the last, well its been going on for a while, but there’s a lot on Facebook and whatnot. They treat feminism as simple equality. I don’t get into the deeper philosophical or political reasoning behind it. I just feel like it just should be that we are equal.
CR: Absolutely. What have you learned most from telling Selvi’s story?
EP: I’ve learned so much. I’ve really grown as a filmmaker, but I think more than anything, it’s in my relationship with Selvi that’s taught me a lot. She’s taught me a lot. Even in the most simple ways, she’s so incredibly smart and insightful and her strength inspires me all of the time…. What have I learned from the film?
CR: Or from Selvi.
EP: Well Selvi said something in the film that I get her to repeat all the time because I love it so much. I was asking her, “how did you learn to be happy?” and she gives all the reasons that her life is fantastic, and she names her new husband, her new baby, having met me, having learned to drive, and she goes on and on and on and then she goes and [says], “some roads are good, some roads are bad. Life is like that”. So really Selvi has taken life by the horns, she accepts the bad, and moves forward with the good. And I think it’s really rare, especially in India where there’s a lot of pessimism. Selvi has never been a pessimist. And I feel incredibly lucky and privileged to have been born in Canada and even more privileged to have met her.
CR: What message do you hope people will take out of your film?
EP: Well we’ve got a fairly ambitious outreach and impact campaign that we’re organizing for the film so the idea is that we’re going to screen the film in India to one million viewers in the first year. What we really hope is that people will be inspired by Selvi’s story. They can learn about the strengths of Indian women and that power and strength comes from within.
CR: It’s like what you said before about agency, right?
EP: Exactly. And Selvi herself is so magnetic. When she walks into a room, she lights it up. She’s got such an incredible— I don’t want to call it aura— but people really like her. So meeting her, even on screen, I think, will have an enormous affect on people in a positive way. We really are trying to use the film as a tool for change, both in opening dialogue about women working in nontraditional jobs in India, about women challenging patriarchy, and about the society in general challenging patriarchy, because it’s an issue that needs to be worked on for both men and women.
CR: Are you hopeful for the future of girls in similar positions as Selvi?
EP: I hope so. I hope I’m hopeful (laughs). I do have a lot of hope. I know its incredibly difficult and such a complex issue. Yeah, I am hopeful for girls. I think it will take a lot of work and I think that this film can be part of that, and that it can be used as a tool to help other people realize their own dreams.
Driving With Selvi will launch in Fall 2014. For more information about the film, visit drivingwithselvi.com or facebook.com/drivingwithselvi and follow @drivingwithselvi on Twitter as well as Driving with Selvi on Indigogo.