No Woman No Cry

The journey of some films does not end with their completion. It is not surprising to know that the makers of the documentary Driving With Selvi, directed by Elisa Paloschi, are working on outreach for women’s empowerment in India.

Selvi is a bright-eyed, smiling young woman who represents the new Indian female — not the kind that gets feminist ideology through education or peer influence, but the kind that figures out the value of her own life.

She was pulled out of school in the ninth standard and at age 14 forcibly married to a man who subjected her to dowry violence and abuse so horrific that she does not want to speak of it. When she could take it no more, she ran away, and waited at a bus stop with the idea of throwing herself under the bus. But when it arrived, she got on to it instead, because, “If I died, I wouldn’t be able to prove myself.”

Somehow she lands up at Odanadi, in Mysore, a home for victims of human trafficking, set up in 1984 by the kindest of men, K.V. Stanley and M.L. Parashuram, who become the support system Selvi did not have in her own family — her mother being particularly “hard-hearted.”

The encourage her to learn driving (one of them had his skull cracked when she drove into a ditch), and she goes on to become  the first female taxi driver in South India. Surprisingly, she says,  male cabbies did not harass her; instead, they did everything to help her.

Canadian filmmaker Paloschi met Selvi in 2004 when she went to Mysore as a tourist and volunteered with Odanadi. Selvi was just the right subject for a documentary, so Paloschi followed her for the next 10 years to make the film.

At first Selvi is a slightly timid girl, over a period of time, she gains in strength and confidence. She falls in love with a man called Viji, and marries him after telling him about her past. (The film does not go into Selvi’s divorce.) She is a happy, giggly bride, a bit embarrassed about driving herself to her wedding.

The film oddly takes Viji out of the scene altogether, as Selvi becomes homemaker, cooking, washing and making rangoli outside her house.  Soon she gives birth to a daughter, Hariga, and gives up working to become a full-time mother.

She and a friend take the child for her hair-shaving ceremony; she goes with her husband to a temple to get her tongue pierced to fulfill a vow, she won’t say what. But the filmmaker captures the change in her, she laughs a lot, talks with a lot of conviction and wisdom. In her society, it would perhaps be difficult for a woman to give up household duties, and working class men are not inclined to do domestic chores, but Selvi hints that she prefers her driving work as being behind the wheel gives her a sense of self-worth. She loves her daughter to bits and swears she will educate her child and never get her married early.

Selvi says when her mother learned that she was well-settled, she called asking if she could come live with her. Selvi refused, not willing to forget what her mother put her through.

When her daughter is a little older, Selvi goes on to learn to drive heavy vehicles and starts a transport business with her husband. It is a fairy-tale for our times, when the damsel does not wait for the knight to rescue her.

Driving With Selvi has made the rounds of festivals and won awards, but it deserves to be shown widely in India, so can girls who are similarly victimized can see that there is a way out. All they need is the will to find it. And perhaps drive over it.

Gahlot is a critic, columnist, editor, author and curator