Driving With Selvi rides along with the first female cab driver in South India

By 18 years old, Selvi Kunjigowda was already a survivor — abandoned by her family and forced into a marriage at 14 that quickly became violent and abusive.

Canadian director presents former child bride's story as a tale of hope

Selvi Kunjigowda, subject of the documentary Driving With Selvi, behind the wheel of her taxi. (Eyesfull Productions)

By 18 years old, Selvi Kunjigowda was already a survivor. 

Abandoned by her family, and forced into marriage at 14, her husband's violence and abuse drove her to thoughts of suicide. She would end her life, she decided; she'd throw herself under a bus. But in the moment she could have done it, Selvi raised her hand to hail down that bus instead — riding to Mysore, where she'd soon become the first female cab driver in South India.

All of this happens before the first frame of Driving With Selvi. The story is what happens next — both in the documentary, which opens Toronto's 19th Reel Asian International Film Festival tonight, and beyond. 

I realized what's important is Selvi's own voice.... We need these stories of hope.- Elisa Paloschi, director, Driving With Selvi

The documentary opens with UNICEF stats, numbers that in themselves provide a tragic teaching moment. Like Selvi, "more than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday, 250 million before age 15." One third of these child brides live in India, but the larger issues — gender violence, human trafficking — are everywhere.

But Driving With Selvi, as a film, isn't about investigating the issues. Instead, it's a personal story — a gentle portrait of Selvi's life over the last 10 years, one that breathes along with her in its pacing, as the doc's Toronto-based director Elisa Paloschi — who's also the cinematographer — beautifully captures the vibrancy, and the poverty, of her subject's surroundings. Selvi thrives in her job, she falls in love, she raises a daughter — and she shares what lessons she's learned, leading talks with groups in her community.

By this coming spring, Selvi and Paloschi plan to launch a 10-day bus tour of India, ultimately screening their film to a million people, and leading conversations about gender violence and education with audiences in remote communities. It's all part of a larger social campaign, one they hope supports women and girls affected by violence, and those seeking impactful job opportunities.

Selvi Kunjigowda. (Eyesfull Productions)

In 2004, when the two first met, none of this was the plan. 

"I didn't go to India to make a film," Paloschi explains, "but I was there doing volunteer work," and her travels led her to  Odanadi, a shelter and NGO that fights sexual violence against women and children. "The women there were really quite inspiring, but Selvi stood out in particular," Paloschi remembers. "She was doing something that was so rare," she says, talking about Selvi's cab-driving ambitions. "It was especially rare coming from a place of so much violence… yet she had such a positive outlook, still. It was that, really, that drew me to her. I felt I had so much to learn from her."

"I actually set out to make a different film than what it turned into," says Paloschi. Earlier cuts spent more time discussing the larger issues of violence and inequality in Selvi's community. Other survivors of abuse shared their stories.

"I realized what's important is Selvi's own voice," Paloschi explains, "and the situation in India comes through, but it's not thrown in your face."

"We need these stories of hope," she continues. "I think because Selvi's story is so positive, it really does enable the viewer to be able to rethink their own future and to realize there is an opportunity that they can be agents of their own change."

That's the sort of reaction she's hoping to create when the film's social-impact campaign fully launches. Currently seeking support on Indiegogo, Paloschi says the objective is to screen the film "as far and wide as possible in the areas where women are most at risk, and girls."

That previously mentioned 10-day bus tour of India, for example — which Paloschi plans to synch up with non-theatrical screenings in North America that will raise money to show the film, for free, to Indian audiences. (Interested groups can apply to host screenings through the film's website.)

"We'll go village to village and people will set up conversations around the screening. And really the idea is more of a listening tour. We wanted to hear from communities on how they think they can use this film and what they actually need from it. The other goal is to really open up dialogue about non-traditional livelihoods for women," she says — professions like taxi driving, for example. "They're still quite rare."

 "[Selvi] and I are very close friends now, and I'll always be part of her life, even long after the film is forgotten." Selvi will attend the film's Reel Asian premiere, and the duo will give a free talk as part of the festival, November 6 at Toronto's AGO Jackman Hall.

"This whole campaign, my interest in sharing the film… has been my own inspiration from Selvi."

Reel Asian International Film Festival presents Driving with Selvi. Directed by Elisa Paloschi. (PG) 74 min. Isabel Bader Theatre, Toronto. Reel Asian Opening Night Gala, November 5.


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