Published: 23rd July 2019
Why Priya Thuvassery's Coral Woman documentary is about an unconventional story that needs to be told
Priya Thuvassery's Coral Woman is a depiction of Uma Mani's fascinating journey in gaining more knowledge about coral reefs. We find out more
How often does a woman, who paints corals, learn to scuba dive at the age of 54 years just because she wanted to experience the wonders of nature first-hand and then, use her newly gained knowledge to spread awareness about the threats to our marine ecosystems? This is Uma Mani, a homemaker from Chennai, whose unconventional story was decided to be told by 32-year-old filmmaker Priya Thuvassery in her documentary titled Coral Woman. The filmmaker, who previously worked with NDTV, has made four independent documentaries so far.
Priya's latest film, Coral Woman, premiered at the Chennai International Documentary and Short Film Festival in February. It is a 52-minute-long film that speaks about Uma, who in her early 50s decided to learn scuba diving just to learn more about coral reefs. The film follows the journey of Uma on her diving expeditions, for which they travelled from Thoothukudi to Rameswaram. Apart from Uma's interesting story, the film also addresses the growing threat to coral reefs from bleaching, pollution and global warming. "We travelled from Thoothukudi to Rameswaram, for it has a connection to the story portrayed in the documentary. India has four coral reef areas — Andaman, Lakshadweep, Kutch and Gulf of Mannar. A lot of people don't know about the latter two, but they were famous during the 14-15th century when the Portuguese and the Dutch arrived there in search of pearls. Coral reefs were thriving in the area at that time but now, because of global warming, a lot has changed," says Priya, who was inspired by Uma's journey and decided to create a documentary.
A poster of the documentary Coral Woman
Priya, who is originally from Kerala but currently resides in Delhi, feels that Uma's character is simplistic in the sense that she is someone the audience can relate to easily and therefore, her story has the potential to resonate with everyone. "The film's treatment is like Uma telling me that you should see the world that I have seen and by the end of the journey, both of us exploring the underwater together — it ends with the dreamy sequence of us diving together. This documentary aims at creating environmental awareness. We don't have to wait for the government or policymakers to do something about climate change but change can happen if we decide to make it within ourselves. We are all equally responsible for what's happening to our surroundings," she explains.
So where did Priya get the idea for the documentary from? In 2016, Uma had called Priya's NDTV office asking if the network would like to make a film on the threat to coral reefs. Priya was fascinated by the woman and that conversation stayed with her. She pursued it after she left her job at the channel in late 2017. "We became friends after the unexpected conversation, that continued for almost two years, and then I decided to make a film on her and coral reefs. I didn't know much about the underwater world before, but our friendship helped me gain knowledge as well," says Priya, who adds that Coral Woman was screened at the Jagran Film Festival in Delhi two weeks ago and also in Mexico during the same time.
From an artist to a diver: Uma in her early 50s decided to learn scuba diving just to learn more about coral reefs
The 32-year-old's previous film was titled Survey Number Zero, which was shot in Kutch and was about the struggle of women salt farmers. "I mainly work on gender-related themes and I always make sure 80 per cent of my team members are female," she says. Priya also feels that documentaries should be given more importance in India and not made on low budgets. For her, a country without documentaries is like a family without photo albums just like filmmaker Patricio Guzman once said — there is no memory or no documentation as such.