Priya Thuvassery’s documentary Coral Woman was begging to be made. How often does an artist who paints corals learn to dive at the age of 49 to understand her subject better and then use her knowledge to raise awareness about the threats to marine ecosystems?
Coral Woman, produced by Public Service Broadcasting Trust, is both a profile of Uma Mani and her efforts to address the threat to coral reefs from bleaching, pollution and global warming. The filmmaker, who previously worked with the NDTV news channel, follows Uma Mani on diving expeditions and gets her to talk to marine biologists and environmental activists trying to preserve what is left before it is too late. Coral Woman was premiered at the ongoing Chennai International Documentary and Short Film Festival on Thursday.
The 52-minute documentary was suggested by its subject. In 2016, Thuvassery picked up a phone call at her NDTV office from Mani. The artist wanted to know if the network would make a film on the threat to coral reefs. The idea stayed with Thuvassery, and she pursued it after she left her job at the channel in late 2017. “I was fascinated by this woman who had learnt swimming just to see corals, but I could not imagine making a film underwater,” Thuvassery told Scroll.in. “I didn’t have the resources or the technology.”
Just like Uma Mani had taken the plunge into unknown waters, Thuvassery decided to pursue the production. “For me, it was a dive into a world that was completely new,” the 31-year-old filmmaker said. “Plus, I have always liked working with women.”
Thuvassery put out a call through Facebook for female divers and cinematographers, and once she had her crew in place, she decided to focus the documentary on Uma Mani as well as the issues that the artist is highlighting through her paintings. “I didn’t want the film to be only about her, but to also be a more layered story about the coral reefs,” Thuvassery said. The film has its share of underwater beauty, but it gained urgency after the protests in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu in May 2018 against environmental pollution caused by a Sterilite Copper plant. An estimated 13 protestors were killed in police firing, and this incident also found its way into the film.
“Whatever we are doing on the land is affecting things underwater,” Thuvassery said. “Making the film was moving for the both of us.” Thuvassery learnt to snorkel in order to descend into the waters with Mani, yielding an image of the two holding hands below the surface. “She was taking me into a world that I could not imagine,” the filmmaker said.