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There is an emergency for this conversation to happen: Priya Thuvassery on Coral Woman

Priya Thuvassery's film traces the unusual journey of Uma Mani, a diver and painter, who works to create awareness about the precarious situation of coral reefs off the country's coast.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

When Uma Mani, a certified scuba diver, made a call to NDTV in 2016 to try and get the channel to make a film on the condition of corals off India, she could not have imagined that it would result in a moving documentary about her own fascinating journey as a coral woman, working to create awareness about the alarming environmental crisis through her art.

The person who received her call was award-winning filmmaker Priya Thuvassery, who was captivated by her story and decided to take a leap of faith and make the film on Uma, despite never having done an underwater shoot before. Recalling that moment, Thuvassery says, “Her story really fascinated me... it took me two years, and I also read about corals and slowly my interest was built. Then when I left NDTV, I called her and said that I’ll make the film.”

However, she did not know about the many challenges that lay ahead of her. Naturally, the shoot demanded several days at sea, and rain played spoilsport along with the seasickness of some crew members, but the biggest challenge was shooting underwater.

As she says, “Uma is not an expert diver and she didn’t understand camera angles and you cannot communicate underwater, so after the first day I had to change my approach and did shot division, did sign language for six shots, and we actually did theatre and rehearsed on land what we would shoot underwater and that’s how we shot underwater.”

It is not just the stories of her women protagonists that fascinate her; the filmmaker also tries to work with an all-woman crew as far as possible, saying, “I think that given the kind of films that I do, the comfort level is one factor and I’m sorry to say this and men might disagree, but I find women to be more professional. My experience is fantastic when it comes to woman crew members. Also, given the topics that I pick, the sensitivity that they bring to the film as women really adds to the storytelling.” 

Coral Woman also encouraged Thuvassery to shed some of her own inhibitions and take a dive into the ocean for the first time, a moment that is beautifully captured in the film. “I thought that the film is all about that — me taking a deep dive into this world. I accepted the ocean and have done many underwater films after Coral Woman,” says the filmmaker. 

Talking about the threat to corals and their rampant destruction, Thuvassery says, “With Coral Woman I feel that there is an emergency for this conversation to happen because it’s impacting everyone. Every second breath that we take is because of the ocean and I didn’t know all this before I made the film. This has changed me as a person.” 

Coral Woman was screened at the Open Frame Film Festival 2019 at New Delhi's India International Centre.

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Open Frame Film Festival