Any discussion of physical intimacy has always been a matter of taboo, enough to rile up one or the other, who tend to view sex in general as exclusively scandalous. And indeed, sex hoards a surprising potential to become scandalous, whether in real life or in reel, when it violates the norms of consent and comfort, even when that perspective of it might be something that others might be caught unawares of. Just like the mere mention of sex is open to varied interpretations, so too is the ‘exercise’ of it, even in restraint, particularly when it is not natural but something ‘demanded’ by situations, although not always in a manner that can be lashed out as outlandishly scandalous.
But because sex is so natural a basic instinct for not just humans but all living beings, no one can really do away with considerations of it, even when it is something acted out through the realms of the screen. Today specifically, physical intimacy including sex has come to be a common part of the narrative of dramas and films, but that does not in any way lessen the stigma attached to it. Or even if it does from the audience’s point of view, it is not particularly easy for actors to act out their parts in steamy scenes, even when the finesse with which they commit themselves to their craft means that what you see on screen spans out as something very effortless, natural, shared and seemingly mutual.
Very often though, this natural working out of the script erupts to be events of considerable controversy, owing to misunderstandings and misinterpretation as well as misaction which is why it pays to have a professional on board who can adeptly deal with situations like these before they play out murkily in between those involved. Specifically in the aftermath of the Me Too movement, this need for producers and directors and actors themselves to be more responsible and aware of their own actions has opened up a certain job profile in the industry of cinema and the visual arts where intimacy is very often employed as a tool of taking the narrative forward, or at times also to merely garner high viewership. Intimacy coordinators therefore are today emerging as a breed of professionals who hold in their power not just the eventual end of preventing controversies and scandals but also employ their knowledge of the intricacies of it to bring to screen a creation of art that can be an enriching experience for audiences and actors alike. Beginning to covet attention in the American entertainment industry after the 2017 Harvey Weinstein scandal and slowly gaining traction in related fields globally, intimacy coordinators today are indispensable presences on most international film and drama sets even as the role of this particular group of professionals is explored also in local industries and the like, albeit still in a nascent stage of its emergence.
It all began in 2018 with HBO hiring their first ever intimacy coordinator Alicia Rodis upon actress Emily Meade’s request for the series The Deuce, that centered around the sex and porn industry in 1970s New York. With this, HBO also became the first network that necessitated the presence of an intimacy coordinator on set of each of their programmes, with other biggies of the field like Amazon and Netflix following suit. With a set of guidelines to work upon, intimacy coordinators are today increasingly seeing more and more prominence with iconic names like Rodis, Ita O’Brien, Claire Warden, Tonia Sina and Amanda Blumenthal now being industry mainstays.
Commendable it is indeed then that in the midst of this wave for sex scenes to span not just the scope of the script but also the dignity of those involved, the traditionally touchy- feely ambits of Bollywood too have begun its journey of inclusivity, courtesy India’s first ever certified intimacy coordinator, Aastha Khanna. A 26 year old graduate from the University of York in England with a Bachelor of Science Honours in Film and Television Production, Khanna has earned her certification after pursuing a 16-week course in intimacy coordination from the Amanda Blumenthal founded Intimacy Professionals Association that is based in Los Angeles, USA. Despite being only an emerging field in the medium of entertainment, though growing also to becoming critical to it, the reason why Khanna chose to embark on a path virtually uncharted, specially in the Indian context, is because she recognised the importance of having someone on sets who can dispel the awkwardness that any mention of sex and nudity brings upon on even the most seasoned of actors and particularly on newbies for whom getting their way gets all the more difficult to negotiate. Khanna believes that much like action directors and choreographers, intimacy coordinators too deserve their own standing within the industry that plays a lot along the lines of physicality.
Despite something that sounds very easy to work on, given that intimacy coordinators would be involved only in such scenes that demand intimacy, the job is, in now way, cut out for Khanna, and others like her. Beginning with a thorough reading of the script to understand the role of the intimate scenes in it and getting from the director their vision which then needs to be relayed to the actors, while at the same time taking into consideration the extents to which the performers are comfortable acting it out, Aastha Khanna is totally involved in every project upon where she works. Not just discussions and articulation however, Khanna also has on her the accord of bringing along “barriers and modesty garments” like crotch guards, shibues, nipple pasties, silicone pads, adhesive body tapes and a donut pillow which can be inserted between the performers to ensure their genitalia do not touch during simulated sex. And Khanna has delivered on every occasion that which are just a handful as of now, one being a Netflix project Cobalt Blue where Khanna’s presence was enough saving grace for actor Anjali Sivaraman and another project with director Shakun Batra, where she is also working as an assistant to him, even as other Netflix titles like Penthouse, The Actress and Elite India are also in the pipeline for India’s only intimacy coordinator as of now.
But Khanna has not had in easy within Bollywood. Starting off her career as an AD in acclaimed films like Badlapur, Andhadhun and Raat Akeli Hai, while being also on board for Oscar winning producer Mandakini Kakar’s next project “entirely based on intimacy”, Aastha Khanna might not have have had her share of outright rejections but as a professional of a trade only newly evolving, her presence sure has been undermined in certain cases. Like the one time when a director was convinced that they did not need her but still had to keep her on board owing to obligations, resulting in her being just confined to the van the entire time even when she was very much present there on set. Be it in its beginnings as an expanse not conceived of in traditional terms or the add on costs incurred by an industry known already for its burgeoning budget and extravagant expenses, the job of an intimacy coordinator is never easy, not in spirit neither in essence. The evolution though in the Indian context of anything related to intimacy would also be one that would help if sex on screen is more tasteful than it is provocative, as Khanna believes, for it makes the task easier for them in bringing to presentation more effectively an act that which is but a primal human need, mirroring therefore society and its continuation through what it seeks to deliver.
From straddling the borderlines of what defines the personal and the professional for actors and persuading them to understand the demands of the script while at the same time taking care to ensure that their consent is not rendered unimportant, or to scrounge for other options in such cases where the mediation does not amount to anything, such as opting for a body double or by individually taking deceptive shots of the performers, charting out the path of intimacy is no any less difficult than understanding the understated intricacies of it. And to everyone like Aastha Khanna and others of her clan, helping to make intimacy seem as intimate as it should be, the whole of the entertainment industry is going to owe a lot in the coming times.