"Culturally, intimacy is not discussed."
Aastha Khanna is Bollywood’s first intimacy coordinator and she wants to create a safe space for actors on set while choreographing sex scenes.
She is putting together a collective of intimacy professionals and is drawing up guidelines for Bollywood film producers.
Aastha is hired for scenes that involve nudity, simulated sexual intimacy and sexual violence.
She said: “It was absolutely bizarre to see that while there were stunt coordinators for action sequences and dance choreographers for Indian song-and-dance sequences, there were none for filming intimate scenes.
“Culturally, intimacy is not discussed.
“It is considered scandalous or provocative.
“Because it is taboo even behind the screen, it is extremely important for us to constantly have conversations about it.”
While intimacy coordinator is a new role, there has long been a need for guidelines on filming intimate scenes in India’s entertainment industry.
On her role, Aastha told DW:
“My role entails talking about consent and boundaries with the actors first, understanding the scene and choreographing it according to the director’s vision.
“I also make sure new changes are not made post-production.”
Aastha trained at the Intimacy Professionals Association in Los Angeles.
During her training, Aastha learned different techniques using props like pillows, crotch guards, nipples pasties, tapes and modesty garments to create barriers while filming the simulated sex scenes.
She also learned about international intimacy protocols, nudity clauses in contracts and power dynamics.
Aastha continued: “Traumas and triggers are a huge aspect of what can get derailed during an intimate scene.
“It can flout somebody’s boundaries and add trauma to their lives.”
But hiring an intimacy coordinator adds to a film’s budget and remains largely unheard of within Bollywood.
Amit Kaur, a director’s assistant, said that in India, “intimacy coordination is largely a foreign concept and actors are mostly left to figure it out for themselves and are expected to be comfortable on their own”.
In 2018, HBO made it mandatory to have intimacy coordinators on every set that films sex scenes.
Following several incidents in India, intimacy coordination has been discussed more.
Journalist Rohit Khilnani said: “There have been many infamous incidents, where an actor kept kissing or inappropriately touching the actress long after the director shouted ‘cut’.
“This constitutes workplace harassment, and an intimacy coordinator is paramount for safety.”
With more content appearing on OTT platforms, Rohit Khilani says having an intimacy coordinator should be the norm on-set.
Aastha Khanna revealed: “I was deeply affected by the MeToo movement.
“I faced it myself as part of the crew and it was too commonplace.
“I decided to combine my passion for safety with my love for films.”
She went on to say that many newcomers are vulnerable to exploitation and that conversations about consent should take place away from the set.
Aastha continued: “MeToo in India has fizzled out.
“The people who were named are back to working with movies and directors.
“While the talk of intimacy coordinators is a welcome step, how do you ensure safety at all times?
“Some of these stories have come from the time actors first went for casting calls.”
Despite making inroads, Second Unit Director Sakshi Bhatia believes there is a long way to go.
“Intimacy coordinators are here to choreograph and make simulated sex look good on screen.
“If they are drawing salaries from the production houses, they might not have a lot of say on how a director wants to film intimacy.
“These scenes are a big draw for the audience and guidelines can be easily violated.”