Meet Bollywood’s newest specialists: Intimacy directors!

A new breed of filmmaking professionals is ensuring lovemaking in cinema gets more believable and comfortable for all
Jim Sarbh and Zoya Hussain played a couple in a strained relationship for Prateek Kuhad’s ‘cold/mess’ video
Jim Sarbh and Zoya Hussain played a couple in a strained relationship for Prateek Kuhad’s ‘cold/mess’ video
Updated on Nov 27, 2021 07:49 PM IST
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ByDinesh Raheja

The winds of change are blowing over the entertainment world at gale force. Sex is not a taboo topic anymore. No longer does the camera segue to two roses rubbing against each other to suggest intimacy. Emboldened actors and content creators, especially on OTT platforms, have enthusiastically adopted a more modern attitude towards on-screen sensuality.

Traditionally, all matters sexual are freighted with societal conditioning and personal reservations, and this remains a truism even though the cinematic envelope has been pushed. It’s easy to reference bold international content available today at the flick of a remote, but difficult for creators to fashion sexually-charged scenes tastefully, and with full cognisance of consent, boundaries and the comfort of all involved.

Actor Eijaz Khan had to perform protracted kissing scenes in Nagesh Kukunoor’s web series, City Of Dreams. Though he loved playing his character, he admits, “I had issues about doing intimate scenes on set. Nagesh Kukunoor got angry with me, because after kissing the girl, I would go off camera each time.”

The environment is ripe today for the emergence of a new breed of film professionals: intimacy directors and coordinators. Most actors, like Eijaz, would be better off if they had an intimacy coach to guide them through sensual sequences. And that is precisely why leading film production houses and OTT platforms are now scrambling to avail themselves of the services of these professionals.

An intimacy director will use different methods to coach each actor
An intimacy director will use different methods to coach each actor

Intimacy coordinator Neha Vyas, 35, explains the nature of her work: “I coach actors before an intimate scene to help shed their inhibitions, and to choreograph their movements more aesthetically. It’s about informing the performers’ bodies how to interact with each other: How would their bodies respond to another? And, I also coordinate between the director and actor. Web series allow for less censorship, and this makes actors more vulnerable to traumatic experiences. We need intimacy coordinators in India because I feel it’s a good way to establish consent culture in the entertainment industry.”

Director Shakun Batra, noted for helming Kapoor & Sons, actively subscribes to the need for an intimacy coordinator on set. Shakun says, “The presence of an intimacy director just makes the whole shoot atmosphere more comfortable and protective for the performer. As filmmakers and storytellers, as we step into this new territory, it’s important that we define the rules and boundaries for all.”

Aastha Khanna, 27, asserts that her prime motivation for becoming an intimacy coordinator and designer was her strong belief in on-set safety for performers. She states, “Actors performing scenes of intimacy are very vulnerable and sensitive. So it’s very important to have somebody navigating conversations around intimacy with utmost clarity, and at all times upholding the consent of the actors. Besides coaching actors and choreographing movements, I also work on the set with the DOP and the director on how to design a scene.”

A new phenomenon

A relatively new phenomenon even in the West, the rise of intimacy directors has seen a slew of projects employing these novel crew members. Aastha has worked with Shakun Batra, and on projects for various popular OTT platforms. She adds, “I have also done two feature films and I’m doing intimacy coordination on Four More Shots, Please!” Neha reveals that she has done a project for Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions, and has worked on a film directed by Ria Singh. She says, “I also co-produced a short film called Bodies of Desire and intimacy-directed a play for Chakravyuh Performing Arts—a first for theatre.”

Intimacy coordinator Neha Vyas says coaching actors before an intimate scene helps choreograph movements more aesthetically
Intimacy coordinator Neha Vyas says coaching actors before an intimate scene helps choreograph movements more aesthetically

Just how does one become an intimacy director? Neha reveals that she was a trained actor working a corporate job, until one fine day, she quit. She elaborates, “I produced and played the lead in a piece which explored how women get stuck in a circle of sexual violence. When the sexual scenes were to be performed, I had several doubts and felt a sense of discomfort. Did I have the right to say no? That’s when I took a step back, and thought there had to be a better way. I started researching sex protocol. I am currently training with IDC (Intimacy Directors & Coordinators). I started intimacy coordinating around three years ago when someone who had seen Bodies of Desire told Dharma, and they got me on board to do the intimacy coaching.”

Aastha emphasises that it is important to have contemporary views on sexual matters. She says, “My parents always speak about my work with pride. They see it not as working in a space that is causing them shame. but as working in a space which involves people’s safety. It’s about being sex positive. It’s about working towards creating a conversation that allows to destigmatise a human experience.”

Destigmatising sex

From an early age, Aastha was empowered by her parents to have a voice. “When I was six, my parents spoke to me about good touch and bad touch, and consent. When I hit puberty, it was a very normal thing for me to say when I was on my period. The foundation of intimacy work starts from being somebody who destigmatises sex. How can you advocate for an actor’s consent if you are constantly shaming it? Being completely non-judgemental is one of the most non-negotiable requirements for being an intimacy coordinator.”

Asked to elaborate on the modus operandi when coaching actors, Neha says, “I start by understanding whether I can use the natural response of the performer’s body, or use physical change to inform the dynamic. I use a certain movement practice during rehearsals where I put four-feet-long bamboo sticks between two performers, and they are eye-connected through the simple movements of push, pull, yield and resist. I feel every scene involves that. Or, I ask the actors to interact with each other as the animal closest to their character. For every actor there is a different method. I ask performers to address personal boundaries, societal conditioning and moral codes.”

Shakun Batra, director of Kapoor & Son, says the presence of an intimacy director makes the shoot more comfortable and protective for the performer, too
Shakun Batra, director of Kapoor & Son, says the presence of an intimacy director makes the shoot more comfortable and protective for the performer, too

While there are some actors who experience trepidation during sensual scenes, many from Gen-Next have a matter-of-fact attitude. Actor Abhay Verma, 23, whose character seduced a girl in Family Man, shrugs, “I felt the kissing scene was necessary because my character had to trap an innocent girl. I have watched a lot of content where sensual scenes have been added just to grab attention. As long as the scene demands it, I’m in. I don’t think performing such scenes will be difficult for me.”

Setting boundaries

So what happens if an actor gets a tad too comfortable? Neha says, “I let them know: It’s like Pavlov’s dog—your body is so conditioned to react to a stimuli that a particular touch can arouse you without one realising it. I tell them: don’t judge yourself, or your co-actor. But I do put barriers between actors.”

Actors may have boundaries which clash with what a director expects from a scene. In such cases, Aastha says, “I can tell the director, ‘This is not okay,’ but there is a difference between upholding an actor’s consent and overstepping a creative boundary.”

Aastha Khanna, intimacy coordinator of the show, Four More Shots Please!, says it’s important to have somebody navigating conversations with clarity, and at all times upholding the consent of the actors
Aastha Khanna, intimacy coordinator of the show, Four More Shots Please!, says it’s important to have somebody navigating conversations with clarity, and at all times upholding the consent of the actors

The entertainment world’s attitude towards sensuality has undergone some seismic changes of late, and the future promises to be even bolder. Neha prophesises, “Scenes of intimacy are going to increase because it’s a part of life. The hush-hush around sex was a component that supported and even perpetrated rape culture. Sex education has to be fed in the right manner, as a normal part of life.”

Both Neha and Aastha are confident that they can help bring about the transition towards a more sex positive cinematic experience. Aastha concludes, “The idea is to bring intimacy into the narrative as a part of the human experience.”

Dinesh Raheja is a reputed film historian, columnist and TV scriptwriter who has been writing on cinema for over three decades

From HT Brunch, November 28, 2021

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