Taking sex seriously: Aastha Khanna, India’s first intimacy coordinator

Aastha Khanna, the country’s first certified intimacy coordinator on creating a safe space for actors on set and why she’s put together a collective for India

In 1985, Saagar was in the news for many reasons. It was director Ramesh Sippy’s first romance after Shakti (1982), Shaan (1980) and Sholay (1975). It was also Dimple Kapadia’s comeback film, opposite her Bobby co-star, Rishi Kapoor. It also happened to be the movie with an allegedly inadvertent topless scene.

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The story goes something like this. Rishi Kapoor’s character, Ravi, sees Mona (Kapadia) for the first time as she comes out of the sea. Not quite covered in foam, Mona wraps a towel around herself, which slips for a second. ‘The towel slipping was an accident’, ‘We didn’t realise the cameras were rolling’ — these were the reasons trotted out at the time, still not explaining how the frame made it beyond the cutting floor. Fast forward to 35 years later, post #metoo and with intimacy coordinators now on film sets, how would this have played out?

Know your rights

“I probably would have done the exact same thing visually, but in a way that Dimple ma’am would have felt safe,” says Aastha Khanna, India’s first certified intimacy coordinator, who ventured into the space last lockdown. “An important part of intimacy is for performers to know their rights. If there was an accident on set which was shot, it should be deleted. However, if the director and actor feel the shot works aesthetically, they can take a decision to keep the scene,” she explains.

A still from ‘I May Destroy You’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Earlier this week, when actor Michaela Coel (I May Destroy You) dedicated her BAFTA to intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien, it highlighted this new breed of on-set professionals. The second season of American drama The Deuce was the first show to have an intimacy coordinator, Alicia Rodis. There also is Elizabeth Talbot for Bridgerton and Amanda Blumenthal (Euphoria).

The deep dive

Khanna, 26, says she learnt about intimacy coordinators when she was researching a workshop on intimacy for a film that she was an AD on (yet to be announced). When she could not find an intimacy coordinator in India she wrote to the Intimacy Professionals Association (IPA), a global agency founded by Blumenthal. “When they said they had never trained anyone from the South Asian community, I thought I could give it a shot,” says Khanna who applied for the intensive 20-week training programme that cost around ₹4 lakh. “We were taught to look at intimacy coordination through different lenses as well as basics like how to navigate a film set, how to read a contract, the different protocols and processes,” says the artiste, explaining that she also learnt about scenes that can be categorised as intimate, how to break them down, etc.

The course called for a deep dive into gender, sexuality and diversity, says Khanna. “There is training in inclusion, sexual harassment and conflict resolution. We were taught mental first aid for minors and adults, medical first aid, advocacy and how to have non-violent communication.” While she cannot talk about the shows she has worked on (still in production), Khanna reveals, “I have worked with a few studios, with Netflix on a couple of shows and Dharmatic on a feature and a show. I am looking forward to working with Amazon Prime.”

A still from ‘Bridgerton’  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Choreographing moves

Internationally, parallels are drawn between an intimacy coordinator and an action director. “They do that because the pay is the same and so is the concept. An action director ensures the physical safety of the artist, while an intimacy coordinator looks out for the physical and mental safety.” The money, however, is not great. “We are working on it. I have founded a collective of intimacy professionals in India. We are launching a website that is going to have guidelines and workshops,” says Khanna, who likes to compare her role to that of a choreographer. “The choreographer executes the director’s vision, doing a beat-by-beat breakdown of steps, expressions and emotions. A choreographer also liaises with different departments to ensure the right costume and make-up is used.”

In a dance rehearsal, she says, the performer is not in costume, and similarly, no one is taking their clothes off in an intimacy rehearsal. “It is a dry run to figure out positions. Just as a choreographer understands the strengths of the performer, an intimacy coordinator should know what the actors are comfortable with and design the scene around that,” says Khanna.

Prop game

  • The tools of her trade feature barriers, like an L Guard, the cup used by cricketers to protect the crotch. “Since it is a hard-case silicone, any form of arousal non-concordance that happens on sets, can be prevented. It can be a Pilates ball like this,” Khanna says, brandishing a nine-inch ball. “I inflate it a little bit and place it between the performers but it also gives enough flexibility to create a thrusting movement. There are other kinds of barriers like a silicone posterior, modesty garments and pasties for breasts. Pasties are available for different skin tones including green for post-production, if the actress is okay with side nudity but not full frontal.”
  • Khanna tells me that no company in India specifically does intimacy or modesty garments. “Some things you can get at high end lingerie stores but the sizes and skin tone don’t match. I take samples and get them made myself. Others like the L guard or pilates ball, I buy online.”

Unlike a dance choreographer, however, an intimacy coordinator usually does not design an intimate scene. “If they want to show heterosexual oral sex, it would be written from the perspective of where the lens and camera are going to be. That is when I come in and have a conversation with the director to create a storyboard,” says Khanna, adding, “I do not always choreograph the scene but I do need to know what the choreography will be so that I can liaise with the different departments to make sure that the safety gear and costumes are correct. Last minute changes on set become very difficult to handle.”

Life on set

Her day begins with figuring out the scene and location. “I check in on the performers, give them hygiene kits and do a run-through of the scene, establishing boundaries and comfort levels. I go through the costumes with the designer. I read the script once more to make sure I have all my bases covered.” When the scene is to be shot, after lighting and camera set-up, she calls for a closed set. “We run through one dry rehearsal of the space. The actors disrobe or get into a specific costume, a hair and make-up touch up is done and then shooting starts.”

A still from ‘The Deuce’  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

It is then that she gets the actors “into the zone” by telling them, ‘You are going to take care of and support each other, through this scene.’ “I insist the actors tell each other their safe words so they can call a timeout at any point of time.”

Returning to Saagar and the ‘80s, the time of rain dances in white saris, how does Khanna navigate the male gaze? “I give the director a clear idea of what the scene is going to look like. As long as they are aware that they are operating from the male gaze, it is okay, that is their vision. I don’t want directors to feel that an intimacy coordinator is policing them. I am an activist in my own time. On set I am a professional.”

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