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India’s First Intimacy Coordinator From Mumbai Is Making ‘On-screen Chemistry’ Safer

Mumbai-based Aastha Khanna has worked as an assistant director in several prominent films but a recent shoot opened her eyes to the need for a certified intimacy professional.

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In 2018, India’s social climate experienced a transformation like no other. A clarion call for sexual violence survivors, the #MeToo movement allowed thousands of people to share their accounts of trauma that were once silenced or shared only with a few in confidence.

What was once simmering behind closed doors had now erupted into a worldwide movement that came into prominence in India after a Bollywood actress leveled allegations against a co-star. A single woman’s story became a phenomenon threatening to bring down powerful individuals across the country.

But what after that?

Mumbai-based Aastha Khanna points out the fault in the system that never let the movement meet its true potential.

“In India, the #MeToo movement was as big as any other place. It rocked the entire nation, and yet three years later, we are not very different from what we used to be. With time, the conversations around it died down and the media moved on to the next big thing. Unlike the West, which worked toward finding a solution, at least in the film space, we did not do much. The job of an Intimacy Coordinator (IC), for instance, came into existence in the wake of this movement as people there realised that performers were being put in vulnerable positions. But in India, things did not play out the way it should have,” says Aastha who has been working as an IC in films and web series for the past nine months. Before her, India did not have any certified IC working towards making the visual medium safe for performers.

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Speaking to The Better India she highlights different facets of her job role and the urgent need for us as a society to undergo a transformation.

‘It’s Not Just About The Sex’

During early 2020, Aastha was working as an assistant director (AD) in filmmaker Shakun Batra’s upcoming movie, when on the director’s insistence she happened to discover the role of an IC. After searching relentlessly to hire an IC in India, she realised that the role was nonexistent in the country and thus began her journey to fill a gaping void in the film and television industry.

“We were about to shoot a few scenes of intimacy and so the director asked me to do the requisite research. I tried looking for people to hire who could be experts in this but found none in this field. Then, the director sent me an article on Amanda Blumenthal who had worked on the drama Euphoria. That is when I reached out to her and began to get her help to design exercises and intimacy workshops. Under her guidance, we ended up making a team of three people — me as an IC, an intimacy coach and a director of intimacy, for the film,” she shares.

Her association with Amanda for this project opened up a new world for Aastha, who realised that by training to be an IC she could marry her profession with her passion to work for issues pertaining to gender-based violence, safety, etc. “After COVID-19 began, Amanda informed me about a course she was starting under Intimacy Professionals Association (IPA) that I could apply for. I applied, got in and spent around 20 weeks during the pandemic training to be an IC,” she adds.

“To understand what an intimacy coordinator does, we first need to dive into the definition of intimacy. Thinking of it as just a sexual act is very reductive, because a larger spectrum of intimacy also involves minors and small children. In case of minors, the scenes can range from exploration of their sexuality, first kisses to simple and basic familial relations shared on screen. People don’t realise that scenes with childbirth, non-sexual on-screen hugs and kisses with kids or minors are also considered intimate. In these scenes, the child artists and minors are performing not with their parents but actors playing the role of their parents or guardians, hence the job to ensure their safety, consent and comfort becomes of the utmost importance,” explains Aastha.

Aastha who has previously worked as an assistant director in prominent films, like Student of The Year 2 (2019), Andhadhun (2018) and Badlapur (2015), has now been involved in more than seven projects as an IC. These include upcoming web series and films with Netflix, Amazon Prime and Dharma Productions.

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She adds that a change in behaviour is required to reflect beyond the screen. “As a culture, Indians are very physical in their interactions. From pulling the cheek of a stranger’s kid without consent to assuming that one needs to be 18 years of age to have agency of their physical being, the smallest of actions play into creating the larger fabric of social relations and we need to acknowledge it. Normalising and trivialising abuse is not the solution,” she says.

An intimacy coordinator also performs the task of a mental health first-aider on set, especially during scenes when minors are exposed to situations of sexual violence and trauma.

To explain this to most people on set, she follows a simple logic — “If you don’t want your child to experience the trauma played on-screen, make sure there is an IC on set when you are shooting such a scene with somebody else’s child.”

‘Are You The Sex Police?’

Being the first IC in a country that continues to grapple with issues around intimacy, sexual or otherwise, is mired with challenges. Hence, the path for Aastha as the first certified IC in India was extremely exciting but also full of roadblocks.

“With the glory of being the first at anything comes its own set of challenges. For me, it was to prove my legitimacy and worth every single day. When you are going against the wave, people will question you at every step. I have been asked whether I am required on set, whether I bring anything special to the table, the budget implications or if I am even qualified enough and all sorts of things. People have even asked if I’m a very sexually active person, what my parents think about my job or on the other end, if I am a prude or a sex police. The questions range from funny, ignorant to borderline offensive, but that’s fine as long as the work helps people,” says Aastha.

She adds that the idea that an IC might be a ‘sex police’ is a misnomer because it is their job to make the production safe while ensuring that the intimate scenes are steamy, realistic and organic, all while each performer feels comfortable and secure. “An IC helps ensure clear conversations between a creative team and the performers, by empowering the latter to know and ask for what they need from a safety and mental comfort perspective. The most important part of my job is to uphold performer consent at all times,” she adds.

While Aastha might be the first certified IC in the country, she adds that there might have been many before her performing facets of the role in isolation. But she is quick to add that a professional approach covers much more ground ensuring that both the performers and the creators are satisfied throughout the production process. A lone ranger for now, she with IPA’s support is striving to create a community of intimacy professionals in India, encouraging a new generation of progressive content creators.

Edited by Yoshita Rao

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