Aastha Khanna, Intimacy coach talks about what her work is like in India, Gehraiyaan, the Fame Game, and more!

#MeToo was the biggest movement in the industry that brought to light so many issues faced by women in the industry. While a lot came out and needed to be taken into consideration, there was something that ended in bringing a new much-needed role altogether. There have been many times where actresses have come out and said that the most difficult thing for them is to do intimate scenes. From Hollywood’s Sharon Stone and Salma Hayek to Bollywood’s Madhuri Dixit and Nargis Fakhri everyone opened up about this and while intimate directors already existed, it was time for intimate coaches and coordinators to come in and help out actors in achieving their goals in the safest way possible. The west is already busy employing these coaches and now in India as well we have coaches for precisely this. Out of the first few intimate coaches/coordinators in India is Aastha Khanna who worked in Gehraiyaan and The Fame Game and talked to us about it all in this interview.

While most of the limelight is taken up by actors, we’re making an effort to bring to light the people behind the scenes that equally contribute towards the making of a story. Aastha has worked as an assistant director in a number of films before but something drove her towards this and during her research, she chanced upon being an Intimacy coach/coordinator. Hence she went towards training for one with a course under IPA (Intimacy Professionals Association) and became a certified intimacy coach/coordinator in India. While Intimacy coaching/coordination is much needed, it’s still a very new concept in the filmmaking business and Aastha is deep-diving into the details of it all!

What’s an intimate coach/coordinator?

Someone who upholds the actor’s consent while also making sure that the director’s vision for a scene of intimacy is realized. So an intimacy coordinator is somebody to explain it in its easiest way, it’s basically how we have action directors for film shoots for scenes of action, intimacy coordinators are the head of the department that handle scenes of intimacy.

How did you come to become one?

I’m gonna tell you why I became one as opposed to how I became one. So when I came to know that in the west after the #MeToo movement Intimacy Co-ordination became their solution, for making sets a safer space for performers to perform in that really resonated with me because we had a very big wave of the #MeToo movement in India as well and everyone spoke about it and whether it was within just the industry, whether it was in several different industries, it was the talk of every dinner table and we got out of it without finding a solution, somehow. In 2017- 18, intimacy coordination became a thing in the US. I found out because of a show called Euphoria. There’s an intimate coordinator on that show called Amanda Blumenthal. I reached out to her and mentioned that we don’t have anybody who works in intimacy in India. So how do you guys go about with this? And she told me that she has a training program if I’d like to apply and study to become one and that she’d be happy to help me. That’s where my journey kind of started.

My learning of gender identity, sexuality, sexual preferences really grew in terms of my knowledge around this while I was at university, and then when I came back here I realized that this was not a conversation that people wanted to explore and it was not a conversation that was being had at least at the level of policy-making or lawmaking or even you know or even being able to tell authentic stories of people from the community or even allowing people from the community to tell these stories. So in our industry even today if you look at it, stories are being told about transgenders, they’re being told about gay people but they’re being played by cishet people. We are not inclusive as an industry and when you’re not inclusive you end up in a situation where there is heteronormativity attached to everything that you say. If a cishet man is telling a story about a trans person, they’re not going to get it right, how much ever they try there is a lack of empathy because we don’t entirely understand the lives of these people, without having them to have a voice to be able to tell their own stories themselves.

So I feel with Intimacy work I’m able to kind off bring in the concept of having people come in and talk to their own stories for instance if we’re shooting anything that involves a gay couple, I will make sure that I run the entire story and the way that I design a scene of intimacy with a gay couple I’d run it by people who would then be able to relate to it, and it wouldn’t feel inauthentic in any way. And I feel like to be able to push the envelope ever so slightly for me in the little world that I am in making films. If I’m able to impact in a positive manner, whether it comes to safety or even authenticity, I feel like I’m contributing, I guess that was the reason I chose to become an intimacy coordinator.

Intimacy coordination is not a very old concept in the west, is it?

No, it started right around the #MeToo movement, actually. I read an article about an intimacy coordinator in the west after the #MeToo movement it became their solution for making sets a safer space for performers to perform in. The first-ever intimacy coordinator to be credited as one happened on an HBO show ‘The Deuce‘. In the second season, there was an actor, Emily Meade, she had come around and said that I need support, I’m not going to do it without an intimacy coordinator and that’s when Alisha Rodis was called in.

Considering that a lot of people don’t know about intimacy coordination in India, do you think it’s good that Gehariyaan has added credit for it?

Actually, Gehraiyaan is the first mainstream film to credit an intimacy coordinator. Mastram was actually the first-ever show to bring in an intimacy coordinator in India. They had someone come in from Canada to do intimacy coordination on the entire show, her name is Amanda Cutting. She’s a phenomenal intimacy coordinator as well. Mastram came out in 2019 and around the same time, there was another film called Season’s Greetings which had Celina Jaitely in it and while that film didn’t have a trained intimacy co-ordinator, it eventually gave credit to an intimacy co-ordinator because they had adapted a costume designer’s role into an intimacy co- ordinator’s to support Celina Jaitely throughout those scenes. So Gehraiyaan is definitely not the first. But it’s the first mainstream film to do that!

Talking about Gehraiyaan, since it’s your most recent project, can you dive into details about what your brief was, how did you work with the actors, and how intimacy coordination works on a set in a practical sense?

Gehraiyaan is probably the first film ever in India that had a full intimacy department. So we had an intimacy director called Dargai. She was basically directing all the songs because a large chunk of intimacy in the film is in its music videos and Dargai was brought on majorly to direct those because she’s able to create magic when it comes to music videos and she’s done so many amazing music videos before this film like Prateek Kuhad’s Cold Mess. We had Neha who came in as a coach to work with the actors in pre-production to explore intimacy with self and with one another and not just physical intimacy, also emotional intimacy, characters’ relationships with each other.

It was like an acting workshop, more or less, and really helped push the actors into a space where they were really comfortable with one another and that made it really easy for all conversations around intimacy to go down very smoothly. What we needed to do was just find references and we found them from certain kinds of shots that we wanted to take in terms of choreography. Then we put them all together in small video units so that we could explain what kind of choreography we were thinking for each of the scenes that we were doing and once we had an idea of the shot breakdown, we would run it past the actors who would come in and give their own two bits about what they felt was nice, what we could do differently.

Handling co-ordination majorly became my job role specifically because we had so many people in the department, I didn’t have to do everything myself, also I was certified only midway through the shoot for Gehraiyaan. I had started studying to become an intimacy co-ordinator in the first lockdown and so I was still giving exams while we were shooting in Goa, so I was able to apply information that I was getting during my classes and things I was learning about this work in real-time on set with these actors.

The entire transition of picking up information, contextualizing it here, applying it in real-time, for me, was the experience of Gehraiyaan for the most part. But my first ever experience as an official I.C on a film set was for this show called Fame Game, to experience the entire process of an intimacy co-ordinator job role it happened for the first time on this show.

Intimacy is not just limited to sexual scenes, it can go further into familial scenes of a parent-child relationship, so in that sense can intimacy coordination go beyond?

When you think of intimacy, you associate it with sex or nudity. But a scene of intimacy can be a lot of things, that’s why the umbrella of intimacy is much larger than what people assume it to be. A scene can be a hyper-sexualization of someone’s body, a relationship between a father and a daughter where there is any kind of physical interaction happening between them and that could be like the father is playing with a daughter in the park and he picks her up and he swirls her around right. When we think about that, we’re like that’s harmless, but actually, it’s not because this is a minor who does not have the right to say yes or no to another person picking her up and swirling her around and that adult who is working with her is not actually her father.

It’s important to note that in any situation where there is a power dynamic when it comes to consent, that scene becomes a scene of intimacy. So when I say that emotional intimacy is also an important aspect, I meant that consent is the pillar at which intimacy work stands. If you’re consenting to do something, first of all, you have the right to say no, which is a complete sentence and to know that is also extremely important.

So speaking about emotional intimacy in context to Gehraiyaan, these are people who knew each other for a very long period of time as characters, three of them have grown up together, two of them are in a relationship for the last six years, two of them have been in a relationship for the past three years, they’ve lived together but these actors haven’t. These actors don’t have that physical and emotional comfort with one another.

It also is important to take note that Deepika is a huge star and how much ever she makes everyone feel very comfortable and is extremely gracious around everyone I would say they were a little bit nervous around her. She’s 15 films old while all of the three other actors are 3 films old and it was important to bring them all in one space where they could be considered to be a part of the same family.

So we made them play games and we made them enjoy with each other, and get dinner together, we made them learn about ethereal space and boundaries and at the same time, we made them play with sticks. And I actually made all of them fill out a slam book for each other like I like blue color, my favorite pop star is Britney Spears that kind of stuff. It makes no difference when you think about it to the film but it made a huge difference in their relationship with one another which in turn impacted the film in a much larger way cause they knew each other so much better.

Considering that this is a job not understood by many what was the perception towards you and your job both in and outside the industry?

I’ve gotten mixed reactions from inside the industry, and rightly so because it’s something so new, it’s like suddenly you’re adding gear to a well-oiled machine, right? This, according to a lot of people as per the norm is like theek hi toh hai, chal hi toh raha hai, matlab ab ye naya kya hai? But at the same time, I’ve got like ridiculously passionate champions in the industry as well who are people who turned around and said, Oh My God, thank you for doing this because we desperately needed, this industry desperately needs this, So I’ve had that as well in the industry.

As far as outside the industry is concerned I’m in a little bit of a bubble because my family has always been extremely supportive of the work that I do and I’m not joking about this. I was always brought up to be someone who makes their own decisions and even when I chose to train, my parents were extremely supportive of the idea of me training because they understood the intent. For them, the intent was she wants to make a difference and there’s a financially viable way of doing this and that also makes a huge difference like if you’re gonna make it your career then you better make sure you make money off of it right? I don’t know if there’s a noise around me that doesn’t appreciate the work that I do because it never reaches me. Most of my friends honestly are not even from the industry so they don’t understand what I do, they never understood it when I was an A.D., a producer and they don’t understand it now. So I mean I guess the only thing they do understand now is few people are taking recognition of my work so they’re happy about that!

You said you’re in a bubble so it might be that enough people don’t know about this job but once they know they can end up being really harsh. Because even Gehraiyaan via Twitter received the tag of being porn, do you think that might be true?

Some pople are like arey kya tu..aap sex karvati hain set pe logon se but at the same time vo ghar jaayenge unse puchoge ki sex ka matlab kya hai vo bol nahi paayenge but hai unke chaar chaar bache and if you ask them anything about sex they’ll be like bhagwaan ki den hote hai bache. Like as if they’ve done nothing to conceive. So my thing is that one has to accept that we don’t come from a sex-positive culture? And if we do come from a culture that is not sex-positive, there’s only that much that we can do about it. The only thing that we can do is continue to tell the stories that we believe in, remove our superhero capes and just tell the stories that we believe in and push the envelope as much as we can and then leave it up to the audience to grow up.

When your work is about intimacy and like you said, we’re not exactly a sex-positive culture, there might be a lot of awkwardness on set, how do you deal with such moments or weird questions that might come across?

I’m the most shameless person on the planet. I don’t believe in shame, I don’t think it’s something that I can carry, it’s not something that makes me feel comfortable so very soon and very early before this job role came around, shame pretty much went out of my life. It’s been an active practice of mine to not let shame in. So do I get awkward? No. Do I come into situations where two people are feeling awkward with one another? Of course! That’s a part of the job role but for me, to make them feel comfortable.

I need to be sure that I’m not ashamed of what I’m asking and I’m not shaming any of the work that I’m doing so I take very active steps in situations that might get awkward. But things can get awkward during scenes of simulated sex, the reason they’re called simulated is that you’re not actually having sex. You’re meant to look like you’re having sex but at the same time your bodies are touching one another so when your bodies are touching one another there is a chance of arousal and that chance of arousal is something that can quickly cause shame to either or both parties right? So to circumvent that there’s something that I call barriers which I use quite often. And the reason we use those is so that there’s absolutely no arousal that occurs and if there is any arousal that occurs for any given reason, the other parties are not aware of it, so how do we do that? We create small contraptions of tools that we place between actors, to make sure that their genitalia is not touching one another at any given point of time. Say for instance somebody gets a hard-on, they’re usually wearing an athletic guard inside, and also there is a barrier between them and the actor, so if they feel like they want to remove themselves from that situation to address their erection, they can do that without letting the whole world know that they have an erection so that makes it much easier to circumvent that problem.

I try to create a set which is a safe space where people can speak to each other about whatever they want to, it’s a place where somebody can say okay I need two minutes, can you give me two minutes? If somebody is feeling uncomfortable then they can say hey you know this is not comfortable for me, can we do it like this? What’s most important for me is all of the performers have trust in the process because if they do then most awkward situations can be easily solved. When I’m expecting an actor to do a choreography a certain kind of way I would also demonstrate what the camera angle will look like, what are the body positions, what are the hands and legs doing, etc. To be able to do that on a film set, to be able to do that on multiple film sets, I have to be very confident of myself because if I look underconfident in myself while demonstrating I cannot expect my performers to be confident while performing so that for me is very important.

So what do you think should intimacy coordination should be limited to films like Gehraiyaan or series like The Fame Game or should it go beyond and be there in every film?

Every film that has a scene of intimacy should have an intimacy coordinator. We care so much about physical trauma for performers, I think it’s time we start caring about mental and emotional trauma as well. You need to have somebody on set who is ready to take responsibility to make sure that the performers feel safe and comfortable and I think that is what Gehraiyaan was trying to do.

Gehraiyaan did not have a lot of sex scenes, the reason Gehraiyaan used an intimacy co-ordinator was that they wanted to for the first time in a mainstream film, make sure that everyone felt super comfortable with what we were trying to achieve because we were trying to achieve it around a very very taboo topic and a lot of people would have an unconscious bias. You bring a lot of judgment to any situation you enter in life whether or not you like it because that’s a part of the human experience, you can’t expect every person on the crew, cast, from the actor team to be empathetic to a story, some of them will be judgemental and a lot of the crew that comes in are not entirely the most woke, educated and you know your idea of metropolitan Bombay, a lot of the crew are people that come from much more conservative backgrounds, so in a scenario like that how do you make the performers feel comfortable, doing things that are not entirely considered to be morally upstanding like infidelity.

Do you believe that when we hide and do not answer teenagers’ questions about sex, we end up pushing them towards far worse situations?

Yes because you know what it’s doing, it’s turning them to porn because that’s the only way they’re getting answers and they’re getting the world’s worst answers there because they’re getting completely skewed opinions of what sex and relationships should look like and what respecting your partner looks like and what having mutual pleasure looks like, I don’t think that porn is your best teacher when it comes to sex at all but what we do is we try to shy away from having conversations with our young adults and then we’ve lost control of the narrative and we’re dealing with larger repercussions of it on a much larger scale than we’d like to. This is why I feel discussing sex, sexuality, identity, and gender are a huge part of telling stories and we should not shy away from doing it even if the trolls want us to.

Talking to Aastha Khanna in detail introduced us to a truly new concept, its process, its need, and made us meet one of the people behind that sizzling chemistry in Gehraiyaan, and the chilling domestic violence scenes in The Fame Game. With the coming narratives, it’s a bold and much-needed step towards bringing in a safe environment on set. What do you think? Tell us in the comments below!

Aastha is working on Saas Bahu Aur Cocaine, Yaar Dost, Dr. Foster Indonesia, Four More Shots Please season 3, and Elite India! And she is working towards making an Intimacy coach as a profession out there. For more details look at The Intimacy Collective Page.

Also Read: Gehraiyaan is a sincere bold attempt but it’s just isn’t empathetically deep enough

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