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In the new MX Player show Mastram, a politician and his female aide get aroused after a soft-porn novel is read to them over the phone. She slips behind the table he’s sitting at and gets on her knees, head bobbing up and down as he shuts his eyes contentedly. That scene is one of many in a series that’s risqué even by the the more relaxed standards of Indian streaming.

Based on the works of popular ‘80s Hindi erotica writer Mastram, the show chronicles how he might have reimagined everyday encounters as torrid sexual fantasies for his books. The result is every porn cliché imaginable – the hot Mallu aunty next door who needs her ahem pipes fixed, the hot school teacher who invites a male student home for ‘extra classes’, the unscrupulous grocer willing to accept alternative methods of payment from a hot customer. There’s sex in public places, sex in an airplane bathroom and of course, a threesome the writer imagines himself having with his girlfriend’s two best friends. Each of the show’s 30-minute-long episodes has at least two sex scenes.

But here’s a behind-the-scenes secret — for most of them, the actors were nowhere near each other during filming.

“For the scene in which the man is implied to be receiving oral intercourse, I showed the performers the frames, the angles and how the head motions had to go. People on set were absolutely wowed by how what they were seeing in front of them was so different from what they were seeing on cameras. In front of you, it’s ridiculous. But then you see it on camera, and you buy it completely,” says the show’s intimacy coordinator Amanda Cutting. Nearly every sex scene in Mastram relies on some sort of visual trickery. “The camera angles tell a different story than what’s actually happening on set. There are some scenes in which it looks like the performers are on top of each other, but they’re actually laying next to each other,” she adds. The technique, called ‘masking’, is one of many she learnt as part of a year-long certificate course conducted by Intimacy Directors International, USA. Other courses included conflict management, sensitivity training and mental health first aid — bringing an actor in a heightened emotional state back to normal.

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“We deliberately tried to make sure similar styles of intimacy were not depicted back to back – that there were different positions, different tones to appeal to a wide demographic. So someone might like a scene that is slow, drawn-out and sensual while another might like something quick, risky and brazen,” says the show’s intimacy director Amanda Cutting.

Cutting’s been an intimacy coordinator for the past year — that’s how new the role is on sets — and has worked on shows such as The Good Doctor and an unaired Game of Thrones prequel. She’s the first from Hollywood to work on a Hindi production and only the second that the industry has ever hired. (The first is Manisha Basu, who was hired for the film Seasons Greetings last year.) The goal of this line of work, she explains, is to make sure power dynamics on set aren’t skewed such that actors hesitate to say no to scenes they’re uncomfortable with. An actress since 2011, she’d been in similar situations. “There’s this idea that’s been created in our industry that performers are replaceable. So taking autonomy over yourself or saying you’re uncomfortable doing a certain thing might be seen as ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’ and might prohibit you from getting work again,” she says.

When Cutting was contacted to work on the Mastram by the show’s producer, a few of the episodes had been scripted while the rest were still being discussed. Her first step was to source translated copies of the Mastram books in English to understand how the author described sex and sexuality. “We took his descriptors and turned them into physical movement,” she says. So if the book described a pair of hands moving across the sides of a bust ‘like a river’, Cutting would interpret that as a movement that was not short and staccato, but one that glides across the body.

Also Read: What Makes ALT Balaji’s Gandii Baat A Big Success?

She flew to Mumbai in December for 18 days to meet the performers and, in a series of one-on-one sessions, figure out what their boundaries were and what they were and weren’t comfortable doing on camera. “Our job isn’t to push performers outside their boundaries, but to design scenes that work within their boundaries. When they don’t have to worry about themselves, they can focus on the scene, which makes for better art in the long run,” she says. Next, she got a storyboard artist to detail every step of these scenes so performers knew exactly what they were getting into. At rehearsals, which she likens to “choreography, just like dancing”, the actors learnt how to get into the various sexual positions, move whilst in position, breathe and emote depending on the context of the scene.

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A threesome scene required the consent of all the actors involved. In what’s called ‘table work’, they sat down and went through the finer points of how the scene was going to play out – “where hands were going to go, how each person was meant to move”, says Cutting.

With an intimacy coordinator on board, even the vocabulary on set was different. Cutting prefers not to use slang terms for sexual acts, describing the blowjob of episode 5 as ‘oral intercourse.’ For Mastram, she referred to positions by their Kamasutra names to make them easier and less awkward for the actors to talk about. She also brought with her a kit containing different ‘barriers’ – cloth made either of bathing suit fabric or a cotton-polyester blend that matches the actors’ skin tone and shields their private parts from the cast and crew during scenes in which they’re required to be nude.

If there’s a piece of advice she’d give an industry unfamiliar with the concept of intimacy coordination, it’s rehearse the scenes. “Rehearsals are the norm in the US, UK and Canada. They help the performers get comfortable and ultimately save time. It’s no different from working with a stunt coordinator – you do the jumps a couple of times, know how fast you’re falling, know how your body has to move before you jump off the building.”

Currently in quarantine at her home in Canada, Cutting is unsure of what sex scenes will look like in a post-Coronavirus world. Will actors wary of skin-to-skin contact be reluctant to perform intimacy on set? She doesn’t know. “Will my role change? The things we do are to make people feel safe. That won’t change,”  she says.

How An Intimacy Coordinator Made The Sex Scenes In An MX Player Show Based On 80s Hindi Porn Novels Safer, Film Companion

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