When Gehraaiyaan was released, you could feel outrage ripple through the Indian internet. Not because director Shakun Batra’s film had offered an almost sympathetic take on infidelity, but because it showed Deepika Padukone and Siddhant Chaturvedi giving it their all as they fell on one another’s faces, kissing each other with lusty desperation. Gehraiyaan marked a shift in Indian programming. Here was desire articulated frankly. The on-screen chemistry between Padukone and Chaturvedi in the steamy scenes — even if they rankled the morality brigade — made for compelling (not gratuitous) viewing. They were integral to how Gehraiyaan showed the evolution of their characters.
Aastha Khanna Bhardwaj, an intimacy coordinator, worked on Gehraiyaan as an assistant director (AD) and it was during the shooting that she realised there was a market gap for intimacy coordinators in India. Batra’s film made Indian cinema history by having in its credits an “intimacy department”, which included intimacy coach Neha Vyas, intimacy director Dar Gai, and Khanna. The three of them worked closely with the actors to achieve the “clothes-ripping intensity” of the steamy scenes in Gehraiyaan.
Intimacy coordinator is a relatively new job profile in the post MeToo landscape in India, where the visual language of sexual intimacy has undergone a change from being buried under subtexts and metaphors, to a more obvious portrayal of what canoodling bodies look like and do. At the moment, the Indian film and content industry is relying on the guidelines laid out by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), but with each project that utilises the services of intimacy coordinators, the Indian industry is helping to devise its own, context-specific set of protocols and guidelines. The positive experiences that actors have had with intimacy coordinators has helped to make this role an accepted and expected addition to a crew. “When you go on sets and practice as an intimacy coordinator, it is such an empowering feeling. There is not a single person I have met who has said that they thought bringing an intimacy coordinator on board was unnecessary,” said Naina Bhan, who works as both an actor and an intimacy coordinator.
Khanna trained with Intimacy Professionals Association (IPA) to become an intimacy coordinator in 2020. She’s since trained a number of her peers, including Bhan and Ankita Podder. Khanna and Bhan are among the seven Indians in the Asian chapter of Intimacy Professionals Association (IPA), started by Amanda Blumenthal who is the first intimacy coordinator for films and television in Los Angeles, America. In India, the responsibilities of the profile goes beyond choreographing sex scenes. “What if I was working with an actor or director who doesn’t understand my boundaries? What would that feel like?” said Bhan who is best known for playing Koel in Netflix’s Class. Khanna was also the intimacy coordinator on the sets of Class. Among the tracks that received praise was Bhan’s featuring her relationship with Balli (Cwaayal Singh). Koel’s boyfriend Sharan (Moses) is a voyeur who secretly watches Koel and Balli have sex. Bhan said it was helpful to have someone who understands set dynamics and responsible data management, and Khanna’s emphasis on the minimal presence of the crew, as well as use of modesty garments, “helped with the nerves”.
As someone who has been there and done that (thanks to Class) interacted with intimacy on set, Bhan described the extremely technical process as “unromantic” and “un- titillating”. According to her, chemistry is simply a matter of developing a process, something that can be worked towards. “I don’t think you need to be in love with your co-star to have chemistry, just like you don't need a black belt in karate to do an action film,” she said.
Khanna said the process of choreographing an intimate scene changes from project to project. “There'll be a certain director who has a very clear vision, and they will not need anybody else's input for choreography. And then there will be a director who might invite you in, to choreograph a scene or come up with ideas basis what is on the page,” she said. She said coordinators are extensively trained on how to deal with boundaries related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQIA+) identities, particularly for scenes of physical intimacy. For Khanna, it’s also important to have a network she can rely upon when she wants to discuss any issue. She spoke of one project in which there was a scene involving kink and two queer folks. To make sure she had the necessary perspectives, Khanna reached out to a queer person who was a part of the kink community, and a kink specialist.
Both Bhan and Khanna brought attention to the “ease” that actors should feel when an intimacy coordinator is on set. To create this camaraderie, Khanna has different strategies, ranging from filling out a slam book to simple banter, going out for coffee and doing trust exercises (she described one in which one actor is blindfolded and the other has the responsibility of ensuring both of them navigate a space safely). “Sometimes the scene requires a certain kind of chemistry that is playful, sometimes a scene requires a certain kind of chemistry that is a relationship that has lasted for a fairly long period of time so then the exercise will automatically change a lot of different stuff,” said Khanna.
In the past, the Indian entertainment industry has managed to create unproblematic on-screen chemistry without mediators. For instance, Shah Rukh Khan made sniffing his co-star’s necks seem like the most sensual of moves long before any intimacy coordinators became part of the process. The actor has consistently had great chemistry with his co-stars, and you can sense how genuinely cordial Khan and the heroines of his movies are with one another in public performances. However, the inhibitions that one must shed for intimacy scenes today, and the level of scrutiny that you can be subjected to, are at a vastly different level.
Different actors need different levels of engagement and intervention from intimacy coordinators. “Sometimes an actor might feel like they don't understand what to do at all, it feels unfamiliar to them,” said Bhan. “Then you choreograph to the tee - ‘for two beats you will touch on the right, for two beats you will kiss, for two beats you will touch his shoulder, for two beats you will touch his waist.’ You literally plot it on a graph and that's how it works,” Bhan said.
It doesn’t help that shooting schedules can be chaotic, with scenes, elements and important details being added compulsively. In such situations, the intimacy coordinator can be a “sponge” for either side, Khanna said, becoming a via medium between the director, actor and producer, and negotiating for the comfort level of the actor. This is also the reason that some intimacy directors are insisting upon actors’ contracts that include a full and detailed disclosure of everything they’re consenting to when joining a project.
Due to the power dynamic between the cast, director and producer, an actor can sometimes feel compelled to go for, what Bhan calls, a “brave yes”, usually to seem agreeable, because it is what will book you the job. Bhan sees the role of an intimacy coordinator to include observing such nuances, even though it is tricky. “Even if someone says they are good, says ‘I am fine, I am fine’, you can see on those faces they are not fine. Their shoulders are tense and they are stressed out. So, in that moment, I would take that actor aside, I would take them for a walk, relax them, and bring them back to set. I try to make sure that the set takes five to 10 minutes for them to prep,” said Bhan. As a part of her process as an intimacy coordinator, Bhan does connection building exercises. “How we achieve it (chemistry) is through exercise, sometimes literal exercises of pushing and pulling,” she said. “Through exercises about which actor will lead, and which actor will follow. Based on the scene’s intent, and based on the scene’s, you know, message. None of this, by the way, involves (actual) intimacy,” she added.
Ultimately, creating chemistry is a business — not in the sense of being transactional or profit oriented, but because it’s a professional process. As raw and emotional as the scenes may seem, they’re best done when the actors involved feel safe with one another, and all the others in the room. The intimacy coordinator is someone who ensures this happens. For everything else, there’s movie magic.