Bollywood Is Finally Shooting Overt Sex Scenes. How Can the Process Be Ethical, Safe?
Bollywood actor Rahul Bose remembers doing a scene in the 90s for a film in which he had to appear completely naked. When he asked if he could cover his genitals during the take, Bose says he was laughed at by the crew. “You know, dude, what’s the big deal. It’s just you — there’s no woman here,” Bose recalls hearing. He remembers thinking, “Are you crazy? If you’re not going to be showing my genital area on-screen, why should I show it to anybody?” Bose says he fashioned a crotch pad himself, stuck it to his body with tape, and proceeded to do his job.
Bose’s experience is not unique. Bollywood directors usually shy away from discussing the details of intimate and nude scenes, say industry professionals, while actors often feel coaxed into doing such scenes with little to no preparation. Uncomfortable is a frequent, familiar feeling.
A solution to the problem emerged in Hollywood after the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements: the position of an intimacy coordinator, who acts as a liaison between director and actor, both to ensure actors are comfortable and to help directors achieve their vision through proper, effective communication. Now, four years after the position was introduced in Hollywood — and gained visibility with shows such as The Affair and Bridgerton — Bollywood has its own certified intimacy coordinator.
Aastha Khanna, 26, had been working in Bollywood as a director’s assistant when she first came across Amanda Blumenthal’s Intimacy Professionals Association and training program in Hollywood. What began as an initiative for Khanna to carve out a unique niche in her line of work quickly turned into an effort that fills a gap in the industry itself.
“We’re working in a lopsided industry where there are about 100 men to three women on a film set,” Khanna says. The role of an intimacy coordinator, then, may seem “on the outside like ‘Oh, you direct sex scenes,’ but in a sense, it’s a lot more intuitive. … You need to be able to pick up trigger emotions, and when harassment is happening around you. And very importantly, understand gender and sexuality. One needs to be able to navigate through the past traumas and triggers a performer may have and therefore to understand who that performer is.”
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The training involves everything from effective communication and trauma handling to contractual reflection of consent on set. It includes both how a production house can safeguard itself when in disagreement with an actor, and how an actor can protect themselves at work. One aspect of this is to introduce and consistently implement the use of safety gears on shoots, such as modesty wear like crotch pads (also called cock socks or crotch bags) or thongs for men. Khanna says many directors aren’t even aware that such garments are available in the market. For women, too, Khanna says, covering their chest area is usually a task, with costume departments normally using tube tops to cover the breast area. This can hamper the camerawork, a problem Khanna says she once solved by offering silicone pasties to cover an actor’s nipples.
Safety gear can also take the form of barriers, between genitals for example, during an intimate scene, Khanna says. She recounts the time she used a deflated Pilates ball to keep two actors’ genitals from touching while still creating a believable thrusting rhythm. “When I brought [the ball] on, the directors started having a huge laugh, saying ‘Oh my god, what is it?’” she says. “And when we actually used it, it worked in favor of the scene.”
Khanna says one of the major reasons Indian film industries need intimacy coordinators is because “directors find it hard to articulate to actors what they want in a scene because of the taboos around sex. They end up compromising their vision because they don’t want to have a conversation around it. Writers write it, then directors find it really hard to even think about what they’re going to do in a scene prior to when they’re about to shoot it. They think of it in the 11th hour, ki haan haan kar lenge.” An intimacy coordinator, she adds, can ask questions that actors may feel uncomfortable asking, and get answers from directors, which actors may not be able to do — essentially compelling all parties to communicate and chalk out a vision for the scene.
“People have tried to show intimacy earlier, but we’re slowly getting more and more keen with detailing intimacy [with OTT platforms],” says Bollywood director Shakun Batra. “There is a need to do it more professionally, to be honest.” Batra says a department dealing with intimacy coordination should have always been welcomed in the industry. “You need to make sure you’re having the right conversations. You need to make sure you’re establishing boundaries, not violating people’s privacy or personal space.”
For up-and-coming actors, at a special disadvantage when conversations about intimacy are lacking on set, this is an especially pressing concern. “A couple of months back I was doing a music video. There were a few seconds of clip [when] I go into the bathtub and I come out, and it’s kind of suggestive in nature,” actor Amaara Sangam says. “I had to make sure everything was covered. Nobody who wasn’t required was around. It was only three seconds, but you’re doing multiple takes of that; it’s such a vulnerable place.”
Sangam says having the support of an intimacy coordinator in moments like these would help reassure, comfort her. She hopes the position takes off in the industry. “I’ve never done a sex scene with someone, but I’d like to hope when I do that it be done tastefully,” Sangam says, worrying that her teenage experience of sexual abuse could function as an added trigger if not handled well in future shoots. “It helps to have an order or system or structure, being able to answer ‘who can I talk to?’ That helps every individual.”
A major problem, especially with up and coming actors, is that sexual or nude scenes usually “boil down to instinct and trust with the director and his vision,” casting director Panchami Ghavri says. “But because these haven’t been defined [contractually], the boundaries of intimacy can become very blurry, because a lot of it is played by ear.” An intimacy coordinator, Ghavri says, can bring professionalism and clarity to intimacy. “I’ve had so many instances of actors being uncomfortable, but they’re not able to say they’re uncomfortable. They go ahead and do it anyway, which is sad. You want art, but you don’t want it at anybody’s expense.”
But actors usually feel pressured to go along regardless of clarity, because everybody else is doing it, Ghavri says. And often, “a less-established actor may think it ruins the vibe on set, or fear they may be replaced.” From a casting standpoint, Ghavri says it’s imperative actors know what they’re signing on to, that it’s explained to them.
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This problem, Khanna says, affects all genders. More often than not, the real issue is the power dynamic. “How influential is the actor, have they shot enough, whether they can be replaced easily,” are concerns that exacerbate the problem. “A lot of times I’ve found that men find it more difficult to say what they can and cannot do and what their boundaries are because their machismo gets in the way. They find it hard to tell someone they’re not comfortable. They usually throw it to their female costar, like ‘I’ll do whatever she’s comfortable with.’”
For more established actors, however, decades of experience lend a more viable way of dealing with discomfort during vulnerable scenes. Bose recounts shooting the famed rape scene in feminist horror hit Bulbbul, in which his character Mahendra is sexually assaulting Tripti Dimri’s character Bulbbul as she lies incapacitated in bed. “Of course I’m uncomfortable,” Bose says, especially because he had to act scary while astride his female costar, for hours. Before they shot the scene, however, Bose says discussing the specifics with director Anvita Dutt and his co-star Dimri, and acknowledging the emotional triggers the scene could provoke, helped the performance and injected comfort and support in the process.
“There is an emotional side to sexual assault, which is massively triggering. I’m not saying you have to be assaulted to be triggered; you fear assault all your life and it’s enough to trigger you,” Bose says, adding he told Dimri to use the safe word ‘Rahul’ in case she felt discomfort during the scene and needed to take a break from their respective roles. In addition, Bose says he tried to lighten the mood as well as discuss the technical aspects of the acting between takes, to normalize the intense intimacy and violence of the scene — both between him and Dimri and with the 30 or so crewmembers who were looking on.
“There’s an awkward social moment, no matter how professional people are about it,” Bose says, adding an intimacy coordinator, if trained to handle such intense scenes, traumas, and triggers, could help. But until the position becomes a norm, actors can also normalize doing such scenes — if the actors can find a way to quell discomfort in the moment, “then there is nothing [for others] to spy on,” he adds.
The industry needs to treat sex and nude scenes with as much preparation and care as filmmakers do any other type of scene, Bose adds. “The root problem is that we spend 15 days doing a workshop for a film, but to suggest doing a workshop for a kissing scene sounds insane, sounds shady. To suggest a workshop for a lovemaking scene sounds like you have an ulterior motive,” he says. “If a lovemaking scene arcs my character, then is it not important to prep for it?”
The position of the intimacy coordinator is slowly being accepted in the industry, but Khanna says she is either called in too late (after all the workshops and casting are done) or called in as a superficial token and not allowed to do her job effectively.
Bollywood may seem like it’s pushing the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable when it comes to its intimate depictions. Behind the scenes, however, “we are basically a conservative, orthodox society,” Bose says. Changing attitudes around sex and intimacy is a constant process, one thankfully kickstarted by #MeToo. An intimacy coordinator is a critical role, but any solution has to encompass the entire filmmaking process. Bose refers to his 2017 movie Poorna, which he produced, and for which he implemented a sexual harassment contract that protected his crew, as well as an independent committee to handle any complaints. In the end, Bose adds, “one year of MeToo cannot deal with several years of MeToo issues.”