Our role is to ensure the safety of actors: Aastha Khanna

Interview/Aastha Khanna, India’s first certified intimacy coordinator

The #MeToo campaign led to an increased demand for intimacy coordinators on film sets to help actors navigate through the shooting of intimate scenes without feeling violated. Aastha Khanna, 26, who became the first certified intimacy coordinator in India last October, has put together an intimacy collective to train more professionals in the field.

In a conversation with THE WEEK, Khanna shared nuances of her profession that demand expertise in filmmaking, psychology and law.

Edited excerpts:

Q\ What does an intimacy coordinator (IC) do?

A\ ICs ensure that the content is produced ethically by obtaining informed consent from actors for intimate scenes or [scenes involving] simulated sex, sexual assault, violence or nudity. We make sure the actors remain safe physically and mentally during the shooting of these scenes.

Q\ Tell us about the training you received.

A\ I completed the 24-week online course (that costs 04 lakh), which is certified by the Los Angeles-based Intimacy Professional Association (IPA) founded by Amanda Blumenthal. At the IPA, we underwent extensive training in IC protocols, trauma and sensitivity training, consent, conflict negotiation skills and sexuality education. [We learned] some international best practices like bystander intervention, or understanding unconscious bias, workplace harassment laws, power dynamics between actors and conflict resolution. We also received awareness on different genders and sexualities, mental health issues, adult mental health first aid, intimacy choreography and its tool kit.

Q\ Is this profession gaining acceptance in Indian film sets?

As a culture, we do not give importance to mental health. Actors like Dimple Kapadia and Madhuri Dixit have spoken about some instances that caused trauma while shooting.

A\ In India, we give a lot of attention to physical trauma and not mental trauma. On our film sets, you can spot a stunt coordinator sitting ready with 50 to 100 harnesses and 30 crash pads, but you will not find a single intimacy coordinator when you are putting two vulnerable strangers in a frame. They have to show they are in love with each other in the most intimate way possible. An IC can help the actors navigate through these scenes without them feeling violated. Post #MeToo, many big production houses are roping in IC professionals.

Q\ How do you ensure the physical and mental safety of actors on the film sets?

A\ The process begins either in the casting stage or the pre-production. I do one-on-one conversations with the actors after the script is locked. I discuss the personal boundaries and consent, the director’s vision and how the actor navigates scenes of intimacy. As a culture, we do not give importance to mental health. Actors like Dimple Kapadia and Madhuri Dixit have spoken about some instances that caused trauma while shooting.

Q\ Many actors have complained that they had to do a scene they were not comfortable with, since they sign the consent clause in the contract.

A\ Contracts are not sacrosanct and consent is reversible. Even on sets, actors can back out from a scene they are not comfortable with. Then, the IC has to step in and find an alternate plan to execute the scene, break down the scene, and use different methods like the use of a body double. However, even the body double needs to uphold the actor’s terms of consent in the contract. For instance, if the actor has declined to do frontal nudity in the contract, he or she has to specify if the body double is permitted to do it.