Filming a sex scene on the set: Why intimacy professionals are necessary

With intimate scenes – involving nudity, simulated sex or kissing – becoming more and more realistic with time, it is necessary for someone to make sure that the actors have consented to the act and are comfortable with it.
Scene from Rithu
Scene from Rithu
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A kissing scene was to be shot for the film on that day. The female actor who had agreed to do the scene ahead of the shooting, suddenly said she could not go through with it. She backed out. Everybody on the set turned on her – how could she sign the contract, take money for the job and then simply say no? Only one person stood by the woman actor. Costume designer Jayalakshmi Sundaresan said to the rest of the team that the actor had her own reasons for not doing the scene and one had to respect that. The actor should not be made to feel miserable for the choice she had made, when she felt uncomfortable about doing a scene that she had previously committed to. Jayalakshmi did not know it then but she had just played the role of an intimacy professional in that film set from a few years ago.

Today we have a term for it – Intimacy Coordinator (IC), or Intimacy Professional. Intimacy scenes are still more the exception than the norm in Indian cinema. A kiss on the lips was a rarity in the years before the new millennium, when filmmakers often chose the blooming of a flower or leaves touching each other to depict the act. Interestingly, much earlier -- in the 1930s and 40s -- kisses between the hero and the heroine were mostly unhidden from the camera. A Times of India report mentions the Hindi film Zarina in 1932 which created a controversy for featuring 86 kisses on screen. The 1928 silent film Shiraz is believed to be the first Indian film to show an onscreen kiss. Down south, Malayalam film Marthanda Varma released in 1933 had a kiss on the lips between the heroine and the hero. Later, perhaps with the passing of the Cinematograph Act, 1952, all the kissing went behind the curtain.

By the late 1980s and '90s, tired perhaps of making flowers and leaves kiss each other, more daring filmmakers and actors began presenting kisses between persons and other intimate scenes as they are. But these too, were not necessarily sensitive. For instance, actor Rekha has spoken about how the famous kiss between her and Kamal Haasan in K Balachander's 1986 film Punnagai Mannai, happened without her consent.

With intimate scenes – involving nudity, simulated sex or kissing – becoming more and more realistic with time, it is necessary for someone to make sure that the actors have consented to the act and are comfortable with it.  A written scene on a piece of paper may not be the same as enacting it before a camera. The comfort level matters. For this, you need an intimacy coordinator on the set.

“When I stepped forward to speak up for the actor who backed out of a kissing scene, I knew she had grown uncomfortable with the male actor during the course of the film, I knew she was being reasonable. But she was made to look like she took the team for a ride. There was so much pressure on her!” says Jayalakshmi.

Jayalakshmi Sundaresan

Jayalakshmi, who has been working as a costume designer for 10 years now, only recently learnt that she has been unknowingly doing the job of an intimacy professional too all this while. It is just that the term is new. She says the first intimacy coordinator in India is Aastha Khanna, who works in Bollywood and the second one is her, in Chennai. The third professional in the field she knows – Neha – is just about starting with her first job.

Brought on by Me Too movement

Aastha says that the need for intimacy professionals was by and large born of the #MeToo movement. “The #MeToo movement brought forth a huge change in the entertainment industries across the world. Organisations like Intimacy Professionals Association and Intimacy Directors and Coordinators came into being. They researched and promoted the role of intimacy professionals in TV, film, and theatre. Directors, choreographers, psychologists, social workers, trauma experts, and other professionals were brought together to research and codify a system of addressing the performance of nudity, simulated sex, and intimacy," she says

Aastha first learnt about intimacy coordination when she was working on a film, helping design workshops for actors who were to perform intimate scenes in the film. She did some research for intimacy coordination, and found it extremely bizarre that there was no one who had worked in this particular field in India. 

Aastha Khanna

Around the same time, the #MeToo movement arrived in Bollywood. “Listening in to others' experiences and having my own #MeToo experience gave me the desire to take things into my own hands and make a difference. I decided to educate and train myself to create this much required change. I trained with the Intimacy Professionals Association. And I started to work with some of India’s big studios that were making an effort to make sets a safer place during scenes of intimacy,” Aastha narrates.

She decided to reach out and bring together all people who have worked in the field of intimacy for a ‘much needed shift’ within the industry towards braver and safer spaces. “The Collective that I have founded, The Intimacy Collective, is India’s first network of intimacy professionals! And that’s how it has all begun in India,” Aastha says.

She explains that an IC is trained to supervise scenes involving nudity, simulated sex, sexual violence and other sensitive scenes, to oversee consent on a production.

Balance between filmmaker and actor

Jayalakshmi calls it a balance between the filmmaker and the actor. The director may brief the actor, but that does not mean the actor is comfortable talking about their concerns with the director. “I have been speaking to actors in south India and they tell me they would love to have an Intimate Professional on board. There are many concerns the actor has when they have to express their doubts about a scene. They worry about fitting in, they worry about getting a movie next time if they say no now, there is just so much pressure on them. Many times, it is a compulsive yes that comes out of them just to fit in," she says.

With Over-the-Top platforms opening up a lot of possibilities, Jayalakshmi believes there is a huge need for ICs on the set. “Yet another reason is when you think of the number of people who are on the shooting set when an intimate scene is made. An IC could take a call on limiting it to only the required number of people. The basic idea is that you need to create a safe space within the comforts of the actor while respecting what the director wants.”

However, it remains to be seen how welcoming industries are of having ICs on the set. Tamil filmmaker Gautham Menon told TOI that he does not feel the need to use an IC on his sets since he was sensitive to what his actors were comfortable with.

Watch: Song from Rithu

Actor-producer Rima Kallingal who has been part of intimacy scenes in her roles strongly recommends the presence of intimacy coordinators on the sets. "We don’t have intimacy coaches, but it is something I would strongly recommend. Most sets are not female friendly and when there are hardly any women around, it is uncomfortable. I remember when we did an intimate scene in the movie Rithu, Shyamaprasad sir was a total sport and wanted to help me. He asked me if I wanted to drink a shot of whisky before the shoot. The shot was in a car, and he sort of covered it and asked everyone else in the crew to move away. Even in 22 Female Kottayam (which has scenes of sexual violence), Aashiq (director) and Shyju Khalid (cinematographer) did the same for me and allowed only the immediate crew. It’s something all filmmakers can do, but many don’t realise our discomfort, others realise but they don't feel like addressing it," actor Rima says.

She adds that she would have an intimacy coordinator on the sets when she directs or produces movies (by herself) or try to convince her partners about the same.
The concept is still new and slowly catching up in India. It took time for it to seep from Hollywood to Bollywood. “Mumbai is welcoming. There are offers from Bollywood and filmmakers saying they want to create a safe space for the actors,” Jayalakshmi says.

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