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Issue 20

A Conversation on Intimacy With Aastha Khanna

OpenAxis had an insightful and inspiring conversation with Aastha Khanna, the first Intimacy Coordinator of India. In this conversation, she talks about her journey, her recent projects, and the core of Intimacy Direction. Head down to the audio below to listen to the podcast

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  2. A Conversation on Intimacy With Aastha Khanna
  3. Protecting Pond & Coast in Pondy with Probir Banerjee

To find excerpts of the talk and her answers, read below!

Maahira 

So how did you come about this career and how did people around you react to your decision to become an intimacy coordinator? 

Aastha 

I read an article about an intimacy coordinator in the west. That article hit home with me. It seemed like an incredibly pertinent job and something that I felt I would fit right in. But then the first COVID lockdown in 2020 happened. I was already in touch with a few intimacy directors in the west and had applied for a program and as luck would have it I got in.

The conversation was not very intense with my parents when I told them I’m doing it. I was not aware of what future it has in India. For my father, it was just a concern whether this is going to be a financially viable decision for me. I told him, I don’t know what’s gonna come of it, but I knew that it is something that I wanted to learn and I felt like there is use for it in our industry. My parents were supportive, they are big cheerleaders of the work I do. So, that’s been the journey.

Maahira 

I’m sure there were some difficulties in education in India like a lack of institutes or places to learn or people to talk to. So how do you navigate that space? 

Aastha 

There was almost nobody working in intimacy at the time in India and there aren’t any institutes even today that teach intimacy coordination, or any kind of intimacy work. In fact, the first course in India is also going to be launched by us at the Intimacy Lab in April this year. Did I have any difficulty in navigating the atmosphere in India? Not so much because I didn’t attempt it. I researched and I found that almost nobody was doing anything in this space. So for me to reach out to the people in the West and in other countries abroad was the most natural next step. I have studied abroad before, I did my undergrad there, so it wasn’t that difficult for me. I’ve always been somebody who travels a lot.

Lakshya

Will you be kind enough to tell us more about the Intimacy Collective that you started. 

Aastha 

So the collective basically happened to me because I realized that there wasn’t a community of people that were working in intimacy directly. I decided to bring them all together under one roof and that’s why the collective was formed. I got hold of somebody I knew who was working with minors right and someone who really wanted to pursue intimacy coordination. I was introduced to somebody who was working in sexual harassment as a freelancer for big corporate companies and was handling their POSH committees.​​ Then there were acting coaches and people who I have worked with.  I was searching for a community of people within our country who would understand where I was coming from when it came to cultural context and that’s why the collective happened.

Lakshya

How do you think we can teach the upcoming generations in India about the complexities of consent, sexuality, and intimacy so that we are able to create a more tolerant audience? 

Aastha  

I feel like consent is something that needs to be taught at an extremely young age. Just allowing people from a very young age to have agency over themselves is something that is a huge cultural shift for our community and we need to inoculate that within our younger generations. I think school has a big role to play here. The things that make you uncomfortable will stop, but the dynamic of where you are allowed to say no, and if it is acceptable is what we need to work towards. 

When it comes to sexuality, I feel again as a culture we are kind of growing towards a more knowledge-based approach towards the LGBTQIA+ world. I feel it’s very important for us to have more conversations around it and destigmatize the idea of having conversation about sex and sexuality from very young age. I think everyone needs to have a voice which is why I always say breed spaces where everyone has the agency to have a conversation that they feel that they want to have, and I think it’s very important for people who are from slightly older generations to address those questions, or those conversations with pertinent information. 

Maahira 

Do you think there is a difference in the ways intimacy is displayed by male and female actresses and the ways it is received by an audience? And why do you think this difference exists?

Aastha

I think the audience is preconditioned. But to answer about heterosexual intimacy, what usually happens is that when intimacy is portrayed by a female, by intimacy I mean probably nudity, it would be considered aesthetic. When someone from the male gender usually portrays intimacy, socially, it’s considered aggressive. Predominantly using female nudity as a way to show intimacy is, in my opinion, slowly shifting to a more balanced and organic portrayal of intimacy, and rightly so. Intimacy is a part of the human experience, so audiences who watch intimacy and perceive in its most organic natural form will not become uncomfortable or feel like something vulgar is happening on the screen. It actually really depends on what the director really is trying to achieve. 

Maahira 

Several people within and outside the industry have had some criticisms or issues and referred to intimacy in various ways in which it probably isn’t portrayed; like ‘vulgar’ or ‘lewd. Do you think there has been a shift in terms of audiences being more accepting? Has there been some kind of a change or do you think the majority of the audience is still as skeptical as before?  

Aastha

I think first thing is that none of us are wearing superhero capes. None of us are trying to change public opinion overnight over one film over one idea. I think Shakun was able to achieve what Shakunn wanted to achieve with the film. I think people have the right to their own opinions of whatever they see, which is why it’s been put out. It’s a story that we wanted to tell, and a story that we wanted would spark some form of conversation. . Yes, there could still be people that thought that it was overdone, or it was lewd or vulgar. So, for a relationship drama like Gehariyaan to completely avoid intimacy in the storytelling would have been very surfacal as intimacy is a huge part of that story. Whether it’s emotional or physical, it’s an extremely important part of being able to tell a story where any form of infidelity occurs, or any form of a relationship is being portrayed. I think the audiences are evolving. I think they are mature enough to take a story in its entirety and to understand that Intimacy is the part of it, and not just in Gehraiyaan.

Lakshya

What do you think is the core of Intimacy Direction?

I think the most important aspect of intimacy direction is trust building. You’re constantly working within an extremely vulnerable environment, with very vulnerable stories. I think for me the most important thing is that I require for my performers to trust that I am upholding their consent and that I am there for them, and that I am going to be supporting them throughout and also for production to trust that I am not a part of the actors’ entourage. I’m still going to be someone who’s going to support the director in his vision and work towards achieving it as best as we know how. 

I think empathy is also extremely important in this case because one can try and provide all kinds of support. But if you don’t fully understand your performers and the only way to do that is that they trust you. They will tell you their needs and unless you know what they need, you can’t support them. It’s actually not isolated just to intimacy. It stands true for any kind of creative collaboration.

Aastha Khanna, India’s first certified intimacy coordinator has always had a great passion for cinema. She graduated from the University of York in England with a Bachelor of Science Honors in Film and Television Production. She has been an assistant director on over half a dozen feature films in India. She hopes to share the much-needed knowledge and expertise of intimacy coordination across the different Indian film and television platforms.

Interviewers: Lakshya Sharma and Maahira Jain

Podcast Editor: Reya Daya

Picture Credits: The Hindu

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 20

In Deep Water: Three Generations React to the Intimacy in Gehraiyaan

Bollywood’s recent sensation ‘Gehraiyaan’ has caused quite a stir. No matter how much I tried to avoid it, I was forced to hear my parents and their friends discuss Deepika Padukone’s steaming hot body, and the movie’s risqué portrayal of a modern love affair. An Indian child’s worst nightmare is probably having to talk to their parents about sex but there was so much to talk about. Stemming from the movie’s themes of intergenerational trauma, I decided to have a conversation with my mother and grandmother about sex, sensuality, and sensationalism. 

My grandmother avoided the conversation for 3 days before I could dive right into the deep waters of ‘Gehraiyaan’. I asked what made them watch the movie and what they liked about it. My grandmother curiously said that the buzz had reached her circle. She was scared to answer my questions because with her house-help always around she had to forward through too many intimate scenes and didn’t grasp the plot. My mother’s reasons were similar, with the addition of social media hype. She liked the modernness and aesthetics of the movie, and more importantly Deepika Padukone’s acting, her real reason for watching it. The trailer piqued my curiosity for how dangerous it felt – a mainstream film about infidelity that isn’t a comedy? I was sold. There was a lot to like about Gehraiyaan, but perhaps my favourite thing was how much it left me to think about. I was expecting a film packed with sex and hadn’t anticipated the real conversations the film attempted to start. From intergenerational trauma to strained family dynamics to feeling stuck in the banality of life, there was something for everyone. 

My grandmother believed that Gehraiyaan’s portrayal of intimacy on screen strongly goes against Indian values. When asked why it’s okay for Hollywood to do the same thing she retorted “but we aren’t sitting in Hollywood”. What she meant was that the masses that don’t understand consent will not appreciate the movie for what it is but rather take the portrayal of sex in the mainstream as an excuse to do as they please. In some ways, she changed my opinion. At times I feel largely disconnected from the majority of the country. While I’m not saying that ‘Indian values’ are universally shared or should censor our media, I do believe we have to be cognizant of how this media will be received across all sectors of society. Yet I hope that normalising sex and intimacy will do more good than harm. The idea of watching two Indian adults embracing at will feels both freeing and unfathomable. Showing a live-in relationship in itself felt revolutionary in a country where arranged marriages take place without the bride and groom ever seeing each other. My mother agreed that the portrayal of intimacy is definitely a step forward but some things will just never fit in. While she is used to watching intimacy in western media, she acknowledged that the majority does not have access to the same information and resources as us when it comes to sex education.

My grandmother said that intimate scenes like these were never shown in the past. My mother instantly disagreed saying that from as early as the 50s and 60s, song and dance have been a stand-in for sexual acts. Whether it is the use of item songs, innuendos such as ‘choli ke peeche kya hain’ or rain and blossoming flowers to sanitise the portrayal of sexual desire, it has always been here. Only now it isn’t happening behind closed doors. My grandmother still felt that these examples were modern and compared them to the classical Indian music of Lata Mangeshkar. To her, Gehraiyaan felt more scandalous than a little bit of dancing in an item song or any sexual acts that were merely implied and not shown. I believe a large reason for disapproval amongst the Indian audience comes from the fact that Gehraiyaan didn’t simply have a palatable item song where the woman exists for the pleasure of men watching her. Here, Deepika’s character Alisha had agency and made decisions for her own pleasure. 

I could barely remember the sex scenes because of how nuanced the subplots were and because the West has desensitised me to portrayals of sex on screen. The internet also allows me to have all the answers I need right at my fingertips and the idea of watching a barely sexual scene just doesn’t feel as salacious. My mother has faced similar desensitisation but her media consumption begins and ends with what she watches on Netflix. The addition of a few odd sex scenes was enough to provide her a mild distraction from the rest of the movie. To my grandmother, it became a barrier in watching the movie entirely. 

The one thing we all could agree on was that sex sells, and hypersexualisation for the purpose of making a profit was not a great motive for portraying intimacy. My grandmother was convinced that just like item songs, all instances of sex in media are to sell more units. However, I didn’t believe that director Shakun Batra’s motives aligned with this complaint. The intimate scenes didn’t serve the singular purpose of shock value and were an integral part of the plot, without which certain storylines would not work. I do think that the trailer intentionally sensationalised the movie to generate public interest and it worked! The movie was a big risk and if that’s what we need to get an Indian audience to tune in then so be it.   

My grandmother thought that openly talking about sex to younger generations is very important. She also said that awareness is required but only of the ‘right things.’ I’m not entirely sure what falls within the boundaries of right and wrong, but I was surprised at her agreement. This is also a good time to mention that in our half an hour-long conversation, my grandmother never once used the word ‘sex’ and only referred to it as ‘those scenes.’ My mother asked her why she never gave her a sex talk and she replied that she was told all that was required and if her children ever had questions she would answer them. To be fair, my mother never had the talk with me either but as I get older it feels comforting knowing I can go to her to have these conversations. 

It’s ironic how Indians love a good romance but will squirm at the portrayal of intimacy. While shying away from sex in media will always feel like a safer option, at many levels, it feels like hindering progress. Luckily, OTT platforms are allowing creative freedom and more diverse narratives, including the portrayal of sex and intimacy, that traditional cinema would not have allowed. Given how influenced we are by Bollywood. I wonder if our country would be more progressive today if our censor board didn’t exist 50 years ago. 

Reya Daya is a third-year student, studying psychology and media studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include writing, photography and music.

Picture Credits: Amazon Prime Video

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).