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'Intimacy Is a Skill’: Tête-À-Tête With Bollywood's First Intimacy Director

Neha Vyaso opens up about this strikingly unusual profession and the challenges that a woman faces.

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Meet Neha Vyaso. She is the first ever "Intimacy Director" in Bollywood. But what does that mean? According to Neha, "The simplest way to put it is comparing it to choreographers or action directors. The job is to enhance the director’s vision while keeping a consent-forward culture at the centre. It is finding the right balance between authenticity, aesthetic, and performer safety."

With an MBA in communications by profession, Neha graduated from MICA, formerly the Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad. She came to Mumbai in 2010 and worked in the corporate sector for about seven years while doing some theatre on the side. In 2017, she finally quit her job and decided to take a leap of faith in acting as a career.

It was her love for the performing arts that led her to train herself as an actor and then discover the need for intimacy professionals in the film industry.
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In a detailed one-to-one chat, Neha opens up about this strikingly unusual profession and the challenges that a woman faces.

How did you become an "Intimacy Director"?

I was an actor first who wanted to find a way to be authentic, vulnerable, and yet feel safe in scenes involving intimacy, nudity, violence, or heightened emotions. I trained with Actor-coach Daminee Benny Basu and Rupesh Tillu. I have also trained with the Prague Shakespeare Company in Prague, Theatre Flamingo in Goa, and Glenn Hayden. I stay open to expanding my training as an actor. For intimacy work, I have trained with Intimacy Directors and Coordinators (IDC, New York, USA) and I am the only one in India trained in their curriculum currently.

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You are an Indian girl from a middle-class family. What pushed you into such an offbeat, and might I add somewhat perceived as a "radical profession" in the first place and when did you first hear of it?

I think I have been nurtured into rebellion and self-awareness. I have been taught by my parents to seek solutions to challenges and not avoid them. I just wanted to find a craft-driven way to work in scenes of intimacy safely and convincingly and I realised that this work did not exist in India.

I began developing this practice in 2018 and was first noticed by Shakun Batra when he called me to be an Intimacy Coach for Gehraiyaan, where I met Daria Gai who continues to work with me and I hope to bring this work to more actors and creators.

What were you doing before becoming an Intimacy Director in films? What was your family's reaction when you ventured into such a career?

As an actor primarily, I have worked on a few projects – Asur being a popular one, and created my own work on stage. I have also worked with international artists from Clowns without Borders, Shakespeare Ensemble UK, and Prague Shakespeare Company. I continue to balance my acting with Intimacy work.

My parents find my work very revolutionary. The reason they did not want me to pursue acting as a young adult is because safety and stability were a big concern for them considering we come from a family that has no ties with the industry. When they see me doing work to create braver and challenging performance spaces, they beam with pride.

My parents have not just understood the need for a professional like me to create safer spaces for others but also feel the need for it, especially in the times we live in with so much content being generated involving intimacy because of the advent of OTT etc.

How do you define "Intimate training" to a complete ignoramus like myself? Do intimate scenes always focus on a couple or do you train for solo scenes also?

Let me explain through a memory. My mom once explained to my grand aunt, "Neha helps film "bedroom” scenes in a way that actors are comfortable and no one crosses any boundaries.” In simpler words, what can be extremely steamy can be shot in a manner while staying true to the script and putting the performers at ease by conducting workshops, helping them find a comfort level with the narrative and shared vocabulary as well as establishing boundaries with their co-actors.

This is much like safety nets for action scenes. Intimacy scenes also involve an intimacy kit with barriers and modesty garments.

I work with scenes beyond just intimacy from self pleasure to simulated sex to hyper exposure, narratives involving conversations around gender and sexuality, even scenes like breastfeeding, abortions, childbirth and even peeing. To quote an example, the prison strip scene of Scoop by Hansal Mehta was choreographed, handled with modesty garments and on-set safety protocols.

I also work with live performances. My work is not only meant to navigate scenes involving intimacy but also advocating for comfort with one's physicality and guiding performers to communicate better with their bodies.

We are especially interested in Gehraiyaan which had many intimate scenes.

Gehraiyaan was mostly driven by workshops and I worked with the performers over a period of six days where we discussed the emotional graphs of intimacy. I have also worked on projects like Kohrra where I did workshops and then was present on shoot for all scenes of intimacy. I ask for prep time beforehand so that I am doing justice to the work and have a better understanding of how the performers want to approach the scene and feel most comfortable in doing so.

What exactly are the steps you follow during training?

This varies from project to project. Every script and every performance demands a different approach. I usually get involved at the scripting level and mark out scenes which I think definitely need an Intimacy director.

The next step is:

(a) to talk to actors,

(b) understand their boundaries,

(c) the workshop.

Every equation between people can be achieved through this. For example, the body language of a new couple will be different from that of a live-in one. I work towards understanding the language of the film as a whole and what is the role of the scene of intimacy and what is it adding to the emotional graph of the characters, because each action means something.

I work on referencing and planning choreography well in advance so that we save time on the sets, and finally, I am present during the actual filming and ensure basics like having only a minimum number of people on the sets, setting up data transfer protocols and ensuring that modesty garments and barriers are in place in addition to marking rehearsals and ensuring that we are adhering to performers' boundaries while filming.

How do directors approach you with a brief? What are some of the memorable experiences you've had that you think have added substance to your work?

I am extremely lucky in this because as of now, one project leads to the other. Directors recommend me and sometimes, they approach me because they have seen my work. I like to believe that good creators want to elevate their work, they care about the comfort of their actors and understand the need for an Intimacy director as an integral part just like an action director or a choreographer.

I look at directors sharing their vision for the project as a whole. My job is to ensure that the scenes of intimacy add to the narrative and character arcs rather than just being tantalising or bringing shock value. I also work with understanding the gaze of the director for the scenes and share my thoughts with him/her.

I have loved working with Daria Gai, Shakun Batra, Nikhil Advani, Hansal Mehta, Sudip Sharma, Randeep Jha, Sudhanshu Saria, Sameer Vidhwans, Vishal Furia, Rohan Sippy, Ria Singh, Amardeep Galsin …. I mean I could go on and on. It’s always amazing to hear from directors that they see value in the work I do and get validated by the actors.

I am always focussed on creating a vocabulary between the director and performers that is driven by consent and is in the service of the story. I like to think of it as 3 C’s:

  • Communicate.

  • Clarify.

  • Create.

Usually that comes full circle for me. I have worked with the most amazing people who believe in this work. I haven’t yet had to really pitch myself, work has come to me, which usually means I am wanted there and that’s the beginning of a great partnership.

What criteria do you seek while accepting an assignment? Brand identity, director, actors, money, challenge?

I haven't had a tough time choosing anything so far. The fact that someone approaches an intimacy director ensures that they are sort of evolved as makers. Everything else falls into place once I am aligned with the director's vision.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

I see myself as an actor balancing intimacy direction work and even directing my own films. I have founded Brave Spaces Inculcated where I want to advocate for more consent-based work and braver performance spaces. I hope to foster and build more intersectional queer feminist narratives that are created by, centered on, and are authentic to women, trans and gender-queer lives. I want to expand the storytelling landscape for gender, sex, and sexuality both as an actor and behind the camera. So, hopefully, many milestones need to be achieved over the next five years.

(Shoma A Chatterji is an Indian film scholar, author and freelance journalist.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Gehraiyaan   intimacy 

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