Ashvin Kumar is an independent Indian filmmaker. His movies include Inshallah, Kashmir; the National Award Winner Inshallah, football; Dazed in Doon; The Forest; the Oscar nominated Little Terrorist and Road to Ladakh. Here he is decoding sex scenes in an industry were the censors often override the script. xoxo
I have directed two so-called ‘sex-scenes’. The first in Road To Ladakh between a Nameless Assassin (Irrfan Khan) and a dysfunctional coke-snorting ditzy Sharon (Koel Purie). The second in ‘The Forest’ between Radha (Nandana Sen) and Abhishek (Jaaved Jaffery).
The logical end of attraction between two people is sex. We all do it. We all seem to like it. Why is it so problematic performing it and why are we so paranoid about showing it? I can’t account for the rest of the world, but here are some random thoughts on the subject.
I find directing sex scenes difficult. Can only imagine what the actors go through. Both the scenes were shot in a locked set, i.e. essential people only. Both the scenes fit snugly in the narrative, i.e. they are required to push the story forward.
Neither of these scenes results in great, fulfilling sex. They are not ornamental or titillating. They express something that cannot be articulated in language, a glimpse into the inner workings of a character’s mind perhaps. Both the girls in these scenes are preoccupied, or distracted by the inevitability of their condition, their vulnerability perhaps, their humanity certainly.
In Road To Ladakh, Sharon (Koel Purie) rambles on about Russian movies while the Nameless Assassin (Irrfan Khan) is trying to understand how he ended up in bed with a girl who snorts coke like its going out of fashion. She ends up pinned to a wall in what should be an erotic and fulfilling bout of sexual play, but ends up crying while Irrfan’s face is hidden from view, so all you get to see is a raw, untamed thrusting, we have no idea what he’s thinking. That equestrian male energy is used to juxtapose against Sharon’s state of mind, we don’t need a placard to tell us she’s contemplating the tragic inevitability of unrequited love.
In The Forest, Radha (Nandana Sen) pauses in what is a bit of clumsy extra-marital sex with her ex-lover Abhishek (Jaaved Jafferi). Guilt – perhaps, an obvious impulse, for the moment they find themselves alone, they can’t help themselves. Who can question the primal nature of attraction? But perhaps something deeper.
What they do together is an act that could lead to conception, except that she can’t. A botched up surgery in her past, it turns out, for which she blames her husband, right or wrong. We are human we are fallible. We are weak. Perhaps the act of sex reminds this character of this crippling disability. Perhaps this is why her relationship with her husband is fraught. The idea is communicated by cut-aways of the alter she’s set up to address her inability to have a child.
Looking back, these scenes don’t betray the pain and difficulties that went into creating them. This is a lot of very complicated human stuff that one is trying to achieve using the simplest cinematic and dramatic devices possible. Perhaps this is why I feel they are one of the better dramatic and cinematic moments of these films. The actors realised my intention better than I had imagined and there’s credit to be given considering what actors must go through in order to perform.
I’ve been on stage and in front of a camera myself. Actors are highly vulnerable. They have to be. If they are guarded and secretive, you’ll get a fake performance. The masks that we wear in daily life, are anathema to performance. They have to be stripped. An actor feels naked in front of a camera even with all their clothes on. It takes a accomplished performer to ‘forget’ about the camera, the dozens of technicians each of whom have their own opinion, public and private, are watching you in silent judgement. Its unnerving as it is, what must it be like without clothes on?
When I reflect, I realise that I have learned a lot about human beings from the off-screen conversations I had with my actors while doing these scenes. My take-away is as follows.
The best actors aspire to make it all look effortless, like the best film-makers make themselves invisible. That’s the real artistic achievement on both sides, erasing the author, empowering the spectator encouraging the suspension of disbelief, allowing narrative to spool out of her personal imagination. At that moment, we achieve engagement with audiences. Given this aspiration and goal, imagine how difficult it must be to do a scene in which you have to appear to have sex with a stranger, that is not only being recorded for posterity but also being filmed by a room-full of sweaty technicians, all eyes on your posterior.
It is the unspoken task of the production team and director is to make the actor feel secure. Business class tickets for some, a cup of coffee for others, a comfortable hotel room or a smily bear hug. A feeling that they are being looked after, that someone behind that camera is looking out for them. Irrfan, in his inimitable understated style came to me once on the set of Road To Ladakh when the situation was particularly harrowing, ‘acting karne ke vakt, insaan nazuk ho jata hai’.
It is only now that I’ve come to understand what he meant by that.
What comes across to outsiders, including crew, as spoilt and troublesome behaviour, complaining and fretting about seemingly meaningless things or some loosely veiled gambit to attract undue attention is often misunderstood and gives way to resentment escalating to friction. The crew find this sort of behaviour unacceptable. They are slogging it out, freezing conditions, working hard fourteen-hour shifts. To them it appears that actors ensconced in the comfort of a makeup van, only step out for a short while to do a take and when they do, it all complaining and fretting. Its great to see an actor stepping out of the make-up van and join in the hurly-burly of the film set, giving themselves the opportunity to mingle with the rest of the crew and make friends. Small gestures like that go a long way.
Either way, when this kind of resentment builds around the set, the directors role is not to become the spokesperson of the crew and represent their views to the performer. Her role could be that of a mediator between the crew and her performers.
After all, as the sculptor of the human condition, it would become her to understand that which is her marble and clay, and provide an interpretation for the disgruntled crew, as it happens, what a director does for an audience.
Due to excessive emphasis placed on chauvinistic articulations of female propriety in our society, it becomes exceptionally hard for Indian women actors to perform nude scenes. They have to do so knowing that they will be branded in uncharitable terms thereafter. As a director one needs to be aware of the huge plunge and decision that the actor is taking and try to support that decision rather than fight against what is only a natural reticence and attempt at self-preservation.
Contrary to my earlier perceptions, I doubt if any actor goes out of their way to sabotage a film or is anymore or less neurotic than the next person. Actors are engaged in the business of emotion and feelings. Sensitivities and insecurities are symptoms of human frailty, a cross that all of us human beings must bear. These are exaggerated and compounded in the churning of emotions that go into performance. Put another way, very few of us will ever have the experience of performing in front of a camera, leave alone pulling of a convincing simulation of sex in front of a crowd. We can only approximate what actors must go through.
Doing sex scenes is not sexy. It is also not for the faint of heart. Much better to do it the way old Bollywood did, cut to the fluttering wings of a butterfly or the quivering of a spiders web or a stone being hurled through glass (!)