Nice to know Indians like their curves
Intimacy coordinator for the web series Mastram, Amanda Cutting, on what her presence on a film set means for aesthetics in a post-MeToo world
For the longest time, the most persistent imagery of sex on our screens was the visual of two flowers coming together. And yet, in a parallel universe, existed the erotic novels by Mastram that explored the vivid sexual experiences of the common Indian. Thus, it was essential for producers of a biographical series based on Mastram, to depict sex uninhibitedly—much like how Vatsayana's Kamasutra meant for us to enjoy the experience.
Among the first things that producer Prabhleen Kaur and the OTT platform MX player did was hire an intimacy co-ordinator, a first for the Indian entertainment industry. Amanda Cutting, who has previously worked on an unaired prequel pilot for Game of Thrones, The Magicians and The Good Doctor, was flown in from Canada for the job.
Cutting, locked down at her home in Calgary, Canada, tells mid-day in a telephonic interview that she had to mentally realign herself to Indian sensibilities to deliver an authentic show that stayed true to its muse. "The idea of bringing me down was to ensure that performers are confident doing intimate actions and feel safe during shooting. Because I had both prior directorial experience and have worked on shows with explicit sexual content, they felt like I was a good fit," she says about the 10-episode series directed by Harish Vyas, starring Anshuman Jha and Tara Alisha Berry.
Mastram is an adapted biopic based on the life of erotica writer Mastram. The show blends in experiences of his personal life and his stories. On the subject, Cutting says, "I was familiar with Mastram because my uncle is East Indian. But, as part of my research, I familiarised myself with the details of the script and understood the cultural milieu of the stories he wrote. I got [my hands on] some translated Mastram novels to understand how he created sexual tension. A lot of the choreography for these scenes was done keeping in mind the novel."
The thing about depicting sex on screen, Amanda concedes, is to ensure that it's sensual and arousing. "In this case, I had to help the audience use its imagination to finish off stories. Some of it was explicit, a lot of it was suggestive. And that often has a more seductive impact than a full naked body." She adds that she stayed away from Bollywood clichés. "The positions usually utilised were discarded. I brought in many Kamasutra positions that honoured Indian culture and don't rely on the Westerner's gaze. Different things are considered appealing for people in different cultures. It was a pleasant discovery that Indians like curvy women. As a full figured woman myself, it was refreshing to know that curves are sexy. Also, it was nice to realise that build-up and tension is valued. Indians understand foreplay. Delayed gratification is a significant tool in my line of work where we can drag an audience along for the ride and keep them excited. That's where the sizzle lies."
Cutting walks us through workshops and storyboards created for every scene that helped familiarise the cast with the choreography of an intimate scene. "It's like dance prep where there are set moves which are orchestrated. So, where do the hands go, in what position should each performer be, what are the barriers so that private parts don't graze. The better you know them, the safer you feel, the better you perform. Every detail was discussed thoroughly and after that there could be no changes. It also reduced the possibility of retakes."
Cutting choregra-phing Anshuman Jha in a scene from Mastram, the 10-episode web series directed by Harish Vyas
She says that work begins where a script would say "they make love passionately on the beach" "What does this entail? Will they be nude or under beach towels? The intent of the scene had to be clearly stated. Depending on the scene, there was a strict close-set protocol where only essential crew was allowed. A lovemaking scene usually had the two performers, the DOP, the sound recordist, the director and myself. Eliminating people was important to ensure a safe environment."
In the post-MeToo world, her own hiring, Cutting believes, helps establish the idea of setting boundaries for artistes. "Defining consent is top priority now. Every actor has different boundaries and my job was to ensure the scene supports the story and is not gratuitous. No actor should be compelled or pushed into a scene.
Sometimes, producers, even in the West, would pressure to show more; something that the performer on that day may not have wanted to do. Productions might want to push them to hold up to their contract but my job is to ensure they feel safe and consequently negotiate on scenes. Sometimes changing shooting angles can help say the same story, without making anyone feel uncomfortable. I am now getting called at the audition level itself to familiarise actors with what they are walking into. They can say no right at the start if they wish."
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