DOCUMENTARY Ask The Sexpert takes us into the office – and life – of 90-year-old sex advice columnist Dr. Mahinder Watsa.
In watching the witty and tireless ‘sexpert’ in action, we begin to get a picture of the frightening levels of sexual misinformation still prevalent in India. A stark spotlight on the pressing need to improve sex-education across the nation.
Ask The Sexpert director Vaishali Sinha joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about her first encounter with Dr. Watsa, the ongoing fight for sex education across the globe and the reaction to her film in India.
Q: Can you share anything about your experiences of sex education growing and what led you to tackle this subject in Ask the Sexpert?
A: Growing up, I had one 45 min Sex-ed class. It was mostly about menstruation and the boys were sent out of the class. Today this varies from school to school but there is still no comprehensive conversation or information on the subject that also takes into account pleasure and consent.
Throughout my career I’ve always been interested in exploring stories surrounding sexual and reproductive freedom. In 2012 I was researching for a film on sex in India because I felt there was literally no film at the time that showed us how everyday Indians discuss sex. This fascinated me and I wanted to learn more. Sex education became the backdrop against which I set my story.
Also as I discovered Dr. Watsa has been responding to letters around this topic since 1955 and has a deep understanding of the culture, attitudes and people’s needs in India, it drew me immediately towards a film centered on him.
Q: Dr. Mahinder Watsa is an incredible man with a wonderful sense of humour and temperament. When did you first encounter his work and can you tell us about the time you spent with him?
A: Yes! Indeed he has a wonderful sense of humor and a great temperament. There is just so much that fascinated me about his personality and approach to work.
I learned about him in 2013 – fairly quickly as I started researching a story on a possible sex therapist and their clients. We had exchanged a couple of emails and spoken on the phone before I visited him for the first time at his home office. He opened the door and my jaw almost dropped as I had no idea that he was quite that old (89 at the time). There was also next to nothing about him in the media besides the actual column. He seemed like an old time Bombay Boy as we say it and certainly seemed to belong to an even older Bombay than the one my father grew up in and had stories of.
During the course of my first interview, I requested him to read out some of the questions and answers from the column and in his inbox — it was delightful to discover that he had a uniquely non-judgmental but also deadpan way of reading them that just added so much to the film which is hard for me to describe but folks would have to see it.
Q: The fight for sex education and reproductive rights is still ongoing across the globe. We only just had the huge abortion referendum in Ireland. What are your views on the current state of the debate and what do you feel is the best way forward?
A: Yes, the fight is definitely ongoing across the globe. I was in fact in Ireland in 2016 to film one of the abortion rights cases for one of my clients Center for Reproductive Rights, a global non-profit. I’ve also traveled around the US documenting stories as well in countries like Kenya, Uganda. Brazil and Nepal. Many of these countries share similar issues at the heart of it all but contexts are different.
We definitely need to share stories with each other. Stories of victories and of struggles make this movement stronger worldwide.The recent news from Ireland made many of us women across the world so proud and ecstatic.
I’m just wrapping up shooting for another client working with legislators across the US committed to championing sexual and reproductive rights and many of them are women, an increasing trend. This is a hopeful change.
Q: In the film, you give voice to the more conservative and traditional side of this discussion through Pratibha Naitthani. How were your interactions with Pratibha and do you have any sympathies with her position?
A: My interactions with Pratiba were always pleasant. She was welcoming and responsive. I’m not sure if we see eye to eye on all of the issues discussed in the film but she had a sense of that. Ultimately she has a right to her opinions.
Q: The level of misinformation about sex education in the film is both comical and scary. What shocked you the most while putting this film together?
A: Actually, I truly never found the misinformation funny. I was tickled with some of the questions and Dr. Watsa’s responses yes but mostly because I was just delighted to see such an incredible open discussion giving me such an insight into people’s desires and situations. I also recognized some of the anxieties (I’ve been a teenager too after all and anyway life is an ongoing thing full of questions and evolving situations).
I thought the most shocking thing I discovered during the making of the film were the arguments against sexuality education. There really is overwhelming evidence that sexuality education is a pathway to gender equality — it’s a matter of getting out of some of the binary discussions of good and bad and instead looking into the grey areas much like Dr. Watsa does.
Q: The film is available on Netflix in India and will surely have reached a big audience. Have you been able to gauge the response and impact of the film in India?
A: The film released on Netflix in January of 2018 after a very successful premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival. Even since the release I’ve had numerous folks reach out to me with praise or their love for the subject. There’s also been tremendous social media and press discussion.
The film also won a Critics Choice Award in Mumbai in March. And currently it continues to tour multiple cities and small towns through film festivals in India. So I’m happy with its reach and hope that the reach continues.
Q: I believe you are currently based in New York. What is it like for you returning to India as a filmmaker?
A: I frequently film in India and it’s my happy place. Having grown up in India and having spent a large part of my life there, my films are directly informed by my lived experience and an understanding of the culture and people.
Q: What is next for you?
A: I’m developing a short (a biopic, sci-fi related). And I’m also working on developing a new longform project. I would love to disclose more down the road. But I would also love to hear from commissioners about their ideas!