Documentary channel

After a collection of columns by Mahinder Watsa, a documentary on the popular sex therapist

Vaishali Sinha’s under-production ‘Ask the Sexpert’ will explore attitudes towards sex through a profile of arguably one of the most popular advice dispensers around.

First sprung on the world by the city tabloid Mumbai Mirror in 2005, Mahinder Watsa is dangerously close to becoming a national treasure. The 91-year-old retired gynaecologist’s practical, blunt and often humorous advice on matters related to sex and sexuality is easily one of the tabloid’s most read sections. The questions range from sincere to scandalous, but Watsa’s attitude is best summed up by the title of a recently published collection of his columns: It’s Normal!

It was a matter of time before somebody decided to film Watsa’s stellar contributions to the neglected field of sex education. That film is being made. New York City-based documentary filmmaker Vaishali Sinha’s Ask the Sexpert, named after Watsa’s column, is “a character-driven film” that will use Watsa as a “lens into attitudes towards sex in urban India”, she said in an email interview. In the making since early 2013, Ask the Sexpert has been produced by Mridu Chandra and is in the process of raising completion funds.

Sinha, who has previously directed the surrogacy-themed documentary Made in India, was researching attitudes towards sexuality when she stumbled upon the column. “I was initially trying to find somewhat dubious-looking sex therapist clinics that I remember seeing during my college days, but I think quite a few of those places shut down,” she said. “In order to find other platforms where people divulge and talk about their honest feelings and anxieties around sexuality, I came across Watsa’s column. That’s the fun part about documentary filmmaking – discovering something new along filming or research.”

Bringing sex into the open

The documentary combines conversations with Watsa, a former member of the Family Planning Association of India, with an informal survey of attitudes towards sex among Mumbai residents. We see glimpses of Watsa responding to emails about safe sexual practices, among other things. In reply to an email about the merits of using two condoms instead of one (to create double protection against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases), Watsa replies with his trademark forthrightness, “Two condoms are more unsafe than one.”

Sinha observed, “Watsa’s specific brand of humor is unique and he also has a symbiotic relationship with his readers – something that I don’t think can necessarily be easily replicated.”

The filmmaker has spent several hours with the good doctor, and she said he is as courteous in person as he appears in his column. “He has allowed my pesky camera around for more than two years now – in essence, I’d say he has extended the same kind of patience towards me that he has towards his letter writers,” she said. “During my most recent production visit, he quite nonchalantly turned around and quizzed me on a question that came to him as I was filming. The question was when was it safe to have sex. The Watsa answer is simpler than you think it is.”

Among the revelations about Watsa that Ask the Sexpert will reveal: his fondness for ice-cream. “I can say that my crew and I have been fed kulfis on more than one occasion,” Sinha said.

The documentary contrasts Watsa’s advanced age, which comes as a jaw-dropper for the students she interviews in the film, and the busy life he continues to lead despite having retired for all practical purposes. “Flooded with questions via the daily newspaper, emails, the cell phone ringing and in-person consultations, it’s hard to imagine him being able to retire,” Sinha said.

Apart from Watsa, Ask the Sexpert explores the themes that are thrown up through his advice and the views of residents of Mumbai, where Watsa lives. The documentary enfolds interviews with some of the letter writers and experts in the field of sex education. “Ultimately universal themes around education, family, adolescence and aging emerge,” Sinha said.

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