One film featured in the 2017 Toronto Hot Docs Fest that caught my eye was Ask the Sexpert.
Produced by Mridu Chandra and directed by Vaishali Sinha, Ask the Sexpert, chronicles the life of the 93-year-old Dr. Mahinder Watsa, a gynecologist/advice columnist and sex expert for the Mumbai Mirror.
The blurb featured “India” and “sex” in the same sentence, so I decided to see for myself Vaishali’s treatment of the subject. As I watched the film, I was struck by Dr. Watsa’s inimitable and wry sense of humour and his honest diagnosis of the dilemmas posed to him.
Mind you, some questions were so outrageous I almost choked on the tea I was sipping. Then, it hit me: In India, sex and sex education are both relegated to tawdry corners of the Internet and sleazy magazines. Understandably there’s this vacuum. This chasm, to me, has unleashed several horrifying consequences such as rape, the objectification on women in Bollywood films and this whole taboo around sex.
Dr. Watsa’s role in de-mystifying the human sexuality should be applauded instead we are told there are at least half-a-dozen lawsuits filed against the good man and the daily he writes for.
In the nine years he has been doling advice, Dr. Watsa has tackled some 40,000 letters. He started his career as a columnist in the 60s as a medical columnist for several women’s magazines. He quit that when one of the editors insisted on censoring the questions.
Toronto Desi Diaries (TDD) chatted with Vaishali Sinha, 37, director, Ask the Sexpert
TDD: Tell me about yourself?
VS: I’m Mumbai-born filmmaker currently living in Brooklyn, New York. Filmmaking is what brought me to the U.S. This is where my independent show-making career flourished, simply, because in the U.S. there is more support for the arts than in India. The U.S. still has a ways to go in supporting the arts, especially in these times.
TDD: What drew you to the subject of Dr. Watsa?
VS: I was interested in exploring a film on sex and sexuality in urban India especially through the lens of therapist because talking about sex is such a taboo.
TDD: Once you became interested, how did you envision you would tackle the issue of sex considering India’s a prude?
VS: I wanted a character-driven story to be a lens into larger society tackling issues of sexuality. Dr. Wasta and his work went above and beyond my expectations.
TDD: Every film/story has one point/element that changes the trajectory of the narrative, what was yours with this project?
VS: I was fortunate that I ended up with finding characters I was hoping to find to be able to tell the story I was hoping to tell. To find so many people speak candidly and openly about these controversial issues was a pleasure.
What I did not prepare myself for was the enormous personality of Dr. Watsa. The depth and breadth of his work is astounding. Telling the story through his lens allowed me to bring in another element, another character.
TDD: What were some of the challenges?
VS: The topic of Sexuality is an ever-growing one in India and I want to make sure my film speaks to the timeless aspects of it. Finding a balance between topical and timeless elements was hard work.
TDD: Who funded the project and how long did it take you to make it?
VS: Funding trickled in over the course of three and a half years. Early funders include: Catapult Fund, MacArthur Foundation, Tribeca Film Institute and the iTVS (co-production partner).
TDD: Were you hoping to ruffle feathers with this film?
VS: Stylistically, character-driven stories are my forte.I wanted to make a film that would push sex education and sex positivity to the forefront of the conversation.
Dr. Watsa is such an iconic personality in India and this is the first ever film on him. I’m happy those two interests, of character and sexuality, were able to come together in Ask the Sexpert.
TDD: Anything else?
VS: Ask the Sexpert is an universal story even though it’s situated in India, I hope this opens a conversation in a positive manner not just in our community, but other communities too.
TDD: Is the film screening anywhere in India? Where can people watch, if they are interested? VS: Not yet, but keep your eyes and ears open.