Documentary peels off the taboo surrounding sex and sexuality

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Ask_the_Sexpert_PosterOne 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.

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Dr. Mahinder Watsa, 93, a sex columnist for an English daily in India, was the subject of the documentary, Ask the Sexpert. The film featured in the 2017 Toronto Hot Docs festival. Supplied photo.

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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.

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Vaishali Sinha, director, Ask the Sexpert

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.

 

Let’s all get filmy in Toronto this May

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May ’17 South Asian events in Toronto offer a heady and healthy mix of films, theatre, music and dance. Check out our desi events calendar.

Monday, May 1

Event: IFFSA
Details: Controversial film Lipstick Under my Burkha, Shahrbanoo Sadat’s Wolf and Sheep and dozens of others are part of the line-up. Guess what? Akshay Roy ‘s Meri Pyaari Bindu starring Parineeti Chopra and Ayushman will make its North American premiere e May 15 at the festival. IFFSA runs 11 to 22.
Contact: Here

Event: Ask the Sexpert
Details: Toronto’s International documentary festival 2017 Hot Docs will showcase an array of documentaries from across the globe including Vaishali Sinha’s Ask the Sexpert, a film is about Dr. Mahinder Watsa, a highly popular 93-year-old sex columnist for Mumbai Mirror. The film will screen at Hot Docs May 1 to 3 at the TIFF Bell Lighthouse. Festival runs until Sunday, May 7
Contact: Here 

Friday, May 6

Students from Nachdi Jawani showcase their dance at the Carassauga Festival of Cultures. Photo by Rob Beintema

Event: Nachdi Jawani
Details: Punjabi Virsa Arts and Culture Academy will be hosting its 17th annual Nachdi Jawani Youth Festival, at 1370 Williams Pkwy. Brampton from 10 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. Event will feature gidha and bhangra competitions.
Contact: Here

Event: Taraang
Details: Enjoy a Bollywood musical concert at Glenforest Secondary School, 3575 Fieldgate Dr. Mississauga. The Taraang Ek Sureela Kaarvaan starts at 6 p.m.
Contact: Here

Sunday, May 7

Event: Gujarati Comedy Show
Details: Enjoy a Gujju comedy show at Chinguacousy Secondary School, 1370 Williams Parkway, Brampton at 5 p.m. The three-hour LOL riot features Dr. Jagdish Trivedi.
Contact: Here

Thursday, May 13

Event: Hindustani Music Concert
Details: Raag-Mala Music Society presents Hidayat Khan (sitar) and Manjusha Patil (vocals) at this spring concert at McLeod Auditorium, Medical Sciences bldg., 1 King’s College Circle at 7 p.m.
Contact: Here

Saturday, May 20

Event: Zumba Party
Details: A Bollywood-themed Zumba fitness party is happening at the Harold Braithwaite Secondary School, 415 Great Lakes Dr. in Brampton at 4 p.m.
Contact: Here

Friday, May 26

Event: Carrasauga
Details: Mississauga’s festival of cultures beckons you to take a trip around the world for chump change. While you’re globetrotting, stop by the India pavilion at the Hershey Centre, community rinks at 5500 Rose Cherry Place, Mississauga. Festival runs until Sunday, May 28.
Contact: Here

Saturday, May 27

Event: Malhar SpringFest
Details: Malhar Group will present its annual SpringFest at the Molson Canadian Studio at Hamilton Place, 1 Summers Ln. Hamilton, at 6:30 p.m. Concert will feature: Subhranil Sarkar (sitar), Kaivalya Kumar (vocals), Abhijeet Banerjee (tabla) and Sanatan Goswami (harmonium)
Contact: Here

 

Sounds from the tabla and taiko will make history in Toronto concert

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On Saturday, April 15 the walls at Greenwin Theatre at Toronto Centre for Arts 5040 Yonge St., will be a site for a concert featuring two ancient far eastern instruments, the tabla and taiko (Japanese drums) featured above. Supplied photo.

Musical savants like Ritesh Das and Kiyoshi Nagata are always in pursuit of cerebral pursuits that confront them into taking journeys that test their craft and creativity.

Ritesh, a tabla maestro and director of the Toronto Tabla Ensemble, through his inquisitiveness and aptitude for all things percussion, has helped bring the tabla into centre stage of mainstream music here in Toronto.

Whereas, trailblazer and innovator, Kiyoshi (taiko soloist and artistic director of Nagata Shachu) has likewise resurrected the powerful sounds taiko, a Japanese drum, in North America and elsewhere to stand irresolutely on its own.

So when the duo decided on a cross-cultural percussion undertaking, it became one for the history books.

On Saturday, April 15 the walls at Greenwin Theatre at Toronto Centre for Arts 5040 Yonge St., will reverberate (hopefully, the theatre has strong insulation) with sounds of tabla and taiko (Japanese drums) in a never-seen-before Toronto collaboration.

Imagine, the massive taiko—a mostly barrel-shaped percussion instruments made with hollowed tree trunk tautly tied with cowhide—and the diminutive, but strong and pure sounds of two skins meeting in ether and forging a harmony of notes. The history-making concert starts at 7 p.m.

“You can play the tabla with any instrument in the world,” said Ritesh, a tabla maestro that has learned with Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pandit Swapan Chaudhari. “The tabla and taiko are two instruments with different sounds. The challenge then was to figure out how one can compose music based on their sound vibrations without losing the integrity and spirit of both.”

That serendipitous meeting:

When Ritesh met Kiyoshi (more than 20 years ago), it was a meeting of two brilliant minds.

The two artistic heavyweights’ musical partnership started in 1994 when they performed as part of Kiyoshi’s world percussion ensemble Humdrum. Then, in 1996, they came together to compose the piece Asahi.

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Ritesh Das, a tabla maestro and director of the Toronto Tabla Ensemble. Supplied photo.

This upcoming concert however marks the first time two eastern ancient musical heritages—the tabla and taiko— will interact in such a large-scale on the stage.

“When we first rehearsed just a couple of weeks ago, it really didn’t seem like some 20 somewhat years had passed,” Kiyoshi remarked.

Seeking to create an elusive “something” through the combination of two percussion sounds required Kiyoshi and Ritesh to look beyond their individual musical sight lines. And boy, does it work (check the videos).

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Kiyoshi Nagata, taiko soloist and artistic director of Nagata Shachu. Supplied photo.

Clash of the titans

At the concert, the audience will experience the sounds from different taikos (some are huge and placed on upright stand, while others are flat-bodied) and the several artists playing the tabla.

“In order to compose a music (that will be true to both) you have to have a strong background of understanding your art form first before you start collaborating with someone else,” Ritesh observed. “Imagine the spinal chord as the taiko and the tabla as the ribs that encase it. There was a whole of exploration with the culture and tradition (of the instruments) that went into the planning of this concert.”

The five-and-a-half challenge

The tabla-taiko concert will feature 10 artists bringing the strength of two percussion instruments steeped in history, heritage and the ancient science of Nad (sound) yoga.

“The taiko is a very loud instrument compared to the tabla,” Kiyoshi said. “How do we achieve those balances? I was totally up for the challenge of working on a piece in five-and-a-half. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but, when you get down to the bare bones and understand the foundation of music, then we can translate that into our own taiko language and that’s where the true collaboration starts.”

OK, here’s quick refresher on what the “five-and-a-half” reference here is.

“Saade paanch (“five-and-a-half” in Hindi) is a rhythmic cycle,” Ritesh explained.

The collaborative piece between the two ensembles is set in a rhythmic cycle of five- and-a half-beats, which is rare in Indian music, but unheard of in Japanese music.

So, how did the two maestros pull off the incredible feat? I guess, you will have to watch the show. Also, a single from Ritesh’s upcoming album, Bhoomika will be released that day.

For tickets and more, visit http://torontotabla.com/ or www.nagatashachu.com.

 

Go pagal Toronto, Holi hai!

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Rang Barse

KC Group Canada will celebrate Holi at the National Banquet Hall, 7355 Torbram Rd. Mississauga at 11 a.m.

Friday, March 10

Event: Holi Milan
Details: Hindu Heritage Centre, 6300 Mississauga Rd. will be hosting a Holi celebration at 6 p.m. Well-known flutist Deepankar Ganguly will be performing. Event includes cultural performances, dinner and more.
Contact: Here

Event: International Women’s Day
Details: The Punjabi Community Health Services (pchs)will host a gala to mark International Women’s Day at the Pearson Convention Centre, 2638 Steeles Ave. E. at 6 p.m. Five exceptional women will be honoured.
Contact: Here

Saturday, March 11

Event: Rang Barse
Details: KC Group, which was among the first ones to host Holi celebrations are at it again. This year’s event will take place at the National Banquet Hall, 7355 Torbram Rd. Mississauga at 11 a.m. Enjoy gulaal, lunch and entertainment.
Contact: Here

Event: Balam Pichkari
Details: Balam Pichkari is a dance party celebrating Holi at Moonlight Convention Centre 6835 Professional Crt. Mississauga at 6:30 p.m. Organizers say they will provide clothes for you to play Holi. Cost of tickets is $50/person.
Contact: Here

Thursday, March 23

Event: Dance Diaries
Details: Sanskriti Arts Ensemble (SAE) will be hosting two famed artists/choreographers Shampa Gopikrishna and Nishant Bhat at its dance studio, 2359 Royal Windsor Dr. unit. Also, there will be final performance at the Maja Prentice Theatre, Saturday, March 25.
Contact: Here

Friday, March 24

Event: Doule Gujarati Comedy
Details: Swar Sadhana Music Lovers’ Club will host a Gujju comedy/drama at the York Woods Library Theatre, 1785 Finch Ave. W. in North York at 7 p.m. Cost of tickets is $15/person.
Contact: Here

Saturday, March 25

Event: Indian Classic Music Concert
Details: Raag-Mala Music Society of Toronto will host a classical Indian music concert at McLeod Auditorium, Medical Sciences Building, 1 King’s College Circle, Toronto at 7 p.m. Featured artist include: Ronu Majumdar (flute), Harshad Kanetkar (tabla), S.V. Ramani (mridangam) and U. Rajesh (mandolin).
Contact: Here 

Event: Let’s Nach
Details: Gurdeep Ubhi’s annual fundraiser to support of Mt. Sinai Hospital will take place at Chandini Convention Centre, 5 Gateway Blvd. Brampton at 6 p.m. Cost of tickets is $40/person (adult).
Contact: Here 

Shereen Ladha’s Roots will take you on a magical journey of colour and sound

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Roots: A Journey Through India is a show that combines dance, music and history. It comes to the Rose Theatre in Brampton, Saturday, Feb. 18 at 7 p.m.

Whenever I chance upon something amazing: a good book, a watchable movie, an incredible entrée or even an interesting conversation, there’s a good chance, I will not simply shut up about it.

Sometimes, I even write a whole blog.

So pretend for a moment, these words are being delivered via a bullhorn.

I, for one, plan to stop by the Rose Theatre in Brampton, Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. to watch Roots: A Journey Through India.

Having sampled a small snippet on video (you can watch the earlier post), I know it’s just the kind of thing to appeal to all my senses— high-energy dance, opulent costumes, familiar Bollywood tunes and a story line.

Shereen Ladha, 29, the director and creator of Roots as well as owner of popular YouTube channel, dancewithSL has conceived the show by combining her love for dance and choreography, India and Bollywood music.

When she started dancing at four,it was because it was, “so organic, almost like breathing.”

Then on, it was all hard work and grit and following the path.

Magnificent, mesmerizing and magical

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Shereen Ladha, creator and director of Roots: A Journey Through India is a versatile artist proficient in many genres of dance. Supplied photo

Roots can be described as a panoramic, visually stunning musical show that through Shereen’s signature vision wefts and weaves silken threads of romance, laughter and drama through several touchstones of India’s cultural heritage. The rich tapestry is sewn together with Bollywood music.

“I think what makes Roots so unique is its multi-generational and multi-cultural appeal,” said Shereen who considers Madhuri Dixit and Michael Jackson her idols. “It will remind our grandparents and parents of home; the younger generation will connect to our heritage and for people of other cultures, Roots will demonstrate the length and breath of India’s cultural diversity and richness…”

By the way, the last two shows sold-out.

Some 16 or more talented artists execute Shereen’s vision on stage. Mississauga’s Shama Kassam, 26, is one of them.

ken_5721Shama and Shereen are best buddies bound by their passion for dance. When she’s not swaying to music, Shama channelizes her energy into making the body, mind and breath connection as a yoga instructor at Power Yoga Canada Mississauga.

Roots, must be watched to be believed, she says

“I, like many Indians and non-Indians alike, grew up with a love for classic Bollywood and have always been inspired by the feminine grace of movement in Indian dance styles,” Shama said. “My parents love Bollywood music and our house is always willed with Indian music from the 70’s to modern day. I also grew up with a lot of interest in Hip-Hop music and that influences the style of dance I love, and the types of music I’m drawn to.”

Naach baliye, naach

Shereen, a Toronto native is a choreographer, dance visionary schooled in many genres: Hip-Hop, Ballet, Kathak and jazz, all of which she assimilated by the time she was 10.

“Intense dance training is really at the heart of that (dance repertoire),” said the artist whose day job is working with a strategic consulting firm. “I’m a strong believer in having a good foundation in dance. I believe a dancer really should never stop learning, a reason why I started my Master Classes in Bollywood.”

Sorry? Nah, Maafi

You probably recall Shereen from her viral hit Maafi, a cover of Justin Bieber’s chartbuster Sorry. The remix video garnered almost a million views before Sony Music grabbed the copyright.

“One my friends wanted me to do a choreography piece to Sorry by Justin Bieber as part of my regular channel videos, but I thought the original video and choreography was so good that I wanted to do something more unique and put my own spin on it,” Shereen told TDD. “So I got my music producer, J-Raj, and my team on board and Maafi was born.”

On the video going viral she says:

“I think it’s one thing to have fame, however long or short-lived it is, and another thing to make an impact,” Shereen says. “Sharing my art, educating people about my culture, and changing perceptions though dance is something I value so much more, and I feel strongly that I won’t ever compromise the quality of my work to achieve any level of fame.”

Check out Maafi!

To buy tickets for Roots, visit here or call 905-874-2800.

Toronto artist with Down Syndrome thumbs her nose at naysayers

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Gurvir Singh, 24, an artist/songwriter/fashionista founded Power of One, an initiative that through art teaches participants the impact of words when it comes to discrimination.

Sassy, artistic, brave, and a total diva.

Gurvir Singh, 24, is unlike any woman I have met.

She hasn’t let her disability (Down Syndrome) become her identity rather, with the support of her family this amazing artist is carving quite a niche for herself as a fashionista, songwriter and an advocate.

When I met her, Gurvir sported a black top and jacket, paired with a sapphire blue scarf and trendy accessories. She exuded confidence I wish I could borrow.

Each of the pieces of art she brought along, turns out was the result of a powerful creative stirring she experienced when she watched: Harry Potter series, the azure blue ocean she glimpsed when she visited her sister Sara in Halifax, the music of One Direction and so on.

Without art, Gurvir would have probably carried the hurt of the words her bullies hurled at her all through her school years. Even though she was bullied, she didn’t let the bullies win.

“Words can hurt,” said Gurvir. “I was called names all through my school and one day, during a hip-hop class, one of the boys called me fat.”

I have to interject here. Sahil Prashar, whom I wrote about earlier, too was bullied.

I can’t understand the mindset of families that nurture these bullies. Children learn aggression and behaviour from their parents and then expel their cruelty outside. If I had my way, I would parade the parents and shame them like the media does with impaired drivers during the annual RIDE (Reduce Impaired Driving Everywhere) program.

So, back to Gurvir.

gurvir2One day, after she went through yet another volley of taunts at school, Gurvir and her sisters Sara and Navprit, launched Power of One, an arts initiative that offers series of workshops to help participants understand the impact of words in bullying and discrimination. At the end of each session, folks create a tangible piece of art to take home.

I am amazed at Gurvir’s spunk. Even though it would have hurt horribly to go to school every day and be at the receiving end of her bullies’ cruelty, she did not give up her learning. She graduated and hoped to pursue a university degree in fashion, except there are none for students with disabilities.

The Singh Sisters, as I like to call them, have taken it upon themselves to advocate for educational opportunities for those with disabilities.

“Watching Gurvir and all the barriers she faces made my family want to become advocates of change,” said Sara Singh, Gurvir’s older sister explained adding her non-profit Broadening Horizons’ mandate is to help, educate, inspire and mobilze youth to use creative expression as a tool to address social issues. “We urge people to promote inclusion in their workings whether it’s through employment or artistic endeavours. Through inclusion we can educate not just ourselves but other people as well on what inclusion and exclusion is.”

Gurvir has no time to dwell in the past. She keeps busy creating t-shirts with personalized art, writing songs and painting. Her advise to those getting bullied?

“They should stand up for themselves and maybe talk to a teacher, principal or someone they trust,” said Gurvir. “As you grow up, things change and you become stronger and that helps too.”

Amen, sister, Amen.

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Gurvir flanked by the “rocks” in her life, sisters Sara (right) and Navprit. The Singh Sisters are advocates for those with disabilities and run Broadening Horizons, a non-profit group. Photo by Bryon Johnson/Metroland Media Inc.

 

 

Non-verbal autistic teen from Toronto sings in three languages

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The two subsequent blog entries belong to Sahil Prashar, 17, and Gurvir Singh, 24. Both have disabilities and both have experienced bullying. I was able to put my life in perspective after meeting them. I hope you will too, after you read about them.

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Sahil Prashar, 17, is a non-verbal autistic teen and a savant who can sing in three languages. Supplied photo.

 The autistic teen with the voice of an angel

The 45-minute drive through the rural roads of Caledon and Orangeville took us into the bowels of inky darkness of a fall evening.
As the GPS announced our destination, all I could think of was: Why on earth would a desi family, with young children – Sahil and Jiya – choose to live in virtual isolation?

Minutes into my conversation, Anoop Prashar — Sahil and Jiya’s dad — as though reading my mind, answers my question.

Anoop and his wife Sudha Prashar chose to move away from the bright lights of city so they could escape the insensitive taunts families and children hurled at their non-verbal autistic son Sahil, 17.

In Hindi/Punjabi or for that matter in other Indian dialect, there’s a complete absence of language and word that has both sensitivity and compassion for individuals that don’t conform to a cookie-cutter mold.

So, people resort to the harsh and inappropriate “paagal” (or crazy). Imagine for a moment, how the reference may have made the Prashars wince. To toss the ubiquitous “Paagal” at anyone with autism, Down syndrome, learning disability or mental health, is cruel.

So, understandably when society gave them the cold shoulder, the Prashars tried spirituality.

“Those preaching/visiting temples and Gurudwaras are interested in chasing religion, not humanity,” observes Sudha who has had to watch her son being bullied at school. The adults too exhibited zero compassion.

Sahil, an extraordinary teen on the Autism spectrum, cannot speak, read or write, but he can sing. Boy, can he sing.

“Sahil has recorded more than 50 YouTube videos in three languages: English, Hindi and Punjabi,” Anoop shares. “Do you know any other 17 year-old with autism that can sing Marvin Gaye and other Motown hits, Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga along with bhajans and ghazals?”

That’s a truly impressive feat, except the Prashars are not social media savvy or well connected, so they have not been able to share Sahil’s gift with the world.

No takers/no supporters

On a recent day, when Sahil’s voice began to hit the notes of a spiritual song about a mother pleading to the deity, it took every ounce of willpower not to break down and sob.

The innocence on Sahil’s face as he stared into space, twisted my heart. His voice was pure.

A dad – who’s the breadwinner – leaves for work and interacts with others as part of his work, but a stay-at-home Mom’s sole focus is her child. She makes several journeys to hell and back, protecting him from pain, discomfort and the world. Worse, she has to hide her tears, so her son can see the strength and hope.

There’s no doubt, this vulnerable youngster, who cannot take care of himself or defend himself from his bullies , is enveloped in a warm and solid fortress of love. But, the question, one that likely keeps parents of  children with disabilities awake at nights is: what will happen to our child after us?

“Till date, Sahil has not had anyone his age come over to the house to play video games, he has not been invited to any birthday parties,” Anoop said. “To society, he’s invisible because he’s disabled…”

When their child was three, Sahil’s parents noticed he did not talk and missed key milestones. To their amazement, he would sing along to songs on the car’s radio.

“When he was a child, Sahil had this toy piano that he would play with until it broke,” his father said. “When it broke, we would go get another one (same make).”

This song is from the heart

Anoop, who works in the trucking/construction industry, decided to share Sahil’s incredible talent with the world, some three years ago.

Each day, he would play a song whose lyrics and melody Sahil would instantly pick, thanks to a photographic memory. Hours of practice later, the duo would record the number. The sound system they use is primitive and out dated, a second-hand Karaoke system that doesn’t capture the acoustics or inflection of sounds well.

When they had recorded a fair number of songs, armed with links to the videos, Anoop and Sudha knocked on doors of media/bloggers/YouTube influencers urging them to share Sahil’s gift. No one bit.

The Prashars are completely at loss. Music makes Sahil happy and all they want is to give him a stage on which he can perform and share his love for music.

“I want Sahil to be a world-famous Canadian,” Anoop said adding they would welcome any band/studio that was willing to work with Sahil.

To check out Sahil’s talent, visit his Facebook page here.