In anticipation of hotdocs, the Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, I was sent the film Ask the Sexpert by acclaimed director Vaishali Sinha about India’s foremost sexologist Dr. Mahinder Watsa -timely considering the theme of this month.
To say that I was highly entertained, amused and even at times awe-struck when watching this film would be accurate. To say that I enjoyed every minute would be bang-on. To say that everyone should watch this documentary in order to further the advancement of women’s and gay rights may sound hyperbolical but really, maybe Dr. Watsa can talk sense into some people.
I had the opportunity to ask Vaishali Sinha some questions about the film, and after reading our interview, I encourage you to see the film. You won’t want to miss it!
Plenty: It always amazes me how much more alike the human species is than different. In Canada the topic of sex education in schools continues to be a hot button issue. A few years ago the province of Ontario updated the curriculum to include factors that influence sexual decision making, common misconceptions about sexuality in our culture, understanding gender identity and sexual orientation and understanding the effects and legal implications of sexual harassment, rape and abuse (to name but a few of the changes). Since these changes were introduced it has had a polarizing affect on the population. On one end of the spectrum some parents and advocates are saying it is high time for what’s taught in the classroom to better reflect our changing society. On the other end of the spectrum, some parents and advocates are decrying that sex education is even taught in the schools at all citing that it erodes morality and talk of it belongs behind closed doors. To see this documentary and understand that across the world, in India, a very similar debate is raging among educators, lawmakers and politicians proves that once again humans are not so varied. Why do you think this issue continues to be so contentious, especially in certain areas of the world? Why did you feel this story needed to be told?
India is a very interesting place right now and it’s actually always been an interesting place in terms of its duality. It’s never been just regressive or progressive.
But despite this, there is much that falls between the cracks. Information about our own bodies and open conversations about what it means to be a sexual being – this platform has been largely missing.
I set out to make a film about the spaces where urban Indians are able to divulge their raw and most honest feelings about desires, fantasies, dilemmas and questions around sex and sexuality.
I thought there was a film to be made here because there is a lot talk and conversations around whether opening up in society about sex is good or bad, but very few examples of how that can play out.
Plenty: Dr. Watsa reminds me of Sue Johanson. Ask any 30-something year old from Toronto and they most likely have a story about Sex With Sue – a weekly radio program hosted by a straight-talking, no-nonsense grandmother. Sue, a registered nurse, would field calls from anxious listeners and nothing was off-limits. Much like Dr. Watsa, she would answer questions about g-spots, scatting, oral sex, anal, sex in hot tubs and birth control with nonchalance and served up with a side of humor. Several of the interview subjects, as well as the editor of the Mumbai Mirror bring up Dr. Watsa’s age. At 91 he most definitely comes off as non-threatening and not at all sexual. Much like Sue. Many concur that because of his age they were able to open up to him in ways they would have found challenging to do with someone younger (and perhaps more sexually attractive). I found myself challenging my own ageist stereotypes. Dr. Watsa keeps a schedule that would weaken many people in their 40s, and both his wit and facts are still razor sharp. What did you learn about your own biases when creating this film?
Vaishali Sinha: Yes, I am equally amazed by his energy and wit. And frankly the one thing that makes indie documentary filmmaking possible – because it takes several years to finish – is if you can stay fascinated and surprised by your subject.
I think there were also quite a few aha moments making this film! There were definitely some straight up sex ed information that I was surprised I may not have had the right answer to or had never thought about. So it was quite fun filming! And there were delicate answers to questions that I could see how someone trained and steeped in contextual understanding would be good at handling.
In terms of ageism, I had a grandmother who in many ways had always been similarly ahead of her time so I wasn’t as shocked by a progressive elderly person but I certainly didn’t have a grandfather who was quite the same when it came to conversations about sexuality so in that way meeting him definitely challenged perceptions of what’s possible!
Plenty: Dr. Watsa, a 91-year-old man, seems the unlikely champion of both women’s and gay rights. From early on in his career to today, he is constantly pushing for education and empowerment, access to knowledge and birth control. What is most inspiring is his desire to debunk common misconceptions and stereotypes that men often are told about females that can have potentially deadly consequences for these women. Dr. Watsa talks about challenging and changing – how it’s a drop in the ocean. From your perspective do you see things being challenged? Do you see change?
Vaishali Sinha: Yes. I do see change. As does he – even though he may say his efforts feel like a drop in the ocean once in a while. But the work and number of people he deals with is vast. However as seen through my film too, I think there is great hope in what a new generation is bringing to the table in terms of pushing the envelope and being daring and bold. We are in a moment – I would say greatly thanks to feminists including Dr. Watsa, and women like the editors of his columns – to push for more open conversations and demand for rights. The internet has also been hugely liberating. Even though Dr. Watsa is not on social media, he is quite tethered too to his emails where many get in touch with him. So despite forces that may have other agendas, there are ways in which people are pushing the work. Hopefully there’ll be much more (sex) positive change in mindsets soon.
Plenty: Finally, another prevailing theme in the film is the idea of “normality” – people seeking to be “normal”, so much so that Dr. Watsa even titled his book , “It’s Normal!” One thing that mustn’t be normal at all is being around Dr. Watsa. His schedule is intense, his work is fascinating and his personal relationships appear to be complex. As someone who was privy to be a bystander to his life for a period of time, what lessons did you take away from the experience? How did it change you?
Vaishali Sinha: I definitely became keenly aware of time even before the making of this film and how little we all have of it in the grand scheme of things. I was at a place before embarking on this film where I wanted my next project to help me strike a work-life balance. This doesn’t necessarily translate into having time on hand but it was more of a mental- health decision. You know, let’s make something fun. So I sought to find a story within my area of interest of sexuality but that had a refreshing premise and hopefully with the potential to be lighthearted yet poignant.
I’m glad to say I found that space. And to be privy to Dr. Watsa’s life for 4 years was an experience that I think certainly helped me think about the value of time and relationships.
Plenty: I absolutely loved Ask the Sexpert. At a time when the prevailing winds of the world are uncertain, Ask the Sexpert highlights how alike as humans we are – seeking normalcy, wanting acceptance, some of us desperately seeking change while others clinging to a bygone time. What can we look forward to from you next?
Vaishali Sinha: I’m so glad you enjoyed the film and that you love it. Thank you! I’m in early feedback mode quite honestly because we have been on a fast track to finish – especially given Dr. Watsa’s age. So it’s great to hear reactions.
I would definitely like to grab a cocktail on the beach somewhere at least for a short vacation. Ha. And then next up – I’m reviewing a commissioned project offer as well developing ideas for more indie films for my company Coast to Coast Films.
For more information about the film Ask the Sexpert, showtimes and to buy tickets, visit hotdocs.
Read Plenty more, An Interview with Vanessa Gould, Director of OBIT.