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Mahinder Watsa: 90-plus and still talking about sex

Watsa’s responses to both his readers and his patients are cheeky and irreverent   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

After a panel discussion on sexual health and reproduction, Dr. Mahinder Watsa is surrounded by a group of young women gushing over his knowledge and wit. They giggle, confess their admiration and ask for a picture. The then 92-year-old sexologist and popular columnist obliges. He is comfortable with — and somewhat accustomed to — being the centre of attention, which wasn’t the case for the first 40 years of his practice as a gynaecologist and obstetrician. It is Watsa’s ‘Ask the Sexpert’ column in a Mumbai tabloid that catapulted him to fame for doing as a columnist what he did for over 40 years in medicine: provide unfiltered advice on sex.

Vaishali Sinha’s documentary Ask the Sexpert is an entertaining and insightful portrait of Watsa, one that uses the immensely sassy nonagenarian to explore the discourse around sex education in the country. Indians have often shied away from discussing sexual health and sexual desires in the public space, especially women, who have lesser access to and acceptance in these spaces. “But there’s something non-threatening about discussing sex with a 92-year-old,” says stand-up comedian Aditi Mittal, one of his many female admirers, in the documentary.

The right questions

Watsa’s male clients often tell him that they are consulting him because their wives insisted they should. “Women feel here is somebody who is talking to guys the way we would want to talk to guys,” says Sinha, who made the film over a span of four years. “Dr. Watsa will tell you that in the last 10 to 12 years, there has been a rise in women asking questions and the questions have evolved, while men have asked the same question about masturbation and impotence down the years.”

Much like his column, Watsa’s responses to his patients during consultation are cheeky and irreverent. Sinha lends a light and chirpy treatment to the documentary, supplementing Watsa’s wit. The film raises pertinent questions and offers multiple arguments, but refrains from taking a stand.

After co-directing a documentary on surrogacy called Made in India with Rebecca Haimowitz, Sinha wanted to make a light-hearted film on sex therapy and consultation. “Where does one go to divulge their rawest sexual questions and dilemmas, I thought,” she recounts. The 38-year-old filmmaker recalls seeing small roadside shops offering sex therapy as a student while walking to Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College. “But in 2012 when I returned there, these guys were losing out on business,” she says. On the hunt to find the most prominent voice in the field, she stumbled upon Watsa, who eventually became the primary subject of her film.

In December 2012, after the Nirbhaya case hit the headlines, it stirred keen interest in international media around issues of sexual repression and violence in India. “The incident also polarised the conversation around sex education,” says Sinha, and she was under pressure from some of her funders to include the case in her documentary, but she thinks the Nirbhaya incident is another story in itself. “I was very clear about the core of my documentary. I wanted to make a positive film where people talked about their desires, without speaking about violence.”

The documentary uses Watsa’s interactions with his patients as a microcosm to understand the concepts of morality and taboos in India. Before Sinha left Mumbai to study film production in New York, she recalls an incident when a group of strangers attacked Sinha and a male friend for simply sitting together at sunset and chatting. “In doing so they took the liberty to discipline me,” she says. In Ask the Sexpert, a police raid on young couples in a hotel raises questions on liberty, personal choice and moral policing.

While Watsa is an unwavering advocate of free choice and safe sex, Pratiba Naitthani, a political science professor in St. Xavier’s College, provides a radically opposite view. The documentary lends her a patient ear as well. But unlike with Watsa, the film falls short of providing a background to the professor’s opinions and thought processes. “That’s because Dr. Watsa gave us incredible access, while Pratiba was very one-dimensional,” says Sinha.

The film premiered at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, and was screened at MAMI last week. It will also participate in the International Documentary Film Festival, Amsterdam, in November, and will finally make it to Netflix in January next year. “Dr. Watsa turns 94 this year and I wanted this film to release soon so that he is a part of the conversation,” says Sinha. With his sassy one-liners and witty rebuttals, who can resist that?

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 5:19:32 AM |

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