Mahinder Watsa is probably Mumbai’s oldest and definitely best-known sexologist. Vaishali Sinha’s documentary Ask the Sexpert puts Watsa in imminent danger of becoming an international icon.
The genial, no-nonsense nonagenarian dispenses daily advice on matters related to sexual behaviour in the Mumbai Mirror tabloid. Watsa’s Ask the Sexpert column, in which the 92-year-old gynaecologist and obstetrician answers questions that range from the routine to the risque, is easily one of the most popular sections in the newspaper, alongside its boldly headlined lead stories and blind items about the shenanigans of unidentified movie stars.
Sinha’s rivetting documentary, which borrows its title from the newspaper column, will be shown at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 12-19). Ask the Sexpert reveals the man behind the byline, teasing out details about his domestic routine, his family life, and his stellar service towards demystifying sex in a country that believes in drawing a veil over matters related to human desire.
Sinha shoots Watsa at work, peering at his emails through a magnifying glass and dictating his responses to his assistant. She interviews his son and daughter-in-law (his wife died in 2006) and his friends and associates, who speak of his pioneering contributions to sex education in the form of a seminar on human sexuality in Mumbai in 1976 and years of pedagogy and clinical practice.
Watsa began writing sex advice columns in the 1960s, and has been praised for providing a form of sex education in a country where the subject is still not included in the curriculum of most schools. He started his Mumbai Mirror column in 2005.
Sinha places Watsa’s work against the larger context of a society that is unwilling to come to terms with an essential aspect of the human experience. Her interviews with teenagers and social workers reveal immense curiosity as well as staggering ignorance about sexual behaviour.
Sinha also documents Watsa’s counselling sessions. Although he has given up his practice, the therapist occasionally receives patients at his sea-facing apartment in south-central Mumbai. The faces of the patients are masked to protect their identities, but their anguish is uninhibited.
Watsa handles questions about sexual incompatibility, dissatisfaction in the bedroom, and the impact of stress on sexual performance with patience and firmness. He has gained a reputation for his acerbic put-downs to earnest and occasionally comical questions about what is permissible and what isn’t. But in the therapy sessions, the real source of Watsa’s reputation becomes clear: he listens without prejudice, and withholds judgement.
Every story about a hero needs a villain, and Sinha finds one in Pratibha Naithani, the indefatigable crusader against perceived attacks on public morality. A professor at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, Naithani frequently appears in the media to rail against immorality and obscenity in popular culture and the supposed decline of decency in public life. She has filed cases against the Mumbai Mirror newspaper and Watsa, and she would like nothing better than for the column to disappear.
Naithani describes Watsa’s efforts as “disastrous”, and says she is particularly disgusted when he seems to be condoning allegedly perverse and transgressive practices. “Are we promoting sex?” she asks.
The question is rhetorical. Whatever the views on the inclusion of a column dealing with graphic matter in a family newspaper, it is clear that Watsa is performing a public service. Some of the astonishment at his achievements stems from his age. When asked about what he must look like, a teenager tells Sinha, “He is probably tall, with a moustache, 40 plus, and keeps his wife happy.”
The actual number of years that the remarkably fit medical professional has spent on the planet causes mirth as well as comfort. Comedian Aditi Mittal tells Sinha in the film, “There is something very non-threatening about an older person talking about sex.”
Watsa’s advanced years have also made him something of a celebrity. As he attends public events to promote the recently published collection of his columns, It’s Normal!, he is thronged by selfie seekers, many of them young women who cannot seem to believe what he looks like in person.
In the film’s most revealing sequence, a young woman spots Watsa during a walk and begs him to stay while she runs home and fetches her mobile phone. Rather than politely turning her down or shuffling off, Watsa waits.