Director Vaishali Sinha on the infinite intrigue of sex
With Ask the Sexpert, Director Vaishali Sinha wanted to “get back to basics.” Her most recent film in a growing body of work on matters of the human body is an intimate portrait of India’s preeminent sexologist, Dr. Mahinder Watsa. Through Dr. Watsa, Sinha asserts that the best way to talk about sex--that primal and absurd act humans seem destined to misunderstand--is with humor. Mixing and blurring with the solemnity that invariably complicates the comedy, the film is as essential as it is playful.
From his Mumbai home, the 90 year-old Dr. Watsa, a former gynecologist, writes a regular newspaper advice column, in which he answers queries about anything and everything sex-related. While most of the questioners are men, and frequently concern male anxiety, Dr. Watsa always steers the answers to empower women.Perched at his computer, we watch Dr. Watsa’s two index fingers skim across the keyboard, gently typing out answers to dozens of daily questions. Things like “is it better to wear two condoms than one?” and “is it okay to use a mascara tube for masturbation?” filter through his blunt honesty and wry wit, and offer the refrain that sex--and all the questions, anxieties, and desires that it entails-- is normal.
Interspersed with writing, Dr. Watsa’s house operates as an open-door counseling practice, “like a train station” for individuals and couples seeking emotional and physical advice. His clients seem to speak with no reservations at all, which, given the delicacy of topics discussed, marks Dr. Watsa as a genuine guide for the human condition.
Surely Dr. Watsa’s age influences his approachability, as well as his celebrity, which appears most fervent among selfie-snapping Millennials. The ripple effect of sex education programs in schools--facilitated by a Watsa-inspired brigade of young teachers-- underscores a generation that is breaking taboos, and demanding cultural shifts.
Virtually unfazed by challenges presented by a crusading moralist, or by his own family’s concerns for his well-being, it’s Dr. Watsa’s attitude that makes this film so charming. When asked if he enjoys his work, he replies, “yeah, why not?”
As her character balances elderly nonchalance with unwavering dedication, Sinha maneuvers between a delightful individual and tender reflection on society as a complex whole, and confirms that there are always more questions to ask.
What was Dr. Watsa like as a film subject?
The first time I met him in 2013, I filmed him for 2 or 3 weeks, and afterwards, he said, “great! I think you have everything you need now.” And I was like, “oh boy.” Every time I returned, and every time I would finish my production trip, he would have me over for a goodbye, like a ‘have a good life back in NY, we hope to see the film soon!’ And then the next year, I was back. He was always gracious. He has an open door policy-- he always has people coming and going. It’s like a train station. I think I was also one of those people, initially. He’s always happy to talk to young people, young or old, about this field of sexuality. He’s always like, “sure, come on it!” he just didn’t realize that I would be stay quite as long as I did.
Some people can wax eloquence. I could just sit there and listen to him talk. I could sense something very tangible and interesting going on. I had the gut intuition that I needed to stay with it. Also, he was just really fun. He doesn’t say a lot. I would speak more than him, making up for pauses and blurting and blabbing, and he would come in with his zingers. He’s very measured. He just chooses to think about his answers. It was interesting to be with him because of the world he was opening up for me.
How did you first learn about him?
I grew up in Mumbai, but I left for New York in 2004, and in 2005, the column launched. Even though I went back every year, I never picked up the Mumbai Mirror. I had no idea there was this column that was revolutionary in certain urban cities of India, including Mumbai. This has basically been the staple diet for many generations of Indians for about 10 years now.
What was your driving intention with making this film?
I wanted to make a film about sex, essentially, because I make films about sexuality and reproductive health. The underlying intention was women’s empowerment and sex education, so I wanted to make a film about sex through character study. I wanted to know what are the ways in which Indians talk about sex. Because when I was growing up, other than with my friends, there was nowhere to discuss these things. So I thought a sex therapist or a counselor would be my window into that world. I sat in my little Brooklyn apartment scribbling up a script for a documentary where I would find this person who would have clients coming to him—I knew it would be a man, because that’s the more likely person in this profession. In my search, I very quickly came across Dr. Watsa, and it became more than what I had dreamed of.
How has Dr. Watsa responded to the film?
After I first showed it to him a few months ago, and I called him and asked what he thought. He first said, “Well, it takes a while for one to absorb a film about oneself.” That’s all he had to say. He also didn’t think the whole film would be on him, and I was like, “what?! I filmed you for four years!” It was really funny. And then he said, “I can see why it’s popular abroad. I don’t think, though, that people in India will like it.” I had already had one young well known filmmaker who had seen it early on, and was completely in love with it, and I knew how people in India would see this film. I just couldn’t wait for him to be in a roomful of people watching it with him, and for him to realize just how much people love it. And recently in India, he specifically told me, “you know, I told you I didn’t know if people in India would like it, and I was wrong.”
Dr. Watsa has been sexual health advocate for many decades. Did he talk about how his aging has shifted his readership, his clients, and how they relate to him?
The fact that he’s 90 makes it a safe way to talk about sex; he’s very nonthreatening because of his age. I don’t think he thinks of himself like that. It’s funny—other people who have known him or have worked with him, when they were younger they all remember him as old. He’s been old for a long time. He tells his kids, “there’s nothing to retire from when someone’s reaching out to you and they’re searching for someone they vibe with.” so I don’t think he thinks of himself as old, necessarily.
The film is character driven, and it’s also sociological—how did you balance the micro and the macro perspective, and how did they inform each other?
That was always an interesting thing. This was my first portrait documentary, and that was its own challenge. My first film Made in India had a three act structure, but there was no such narrative structure with Ask the Sexpert. It was really more that I was interested in the character a lot, and I was interested in wherever his work was going to take me as a journey.
And, because my subject was communicating with real, multi-dimensional people, with real lives of their own, I could no longer just make a film about just this one person. It had to be about these other people. That balance was very important to me, so I worked very hard at working to weave in those voices, while keeping it a character driven film.
What do you hope your many audiences get out of the film?
I hope, at the very least, people leave the film feeling like they have a tool or some way to discuss sex and sexuality with their partners, or their children, or whomever. I want it to open up conversations and dialogues. I hope it encourages parents to think of the value of talking to their kids openly about sex, consent, equality—and how it will serve the interests of their kids. Also, for men, hopefully it will alleviate some of their anxiety to see other men go through performance issues, and then to hopefully not just focus on themselves, because that leads to toxic masculinity. Hopefully it will spur us to be a little more thoughtful with our partners and our loved ones.
Through the making of the film, my mom and I talked about sex for the first time. It’s funny to say that. But I would shoot in Mumbai, and my mom would stay up at the end of my shoot day, waiting with a cup of tea. And she’d ask, “so, who came to Dr. Watsa today?” It was just really fun to be able to talk to my mom about it. During post production, we had a couple interns, and they all told me in some way or the other that they were able to have conversations with their parents about sex because of this film.
Your first feature Made in India-- about surrogacy-- is also about how we value, talk about, and use bodies. What is it that ties together your two films as a body of work?
I’m interested in sexuality, and sexual rights. Reproductive rights is a part of that for me. Part of everything I do is about agency and choice and exploring body politics, especially growing up in a country—and I think relevant in the U.S as well—where women’s bodies are controlled. With Made in India, I thought it was really interesting that women were entering this practice in a culture where otherwise selling your body for money or body parts for money would be looked down upon. There was something happening there that was about choice, women’s sexuality, regulation of our bodies, and Ask the Sexpert is also kind of along those same lines. I really wanted to get back to the basics.
Was there an intentional pivot turning from Made in India, which is about a complex international dynamic, to Ask the Sexpert, which is contained within Indian society?
For me, Made in India is also about India. It was about watching Americans go to India, but ultimately, those who have the most at stake were the women. In that way, the interest wasn’t such a great departure. Sex is a global, universal experience. I really thought that this film has the potential of striking a chord globally. I knew going into India that there’s a lot of taboo about talking about sex, so I thought that would help us really think about the issues at home and here in the U.S as well.
How do you see yourself fitting into that narrative of dismantling taboos around sex? Why is that important to you?
When I make films, I just want to make something I’d like to watch. And I wanted to watch something about sex that I had never seen before-- a film that would show everyday Indian people, who are not so different from everybody else. So in doing that, in normalizing us, we would then be progressing the conversation on equality and rights.
What is the story of how you became a filmmaker?
It’s a long winded road. It was never my original intention. Nobody in my family is a filmmaker, and where I grew up, it’s not considered a career. And perhaps isn’t really one here either, especially for documentary filmmakers. I was raised to think science is a safe career, so I studied physics in college. But then once I was out of the system of what was expected of me, things in India were becoming more experimental in terms of career choices, and I decided to branch out and explore. Then I fell into filmmaking through a nonprofit I was working for in Mumbai that used drama and film as a tool to talk about issues. And I quickly realized that film was the part I was most interested in. I wasn’t cut out to be in an administrative job, the part I was cut out for was to explore something more artistic.
Could you share a particularly important filmmaker’s mistake or challenge?
I’m constantly making mistakes. There was a point where I thought I would just learn from my mistakes, but then I keep making them. So I’m like, “is that just my personality?” I’m just getting older, and it’s not going to get better. It makes you so desperate sometimes. I tell my husband, “I think I need a manager or someone, because the mistakes aren’t getting any better.”
Talking about failure and mistakes is kind of like talking about sex—it can feel shameful, but once you open up about it, it feels really good.
I think we should have monthly meetups about failure. It’s so human-- a dark and funny celebration of being human. I was recently at an awards event and all these iconic figures were saying that it never gets better. They were sweating just remembering each time they made a new film and how every time they thought, “this is going to be a big failure. I’m not an artist, I’m a scam artist.” And it’s like “thank god, it’s not just me.” I only have two films, here’s somebody 30 films later and they still feel it.
Who are some favorite or influential female documentary filmmakers?
I really like Kim Longinotto. I remember seeing her earlier films when I was younger in India. I was helping curate a women’s film festival, and I saw so many boxes of films arrive on our doorstep from Women Make Movies. It sounded like such a far-away organization, and years later they became my distributor. Back then, they had all these obscure films in the 90s of really experimental films by many women. They made such an impact on me.
What’s next for you?
I hope to focus on personal relationships, and have a joyful time as a human being because being a filmmaker is just so demanding. Also, I just love making films about sex and sexuality, so I hope to continue that.