Ask The Sexpert @FreedomFilmFest 2018: Interviewing filmmaker Vaishali Sinha

This 90-year old man gained fame for being a columnist in Mumbai. Not just any column, but a sex column. Ask the Sexpert is a feature length documentary by filmmaker Vaishali Sinha about him. Despite sex being a taboo topic in that country, the column’s brand of non-moralistic advice and humor has emboldened many to write in with their questions, the vast majority of whom seek basic information. The columnist gains popularity even while a ban on comprehensive sex education in schools is adopted by approximately one third of India’s states. 

Ask the Sexpert  is part of FreedomFilmFest which is back in its 16th edition this year. This year's festival is a call to action to “Mend The Gap”. Despite progress in science, technology and democracy, the gaps between the rich and poor, the have and have nots, the powerful and the powerless are getting deeper and wider. This year’s 8-day festival programme from 29 September to 6 October in Petaling Jaya, Kuala Lumpur, consists of a total of 53 films and 15 thematic talks, workshops and masterclasses. The festival is also going on a long road trip throughout several cities in Malaysia before ending off in Singapore in November. Really bringing cinema down to the grassroots level!

SINdie interviewed the filmmaker Vaishali Sinha on her encounters with the Sexpert.

The sex expert said for 40 years nobody bothered, how come people started to take notice in the 41st year. What prompted you to take notice and even make it into a film? 

Oh yes I love that quote from the trailer. I think in that instance Dr. Watsa was pointing out to both his popularity which still baffles him (although it shouldn't!) and the conservative backlash leading to a charge of obscenity and corruption of Indian youth. Around October of 2012 I started writing a treatment for a documentary idea to film a sex therapist and his clients. This was based on my desire to explore conversations around sex and pleasure frankly in a documentary film. Having grown up in India my experience was no different from anyone else's in terms of having to limit these conversations between a few trusted friends. 

Of course taboos or censorship is never the solution and as an adult and an empowered filmmaker it was not such a stretch that I would end up wanting to make this film! As I set out to find my central subject, I quickly came across Dr. Mahinder Watsa and his column. He provided me an incredible window into the world of the readers who write to him and those who visit him in his home office. But it's his sense of humor, body of work, singular sense of mission and his reach that became the central character. 

Dr. Watsa is a retired OBGYN and started writing columns in 1955 alongside his practice. In the 1970s during his time with the Family Planning Association of India, Dr. Watsa started India's first ever nation wide sex education program. It was years later especially after the AIDS epidemic began that an official proposal to start a sex education curriculum in schools began but eventually met conservative backlash banning it in many states. One of my other subjects in the film who was involved centrally in petitioning against the curriculum speaks about her side of it. - 

How are the attitudes towards sex in India like? And given that sex education and culture are different in different parts of India, how do the different regions vary? 

I think Dr. Watsa probably sums this up best in the film as " We are some 10-15 nations together. You go to any state and they've got their own way of behaving. (But) All across the board, attitudes are more or less the same as well as the questions are also the same and the worries and anxieties are also the same. So as far as my field goes, I think there's a great need." 

Just curious, why is the Sex Expert so knowledgeable about sex? Where did he get his ideas from? 

You'll have to ask him:) But largely speaking at the heart of his non moralistic advice is the belief that "It's Normal" and that "Sex is a happy event." He has also been answering questions since 1955. As an obstetrician & gynecologist and an empathetic person he was listening and paying attention and it has informed him. 

What were some of the funniest things you encountered in the making of this documentary? 

Oh man, I think it was often reading some of the questions that came Dr. Watsa's way. But I wouldn't call them funny rather more delightful. I mean the frankness, the uninhibited sexploration, all to me were an undiscovered treasure trove of public record. Here were real questions and admissions, not made up scripts. 

What is the funniest sex tip you have come across in talking to The Sex Expert? 

Someone wrote with a question "I have a goat called Jamila, I want to have sex with her. Is it ok" Dr. Watsa responded "Why are you asking me, ask Jamila." I thought this was poignant and funny. 

Screening Date: 3 October 2018 
Screening Time: 10.30 am - 12.30 pm
Event Link
This screening is organised in collaboration with Federation of Reproductive Health Associations, Malaysia with the support of UNICEF, Malaysia.   

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