India has been shuffling awkwardly near the precipice of modernity since the 1990s, and Mumbai has arguably been leading the charge. If you were around when the name “Bombay” was officially struck down, chances are the sitcom Friends was your initial exposure to topics of sex and sexuality. Fast forward a decade later to the first issue of Mumbai Mirror, and you’d likely have been exposed to explicit queries about sex for the very first time. The “Ask The Sexpert” column has become something of a cultural staple for Mumbaikars, whether for genuine advice or as a window into the backward state of Indian sex ed, but the humorous, straight-to-the-point writer behind it isn’t as well known outside of his name. Vaishali Sinha’s eponymous documentary hopes to change that, while also focusing on the nexus in which he’s operated since 2005 – that of sex education and traditional values – in what can best be described as a conventional film on an unconventional subject.
Mahinder Watsa is a gynecologist and professional sexologist well into his 90s. Many folks of my generation likely imagined someone half his age, perhaps making light of sexual problems as some perverse prank. That image comes crashing down early in the doc, as we meet Watsa during his morning routine of answering dozens of questions on his up-to-date Windows PC, approaching the subject casually but never laughing at his own jokes (turning directly to the camera instead; he’d fit right in on The Office). He’s a humble man, one who never mocks his subjects, but one who understands that comedy might be necessary to break the ice on one of India’s most vital subjects yet one of its least discussed. At the other end of the spectrum however, is a woman several decades younger fighting to have his column legally struck from the papers on the grounds of obscenity. The two extremes of sexuality in India, rare openness and all-too-common silencing, colliding – albeit only in theory.
Watsa and his seeming adversary never meet – in fact, he hardly comments on the case to begin with – and while the film reduces her role in this real-life narrative to a significant degree, it allows for several real-time conversations between Watsa and his patients. They come and go at unspecified hours (Watsa’s home and heart are open to those in need), skirting around the very terminology of their problems and exposing the most fundamental issue of Indian sexual education: the unwillingness to engage with its language, whether in English, Hindi or otherwise. And yet, even these conversations bog the film down beyond a certain point, entering repetitive territory as we’re presented with our third consecutive faceless subject discovering how work pressures are affecting his sex life – conversations that, while certainly important to understanding the oft-ignored connective tissue between sexual and social anxieties, would’ve benefitted from truncation.
I’m left torn by Ask The Sexpert. It’s a film that feels more vital than ever as Indian society reckons with its deeply rooted misogyny, at times feeling dangerous as the camera remains transfixed on the hands of anonymous subjects while they fumble over the right words to describe basic biological function. The stakes feel monumental in that regard (one anonymous teen girl in particular comments on how far the conversation has come), but the film’s lack of discernible structure and focus is a kick to the shin, if not an outright kneecaping. There’s no narrative or emotional logic to when or why we go from Watsa’s personal life to his professional column to the occasional opinions of his detractors, nor any real coalescence between the three (you could put most of these scenes in a random order and end up with the same effect), though let it not be said that it doesn’t feel like a celebration of a truly unsung hero.
For its part, the film does manage to strike a particular chord when it chooses to focus on Watsa’s sixty-five-year career as a leading sexologist. In the process, it acts as a time capsule through his writing, through old photographs of health conferences and through the testimonies of friends, tracing the evolution of India’s conversation with sexuality (and with itself) through the ages, providing just enough levity along the way by throwing in a few more ludicrous questions (“What will happen if I rub dog semen on my penis?”) with answers that match their seeming sincerity (“Did you ask for the dog’s consent?”).
As important as Watsa’s work is, the “opposing perspectives” briefly touched on in the film never really feel like threats. There is undoubtedly a sense of social stand-still on either side – sexual progress is slow, as is the procedure of filing a court complaint against it – but in the process of capturing the reality of this dynamic at its most mundane, one can’t help but wonder if the urgency of the topic ends up undercut. This Mumbaikar certainly thinks so, and yet the film feels important regardless, occasionally veering off to focus on other educators who live in a post-Sexpert world. We get to see their work with youngsters unfold in the form of awkward giggles that eventually transform into comfort with both talking about their bodies and discovering a part of the human experience they’d been conditioned to ignore.
For all its flaws, Ask The Sexpert is a unique window into the inner lives of Mumbaikars in a way that narrative cinema seldom attempts, whether by exploring the familial cost of Watsa’s work or simply the knowing smiles of girls on the street as they’re asked about his column. That it doesn’t feel like more of a challenge is a let-down (for instance, its dangling thread on men’s emotional repression as it relates to sex), but Watsa having challenged social norms for decades is why some of us can even have this discussion in the first place. Tell a Mumbaikar “someone made a movie about the Sexpert” and I guarantee you their eyes will light up with curiosity – the same curiosity that his column has made people comfortable with after years of hesitance.
Ask The Sexpert is currently playing at DOC NYC.