Vaishali Sinha sat down with us to talk about renowned Indian sex educator Dr. Watsa's impact in India with his battle against sexual repression and the need for comprehensive sex education around the world. Interview conducted by Zach McIntyre.
How did you first become interested in documentary storytelling?
I’ve always been a film buff since I was a kid. My parents loved the movies too and every so often in Kolkata or whatever city in India my dad’s job in the Air Force took us to, we’d make it a point to go catch an English or Bollywood film. On the television I watched a lot of regional Indian cinema. However, it was at my first job at a women’s rights non-profit called Point of View in Mumbai where I discovered filmmaking. Point of View uses filmmaking among other art forms as a tool to promote women’s voices on various issues. I loved the social advocacy work we did there and immersed myself wholeheartedly. But there I was introduced to the idea of film as well, and perhaps something as achievable. My then boss - and dear friend now - Bishakha Datta, a filmmaker and brilliant Indian feminist saw something in me and encouraged me to follow this path of filmmaking. I owe a great deal to her gentle encouragement because I didn’t come from a family of filmmakers and especially in India in the early 2000s this was not the norm for young Indian women. I then embarked on a path to becoming a narrative/fiction filmmaker. It was then I found another wonderful mentor, this time a documentary film professor at the New School University in New York who took me under his wing and hired me and really showed me how to be a professional, ethical, and independent filmmaker. The veteran filmmaker’s name is Richard Wormser, a Peabody award winning filmmaker of films such as the multi part documentary series called “Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.” I began exploring documentary filmmaking, and the immediacy that came with the terrain of documentary filmmaking really suited me. Early on, I loved being able to shoot by myself and tell stories around issues that interest me. I was fortunate to have two very remarkable people in my life at crucial points. And then, of course, I’m a dreamer, stubborn, carefree and will do as I please, which are helpful traits in this rocky uphill but ultimately rewarding profession.
Where did the idea for ASK THE SEXPERT originate and how did you originally meet Dr. Watsa?
I wanted to explore a story in the area of sexuality in urban India. Talking about sex carries a cultural taboo, although there are changes taking place now. I was seeking a space where people make their honest and rawest admissions of desire and dilemmas in order to capture those conversations. This led me to the idea of a therapist or someone similar — a place where one would feel like they could benefit from telling the truth, or that at the very least they had nothing to lose.
I quickly came across Dr. Watsa’s name. He is a phenomenon and it was a wonderful surprise to find an open discussion in his column. Immediately he and the column seemed like a great lens into a larger story. For the uninitiated, this column is the first thing many Mumbaikars wake up to along with their morning chai.
I thought there was a film to be made here because there is a lot talk and conversations around whether opening up in society about sex is good or bad, but very few examples of how that can play out.
How open was Dr. Watsa to participating in the project?
I received unprecedented access from Dr. Mahinder Watsa and others in the film. I gave Dr. Watsa a copy of my previous film which he liked and I explained to him my ideas for this film. He considered everything and agreed to become a subject. At the time I don’t think he quite realized that it would involve 4 years of filming!
Where does the problem of India's misguidance on sex education stem from? Religion? Politics? Both and other factors?
I would not say religion is the leading factor. For instance the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was enacted in India in 1971, this was before Roe V Wade in the US (1973). India was also the birthing ground for the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1952 by Margaret Sanger and Lady Rama Rau. However, my film goes a bit into the history of India’s governmental focus on family planning but lack of focus on human sexuality.
India has been an interesting place in terms of its duality. It’s never been just regressive or progressive. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there is much that falls between the cracks. Information about our own bodies and open conversations about what it means to be a sexual being – this platform has been largely missing. It certainly did not help to live under British Victorian colonial laws that brought with it a deep sense of moral judgements and shaming. The vestiges of these colonial laws remain with us, for example the contentious Section 377, criminalizing sexual activities against the order of nature including homosexual activities. Most recently as my film goes into this, a new nationwide curriculum on sexuality education was banned in 2007 and effectively implemented in several Indian states.
What dangers are made prevalent by the lack of guided sex education in India?
I think there’s a lot that experts will be able to shed light on, but primarily the lack of sex education causes a great deal of anxiety and stress in both the young and old. It leads to misconceptions and also to behavior traits that are harder to change in later life. The film exhibits some of this through the lens of Dr. Watsa’s work.
Does the absence of sexuality education create a culture that can be dangerous for women at times?
Absolutely. In 2013, after the horrific gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi which led to her death due to brutal injuries, a body – Justice Verma Commission - appointed to look into recommending preventative measures, highly recommended sex education among other urgent needs of India. This recommendation is yet to be implemented.
A lot of sexuality education is about respect and consent as well as about sex positivity. Dr. Mahinder Watsa’s work on pushing for sex education since the 1970s and on promoting pleasure and consent is based on the firm belief that this is a way to gender equality and is also based on his actual ground work and understanding of people’s contexts and needs.
In the film, there are a lot of voices speaking out against Dr. Watsa and his column. Even with them, do you believe India is headed in the right direction towards providing better sex education to young people?
I think, as Dr. Watsa himself would say, everyone has a right to their opinion - especially in a democracy. But I am hopeful because there are a lot of vocal voices now asking for better sex education. There are also many informal blogs and civilian groups as well as non-profits (some working since the '90s) who are exploring conversations around sex and sexuality.
Are there other prominent figures or services in India besides Dr. Watsa that young people can turn to for answers?
Yes, in addition to what I mentioned above, there are also the Family Planning Association of India and other services that offer counseling and therapy. However, the need of the hour really is sexuality education in schools to have a far reaching effect. Much of this is covered in the film.
ASK THE SEXPERT also shows just how many people write, call or visit Dr. Watsa with often times very basic questions. He’s had a tremendous impact through his interactions with people as well as his push for sex education, but hopefully the film also displays just how much needs to be covered. One of my favorite quotes from Dr. Watsa is “every day there’s a new generation that has the same questions. Someone needs to answer them.”
Being such a large project, how did ASK THE SEXPERT change along the way? Did your goals and ideas shift often?
I think the central idea never shifted and was something wonderful to return to or achieve at the end of the day. The idea was to bring conversations and stories of desires and dilemmas out into the open. But the topic of sexuality education is so deep and broad. There are many areas to be covered. The film takes on a few key points especially along the lines of gender equality and the advocacy for pleasure as a key element of it.
It’s also a character driven film, where hopefully there is a payoff to understanding the central subject’s personality and values - and how it lends to his success and popularity with people.
What kind of dialogues do you want to see your film start in classrooms and communities in India and around the world?
I hope that in a small way people are inspired to shed inhibitions and have open conversations with their partners and children about bodies and desires. I have a toddler and I have been inspired to give him honest, age appropriate answers to questions and also to teach conceptual things about the body based on recommended sex education books. I think he’s wiser and confident because of this information. And I hope this education will continue for him in his school in New York.
One of the simplest but fundamental things to perhaps take away from the film is “It’s normal." This is very much at the heart of Dr. Watsa’s approach.