Hot Docs 2017: Ask the Sexpert
India has a complicated relationship with sex. There is such a taboo attached to sexuality that even sex education becomes a dirty topic. For some people, teaching the population about sex is encouraging immoral behavior; if everyone ignores their own sexuality, it will cease to be a problem. But what ends up happening is that misconceptions and falsehoods spread around, causing more pain and confusion. Vaishali Sinha’s charming, informative documentary Ask the Sexpert highlights the struggle for sex education in Mumbai, one of India’s biggest cities.
Sinha’s main subject is Dr. Mahinder Watsa, a gynecologist/sexologist who writes a column for Mumbai Mirror called “Ask the Sexpert.” In his column, Dr. Watsa answers sex-related questions. He has also written a book called It’s Normal, and gives talks about the importance of sex education in India. Dr. Watsa is a minor Mumbai celebrity; Sinha interviews people who read his column and gets some laughs from people who pretend not to know what the column is. There is a hushed shame about sex and even reading about it is embarrassing. But Dr. Watsa and his colleagues/supporters want to erase that taboo. The documentary highlights many of the people who have taken up Dr. Watsa’s cause by giving seminars in schools and appearing on news programs. Sinha depicts the uphill battle of bringing awareness to the public while also highlighting the many obstacles in the way.
The main obstacle is Dr. Prathiba Naintthal, who is the leading figure against sex education. Tellingly, Sinha does not portray Dr. Naintthal as a villain; she has her own beliefs and is trying to keep India from losing its prized morality and wholesomeness. I don’t agree with Dr. Naintthal, and perhaps neither does Sinha. However, the film does offer that she has a point about sexualization in media and the harm that could come to young girls. The struggle between sex education and the protection of societal morality is a difficult one, with no easy answers. Sinha as a filmmaker merely presents Dr. Naintthal as a woman who is doing what she has to for her own values.
Ask the Sexpert is funny, and warm. Even as someone of South Asian heritage who has a passing familiarity with Indian politics, I found it to be an eye-opening experience. Sinha captures Dr. Watsa consulting with his patients (tastefully filming them from the shoulders down to keep anonymity) and it’s striking to watch Indians articulate their sexual problems. Ask the Sexpert is something like I’d never seen coming from India. It’s frank, honest, beautiful, and necessary.