Remembering Dr Mahinder Watsa: Beyond witty sexpert persona, a generous, compassionate physician and educator
Dr Mahinder Watsa never shied away from answering the many generic and repeated questions asked of him. He said, “Every generation has these questions — somebody has to answer them.” | Filmmaker Vaishali Sinha, director of 'Ask the Sexpert', writes.
“So I think now you should have everything you need for your film?” said Dr Mahinder Watsa, as a way of wrapping up our very first meeting in early 2013. But my feature length documentary titled Ask the Sexpert would go on to have a long and productive journey before its eventual release in 2017. I knew we had much ground to cover, yet the disarmingly self-effacing doctor felt he had already summed up all of his life’s work in our brief initial meeting. Getting to know Dr Watsa through the medium of film revealed nuances to his personality that are often harder to grasp in words.
Throughout the several years of filming, Dr Watsa generously let me and my talented film team into his home and life. This was no different from how he treated his many frequent visitors. The usual traffic included clients (Dr Watsa was an accredited sex therapist and counsellor), sex educators and other therapist colleagues, journalists, fans, friends, philosophers, lonely hearts, etc.
On one occasion he had a visit from a group of young male film school students who sought his counsel for their short film idea featuring a “troubled” female protagonist. While awaiting his junior guests, Dr Watsa said, “Everyone interested should be welcomed into this field of sex education.” These words and his attitude are a reminder to me of the need to be open, inclusive and non-judgmental.
During this meeting he rummaged in his library (with the help of his formidable assistant Trishla Jain) and brought out books like The Joy of Sex. With several books tucked under his arms, and with an earnest and motivated energy, he said, “Let’s help these boys!” and strode back towards the living room where the young men were seated. From behind our camera, I chuckled, but I doubt he heard me.
During the session with the young men, he sometimes turned to me and tried to pull me into the conversation to add my perspective as a woman. After all, Dr Watsa never neglected the woman’s point of view. His thinking was formed from a variety of feminist sources such as his progressive parents, the first ever International Planned Parenthood Federation meeting that took place in Mumbai in 1952, his work as an OBGYN, or his interactions with women in his monthly column in the magazine TREND founded by female journalist Frene Talyarkhan. For decades he continued to have a remarkable impact on the field of sexuality education.
His famous “Ask the Sexpert” column for Mumbai Mirror, helmed by editor-in-chief Meenal Baghel, was the next step in his journey as an advice columnist and sex therapist. The somewhat more “unusual” questions he received at the wide-reaching Mirror brought him a new, welcome challenge. His eyes would twinkle and he would shuffle a bit in his seat every time he got questions that were off the beaten path.
But he never shied away from answering the many generic and repeated questions asked of him (for, as he would say, “the zillionth time”). Of the many myths and misconceptions about masturbation, for example, he often said, “Every generation has these questions — somebody has to answer them.”
Quickly reading through my transcripts, I’m reminded of the many ways he deployed humor. On one occasion, he related a story he was preparing for a presentation to a private group. “So the story which I normally use is about the child asking his mother, ‘How was I born?’ And she said, ‘The crow brought you,’ and he said, ‘How was Dad born?’ and she said, ‘The milk man brought him.’ Finally, he said, ‘How were you born?’ And she said, ‘I was brought in a vegetable basket.’ So the child wrote in his essay next morning, ‘In my family for three generations there hasn’t been a normal birth.’ So that’s the sort of thing I’m going to be talking about,” he said.
Of his city, Mumbai, he said, “I always thought it’s like a glass of milk, where the cream is on top and it gets less and less, more watery as you go below.”
His face-to-face clients had a deeper and more nuanced view of the man than his acerbically witty column would lead one to expect. In one of Dr Watsa’s counselling sessions that I was fortunate to witness, an interfaith couple who had eloped and married had some health concerns. Dr Watsa seemed worried about the young woman’s safety given the stories of hostility towards Hindu-Muslim couples from their own families. He sat with them for over an hour, listening patiently and addressing their concerns with his signature ‘less is more’ way. His was one of the safest practices they felt they could come to for advice.
I had the pleasure of having Dr Watsa accompany me to the Indian premiere of the film at the Mumbai film festival, MAMI, in 2017. It was gratifying to see the audience experience what I myself had learned of his demeanour — the witty columnist, in person, was gentlemanly, almost courtly, in his manners. His warmth and his measured and thoughtful way of speaking were transfixing. He received a standing ovation by a home crowd that had loved his column for years. MAMI artistic director Smriti Kiran recalled in a recent Instagram post, “An audience member stood up to tell Dr Watsa that he had very different views about sex before he watched the documentary but watching the film has changed his perspective and his life. I wish I could have recorded that moment.”
Dr Watsa went on to attend all three screenings of the film, even one quite a distance from him. And in the following years he often informed me of the messages he received from those who had seen the film.
I, like so many others perhaps, regret not having the chance to say a proper goodbye to him. We spoke only twice this year, which was unusual for us. But as the years before, even in these final conversations Dr Watsa was his warm self. His absence is keenly felt by my entire film team, and we have in our thoughts his family and all those who loved him.
Ask the Sexpert (available on Netflix India till 31 December 2020) features Dr Watsa and explores the highly popular sex advice columnist and retired OBGYN’s non-moralistic brand of advice and humour. The film also dives into Dr Watsa’s popularity even while a ban on comprehensive sex education in schools is adopted by approximately a third of India’s states.
Vaishali Sinha is an award-winning filmmaker.
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