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Sex talk elevates doctor to stardom

Columnist's openness goes against the grain in conservative India

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/5/2018 (699 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Dr. Mahinder Watsa is an unlikely celebrity. His skin is liver-spotted, his head has just a few wisps of white hair, and he wears his pleated pants belted halfway up his chest.

And yet wherever he goes, young women squeal with delight and pose for selfies with the self-deprecating 91-year-old.

Coast to Coast Films</p><p>When not writing his column for the Mumbai Mirror Dr. Mahinder Watsa, 91, sees patients at his apartment. </p>

Coast to Coast Films

When not writing his column for the Mumbai Mirror Dr. Mahinder Watsa, 91, sees patients at his apartment.

Watsa is a sex symbol, though not in the usual meaning of the term. He writes the daily Ask the Sexpert column in India’s Mumbai Mirror newspaper, and his frank and gently humorous advice is welcome in a country that, despite what the Kama Sutra would have you believe, is notoriously closed-minded and closed-mouthed about sex.

The former gynecologist is a voice of reason at a time in India when many states in the country are doing away with sex education in schools.

Some of the questions he receives are terrifying in their naiveté, others terrifying in what they reveal about traditional mores (such as one from a woman who says she’ll have to kill herself when her husband-to-be discovers she’s not a virgin, owing to childhood molestation).

In addition to his column and the many email queries he answers daily — sometimes using a magnifying glass to read the screen — Watsa has written a book called It’s Normal. That’s the perfect summation of the advice he doles out, assuaging people’s fears about their sexual peccadillos, dispelling old wives’ tales and reassuring readers with questions about penis size, masturbation and other taboo topics.

Patients also visit his cluttered apartment, sometimes without an appointment, desperate for his advice. Watsa’s calm, unthreatening manner and matter-of-fact demeanour — he’s like a kinder, gentler Dr. Ruth — leads these people, their features blurred for privacy, to open up in quite remarkable ways.

Coast to Coast Films</p><p>Fans pose for photos with newspaper sex colummist Dr. Mahinder Watsa.</p></p></p>

Coast to Coast Films

Fans pose for photos with newspaper sex colummist Dr. Mahinder Watsa.

The documentary would be quite engaging if it only focused on Watsa’s work, but director Vaishali Sinha also sets up conflict in the form of Pratibha Naithani, a professor and activist who campaigns against public vulgarity.

The Tipper Gore of Mumbai, she is suing the Mirror’s editor and Watsa, claiming the Ask the Sexpert column is obscene and destroying Indian culture.

As a villain, Naithani is more to be pitied than feared, although she’s part of a troubling morality movement that makes the false connection between sexual agency and sexual assault. With rape and abuse much in the news in India — last week, the Guardian called the country’s "culturally sanctioned degradation of women... the largest-scale human rights violation on Earth" — Sinha shows enraged talking heads on TV news programs linking it with promiscuity they blame on education. Naithani herself started a petition that led to the cancellation of the school sex education program.

Watsa has a long association with India’s Family Planning Association and Sinha shows workers from the organization talking to kids who, once they get over their giggles, ask earnest questions they won’t get answers to anywhere else — unless they write to Dr. Watsa.

The film does not portray Watsa as infallible. His relationship with his son is cordial but strained; he was clearly never a warm father. A widower, he admits he spent too much time away from home as a younger man, failing to lavish the kind of attention on his wife that he recommends his readers do on theirs.

However, there’s little doubt that his female-friendly, sex-positive work is making a difference in India. He demurs when an admirer calls him a legend, but in his quiet way, he’s certainly a kind of hero. Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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Updated on Wednesday, May 2, 2018 at 7:22 AM CDT: Fixes typo

7:25 AM: Trailer added.

7:43 AM: Adds images

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