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Review | 'Searching for Sheela': A too short documentary on someone who’s a calm keg of dynamite

Sheela's introspection about why she offered herself to Rajneesh is the best part of the documentary. Instead of being about her inner journey home, though, the 58-minute film ends up capturing a series of 'meet the celebrity who was once notorious' type of gatherings.

April 22, 2021 / 06:23 PM IST
Screen grab from 'Searching For Sheela', a new documentary on Netflix.

Screen grab from 'Searching For Sheela', a new documentary on Netflix.

‘We don’t want orange people in our town!’ says Ma Anand Sheela. ‘What can I say,’ she says without blinking her saucer-shaped eyes, ‘Tough titties!’

I clapped loudly when I watched Wild Wild Country on Netflix. Not only because I’ve lived in Oregon (much after Osho, of course), but also because she is unafraid and unapologetic, and she’s smart enough to get on American talk shows and decimate the racist intolerance.

So when Netflix decided to release a documentary on the spunky Ma Anand Sheela, I was compelled to see if she still had the spark inside her.

Apart from a twinge of jealousy against Karan Johar for having asked the best question there is, I was saddened to see how everyone who talked to her came across as dumb when they asked the same question, ‘Did you do it?’

Bob Marley sang Redemption Song and my review should just be the lyrics of the song, but I will take refuge in quoting a few lines from it. For the interviewers, I quote: 'Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/ None but ourselves can free our minds…'

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The questions, no matter how they asked, were answered directly by her. Sheela, now 70, has done so much more with her life after going to prison… 'You are still stuck on the same thing for 35 years…’ Sheela says.

If you have watched Wild Wild Country on Netflix and been aghast at how suspicious and hateful Oregonians were, then you come away admiring the strength of a young woman who built the town called Rajneeshpuram where thousands lived in peace and love. Imagine being responsible for everyone’s physical needs - food, clothing, shelter.

The unconditional love that she had for ‘Bhagwan’ seems to still flow out of her as we watch her calmly deal with people with disabilities at home in Basel, Switzerland. And despite being pointedly asked, ‘Don’t you get mad at Bhagwan for calling you a murderer and accusing you of being a high priestess with a lust for power?’, her answers will give you a glimpse of what her life could have been.

The documentary does not touch the part of her life in Rajneeshpuram except to show us glimpses of her adoration for the man she still calls ‘Bhagwan’ in pictures and bits from interviews where she talked tough to journalists who did not understand her then.

I hear the inanities being spouted at her at fancy Delhi homes and how people think they know her because they know she said ‘Tough titties’. You smile when she says, ‘How many of you are hypocrites?’ There’s an uncomfortable laugh in the glow of candlelight, but we know she’s sort of expecting it from the start.

Her going back to her ancestral home in Vadodara and sitting on the swing where her father used to sit brought tears to my eyes. How many of us have never truly been home? How many of us are just so steeped in nostalgia yet also know that the ‘garden is gone’.

Her conversation with her daughter on the phone was rather telling. She sounds disappointed. 'People have made memes out of my statement,’ she says to her daughter. I want to hug her and say, ‘Why did you expect so much more from these soiree crowds?’ They’re all about posting selfies with Sheela on their Instagram, and the more I heard, ‘I’m a great fan’, from people greeting her, I wondered if she was as disappointed with the homecoming as I was.

Her introspection about how and why she offered herself to Bhagwan is the best part of the documentary. I wish this was about her inner journey back home rather than the 'meet the celebrity who was once notorious' type of gatherings that make up the better part of the 58 minute show.

This is a great venture by Dharmatic - Karan Johar’s digital production company. Everyone’s going to expect Ma Sheela to be mellowed. Not a bit, thankfully. She regrets that no one is asking her about her real life and wants only to confirm what they saw in Wild Wild Country, what she labels, ‘Public truths’.

I know there’s more to her than the book Don’t Kill Him that she’s written about her deep connection with Rajneesh. I hope she comes back and does talk about her inner life again. Bob Marley was right when he sang: But my hand was made strong/ By the hand of the almighty/ We forward in this generation/ Triumphantly/ Won't you help to sing/These songs of freedom?/ 'Cause all I ever have/ Redemption songs / Redemption songs…
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.

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