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Thoughts on “Searching for Sheela” (2021) | Documentary | Movie Analysis

Like many others who have watched the “Wild Wild Country” (2018) mini-series, I decided to also watch the complementary biographical documentary “Searching for Sheela” (2021).

While the series presented the controversial events surrounding the Rajneeshpuram community founded in the 1980s USA by followers of spiritual leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho), the new one-hour documentary focused on his then personal assistant and community spokesperson Ma Anand Sheela and her return to India, thirty-five years after she left it.

The program is absolutely unremarkable – I will detail why below – but it invites the consideration of a significant social aspect triggered by Sheela’s various interactions during her visit.

 

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

 

WHO IS MA ANAND SHEELA?

Ma Anand Sheela was one of the central figures involved in the management of a spiritual movement formed in India, in 1981, which was based on the principles and teachings of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. As his personal assistant, she convinced Bhagwan to create an ashram in the USA, and so, the group following Sheela’s directions, built the town of Rajneeshpuram in the state of Oregon, in Wasco County.

Trouble started once the newcomers interfered with the daily lives of the locals by attempting to gain full control of the area and by allowing their practices – which, to their neighbor’s surprise and disgust, involved free sex – to leave the commune’s borders and bother the good people of Antelope town.

But this is not just a story about loud and rude neighbors; this story took a criminal turn very fast. Rajneeshpuram used force, impressive financial resources, and the manipulative and aggressive traits of their elite members to terrorize, bully and fight in every way possible the Oregonians who wanted the followers of this strange cult to go back to where they came from. And at the core of the war – they did consider civil war at some point – was Sheela. Spokesperson, manipulator, main strategist, and designer of all things Rajneeshpuram, both good and incredibly evil, as legal endeavors would later reveal.

As it is often the case of criminal groups, regardless of the label they may choose for themselves, those who get together to profit from the gullible will also be willing to turn against their own despicable kind once the ship starts sinking.

Rajneeshpuram was no different. The well-established position of the original core group – Sheela and whoever she chose to be close to her, was threatened by a new breed of – this time American – manipulators in search of power. According to “Wild Wild Country”, this new set of spiritual wannabes bought Bhagwan’s attention in the exact way you’d think of – lots and lots of money… and some drugs. As an authentic spiritual leader, he went for the money and drugs and made new friends.

The internal fight was ugly, so the external fight with the Oregonians in particular, and with all Americans, in general, turned criminal since Sheela was determined to try everything within her power to maintain her privileged position close to Bhagwan and inside Rajneeshpuram.

Long story short, the main points are that Sheela and her acolytes attempted murder on their own community’s doctor – they said this was because they considered him a threat to Bhagwan – engaged in a plot to kill US federal prosecutor Charles Turner, and, like this wasn’t enough, they initiated a bioterror attack on the people of The Dalles city by contaminating food in their restaurants with Salmonella. [I wonder why the Americans wanted them gone…]

These horrible acts were to help the group win elections and secure control of Wasco County.

Just in case you were wondering what an invasion by spiritual, positive, loving, enlightened humans, looks like.

Well, Sheela and her crowd’s plan failed and she had to flee the commune and leave Bhagwan, whom she was in love with, and everyone else behind. Then the arrests started, and the trials and jail time for both Sheela and Bhagwan, and several others who helped with the various criminal actions and attacks. She went to prison for several years, as well as one of the other members who attempted the murder against the Rajneeshpuram doctor – both entering Alford pleas, while Bhagwan – charged only with immigration fraud, multiple counts – had to pay a fine and leave the United States as part of his own deal with the prosecutors.

You discover all of these things in “Wild Wild Country”, a very well produced docu-series, that I highly encourage you to watch to gain insight into this group and its main actions. Although it did leave many stones unturned regarding the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh – accusations of sexual abuse, for example, and many other controversial elements allegedly linked to the group, weren’t even mentioned – it is highly informative, which cannot be said about the “Searching For Sheela” piece.

 

“SEARCHING FOR SHEELA” (2021) REVIEW

If you’re searching to understand more about Ma Anand Sheela, you won’t get any satisfaction from this short documentary. It’s like they counted on audience traffic from the previous docu-series to drive attention to their little project and provided little to almost no relevant information about the main figure.

The one-hour program finds Sheela in Switzerland where she now resides and manages two nursing homes – she still seems to want to lead some sort of a commune, no matter what, I guess – and follows her during a promo tour for her new book in India, where she returns after thirty-five years.

And that’s all this amateurish documentary is. A poorly scripted, poorly edited video that offers nothing more than a boring, unimaginative view into Sheela’s present life. That’s a complete miss considering the magnitude of her presence and role in the spiritual community she led. She was one of the main, if not the most significant decision-maker in Rajneeshpuram and one of those who not only had access to but help build the image of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh; an image not far from that of Osho – the identity he later adopted – whose influence is still present worldwide.

 

WHAT DREW MY ATTENTION: BEYOND THE MAIN STORY

The main thing that “Searching For Sheela” revealed has nothing to do with Sheela. It has everything to do with the present society though.

Since there’s nothing new for you to learn about Sheela from this documentary, there are a few other aspects that become clearer while watching the program. [And since this is an hour of your life that you’ll never get back, I suggest you try to create your own meaning for what you’ve just watched.]

While they’re showing the former Sanyasin – label used for the members of the spiritual movement – interact with various individuals in India – influencers, young people, socialites, etc – a disturbing pattern emerges: Those people ask the most inappropriate, juvenile, uninformed, idiotic questions one could ever ask in such a situation. All topped with inappropriate, juvenile, uninformed, idiotic reactions. That scared me.

From interviewers to random people who get close to her and get to talk to Sheela, it all shows a severe decline in the quality of both journalism and everyday interpersonal communication.

I understand, Ma Anand Sheela is a character of a bygone era. Yet, she is one of the most prominent figures of one of the biggest spiritual movements that ever existed. She built a freaking town, managed a social experiment – that failed, but that’s not really relevant -, was close to one of the most known spiritual leaders – a con man, but still well-known and influential-, and triggered a global discussion about freedoms, acceptance, limits, loyalty, and the power of shared interests and goals.

And what do those people want to know? If she’s guilty of crimes she never admitted to. If she slept with Bhagwan. Could she possibly tell *them* how she committed the crimes she was convicted for? Are you freaking kidding me??? Some compared their own struggles to Sheela’s and one young woman was determined to express that what she read online about the former spokesperson’s convictions and alleged crimes is the truth, while Sheela’s own answers that seemed to steer away from that public version must be corrected. But they took selfies, and that’s good for the ‘gram.

Yes, Ma Anand Sheela was convicted and accused of very serious crimes. Yes, she is not as relevant today as she was thirty years ago. Yes, maybe she should’ve never been allowed to become relevant. Yes, some of the traits that caused her previous actions may still linger. Yes, she’s still trying to capitalize on that era. And yes, I cannot stress this enough, she is not to be portrayed as some sort of hero or redeemed individual – in fact, she is the first to say she’s not looking for redemption.

But none of these things have anything to do with the way those people chose to act toward a person in the presence of which they chose to be as part of a privileged crowd that would have direct access to her during the tour. Nothing explains the superficial questions and bizarre reactions and requests – one of the interviewers was almost pushing the woman – or so it seemed to me – to repeat one of the phrases that she used in the past while dealing with interviewers who confronted her – “tough titties”. It was like she was asking a pet to perform a trick again and again.

I understand sensational media; it’s a disgusting animal, but some choose to feed it. This crowd failed even at that. There was no substance to their questions. I would’ve been interested to know how the whole Rajneeshpuram project became a reality, what it was like to run a community of thousands of people in those conditions, what were the main struggles, what she thinks the takeaways are from that experience, would it make sense to try a similar project with a different goal, etc. You don’t ask a person why they went to prison. You know why. And no, FFS, they won’t reveal to you what did not come up in a trial and could still incriminate them for additional actions.

From a production point of view, Sheela seemed willing to give them more than enough material – she is incredibly intelligent, she is very charismatic, one can find deep meaning in the perspectives she presents. And yes, she does things that also benefit her, but don’t we all, one way or another? She was known as the bad guy, but if you still see her like that, then you can simply choose to not interact with her. It’s better than embarrassing yourself for missing such an opportunity.

That was my main takeaway – a disappointment in the current state of society – at least the portion of it presented in the documentary – and its ability to extract relevant elements of life and use them when situations demand it. Who knows, maybe they just chose the really wrong crowd and there’s still a chance for the rest of the population. Maybe these individuals are not a relevant sample.

“Searching For Sheela” is a bad, bad documentary but a damn fine social mirror.

P.S. It is interesting to see Ma Anand Sheela repeatedly explain how she’s not spiritual and that she was never interested in meditation and other practices that were a thing in Rajneeshpuram. She said that in “Wild Wild Country” as well. Just to show the type of interests and involvement leaders of these cults entertain while selling the spiritual story to millions of gullible, emotionally feeble individuals worldwide.

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