Ma Anand Sheela first met the Indian guru Rajneesh in Mumbai sometime in 1968. The guru had a “beautiful hairy chest”, Sheela recalls in the docu-series Wild Wild Country. She became one of Rajneesh’s most ardent disciples, his personal secretary, and, as the series reveals, the lynchpin of the godman’s gigantic misadventure in the United States in the 1980s. The six-episode series, which has been directed by the brothers Chapman Way and Maclain Way, is being streamed on Netflix.
Rajneesh first attracted controversy in the 1970s, when he ran an ashram in Pune noted for its unorthodox meditation techniques and sexual permissiveness. But this was eclipsed by the events in Wasco Country, Oregon. The episode was as short (unfolding between 1981 and 1985) as it was scandalous, and included the crimes of bio-terrorism, attempted murder, election rigging, arms smuggling, arson and immigration fraud. Rajneesh was arrested and eventually deported from America in 1985. He returned to Pune, where he lived until his death in 1990.
The first sign of excess was the mode of transport Rajneesh chose when he left India for the promise of a “Buddha Field”, one of many centres planned for Rajneeshism around the world. He flew out in a private Boeing 747, and drank Champagne on the flight to toast a conquest that would prove to be as entertaining as it was disastrous.
A right-here-right-now quality animates the docu-series and keeps interest from flagging over its staggering running length – a seat-warming 399 minutes. Cameras seem to have been recording the Rajneeshees’ descent on Wasco County from the very minute they landed. There is no shortage of archival footage to revisit the period. The result is on expected lines: Wild Wild Country is both exhaustive and exhausting. The series gives the impression that the filmmakers were as overwhelmed by the material as the Rajneeshees were blinded by their faith.
The unwieldy and periodically absorbing trundle through a thicket of views and counterviews begins on a strong note. The first episode provides a crisp background to the move to Oregon. Rajneesh’s popularity had swelled in the mid-1970s, and hordes of Indians and foreigners swarmed to his ashram in Pune, attracted to his doctrine of self-realisation combined with a free love sentiment left over from the 1960s. Efforts to buy land for a larger ashram in India failed. Although the episode lays the blame on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s hostility to Rajneesh, a later episode fleetingly mentions another cause: the godman was fleeing possible prosecution for violating foreign exchange regulations.
Although the filmmakers display little curiosity about how Rajneesh could afford his project, it is clear that money was never in short supply. “Bhagwan did understand finances – Westerners came with dollars instead of rupees, meditation was a product,” Sheela tells the filmmakers.
The pattern of settling, disrupting and fleeing was magnified to scandalous proportions in Oregon, where the initial welcome wore thin after the Rajneeshees tried to fundamentally alter the town and its politics. Tensions rose between the disciples who believe that they were creating an oasis of peace and self-sustainability in the middle of nowhere and the locals who were horrified by what they regarded as a heathen invasion (some residents were less polite in describing their new neighbours).
As the Rajneeshees came under violent attack, they hit back with increasing belligerence. Among the crimes Sheela and her coterie were accused of include a bio-terror attack in the form of salmonella poisoning, trying to rig an election by busing thousands of homeless people into the commune to influence voting patterns, drawing up hit-lists of adversaries, including an American senator, illegal wire-tapping and arson. Sheela was later convicted of some of her crimes, but was let out after serving a little over two years of her 20-year sentence.
Cameras incessantly recorded the stand-off, and the filmmakers squeeze every available frame to recreate the raging battle between pink-robed spiritualists and horrified Christian folk. Swelling background music, dramatic editing, and carefully chosen pop and rock songs fuel the drama, as though there weren’t enough of it.
The filmmakers catch up with many of the people who were at the forefront of the standoff, but treat all of them with kid gloves. Sheela emerges as the clear heroine of the saga. The access granted to Sheela, who lives in Maisprach in Switzerland, does not appear to have been unconditional. She is allowed to represent herself as a betrayed idealist, a misunderstood devotee, a loyal soldier who was thrown under the tank while trying to wage war on her master’s behalf. Interviews with Sheela’s collaborators, including Jane Stork (also known as Ma Shanti Bhadra) make Sheela’s complicity clear, even though they are at pains to assert that she meant well.
If the filmmakers questioned or confronted Sheela about the crimes for which she is accused, it is not evident.
Sheela is worthy of a separate and altogether more curious documentary. The older footage reveals her as possessing an irresistible combination of flamboyance, sexiness, combativeness, acumen and chutzpah. Wild Wild Country lets her retain her self-pinned halo and wings, and allows her to declare, “With every crown comes the guillotine, without the guillotine, you cannot wear the crown.”
Fortunately, the series contains other Sheelaisms. For instance, during one television programme, she defended the commune with the assertion: “You are full of shit!”
When asked in an older interview if she was sorry about the people who got poisoned, she says, “People get sick all over the world on daily basis.”
Rajneesh is a spectral figure in most of the episodes, perhaps to reflect the widely held belief that he had little to do with the excesses at Rajneeshpuram (in those days he was observing an oath of silence). He reappears in later episodes, after Sheela’s shenanigans seem to have reached a tipping point and influential Hollywood personalities joined the ashram and worked to limit her influence. Leslie L Zaitz, one of the investigative reporters with the Oregonian newspaper that ran a 20-part series on the salmonella poisoning incident, also enters the picture, and provides a point of view on the commune that is not coloured by the religious sentiment of some of the locals.
The party was beginning to wind down by mid-1985. Sheela fled America in September. Television networks tracked her down to Germany, and yet another verbal stand-off ensued, this time between guru and devotee. Rajneesh laid all the blame on Sheela and her posse: “I have never made love to her… perhaps that is the jealousy,” he said in a television interview, before adding, “She is drugged… she is on hard drugs! She proved to be a perfect bitch.”
After being briefly arrested for immigration fraud, Rajneesh entered into a plea bargain with American authorities that resulted in him being deported. Sheela is allowed to have the last word on the saga: “Don’t kill him [Rajneesh] by feeling ashamed of this scandal.”
Wild Wild Country features several serious crimes, but the filmmakers are remarkably incurious about the perpetrators. One Rajneesh disciple declares, “There is darkness in all of us – doesn’t make you a bad person.”
That is neither here nor there. In between lies a 399-minute documentary, of which you can make what you will.