Like a miracle wrought by a godman, Searching For Sheela has arrived on Netflix without a director. The documentary about Rajneesh’s former aide Anand Sheela has credits for two production companies and Shakun Batra of Kapoor & Sons fame as the executive producer. But no human seems to have sat in the director’s chair.
Should Batra or editor Nilesh Bhatia be credited with shaping the material into a 59-minute film? Or is the ex-Rajneeshi, who now goes by the name Sheela Birnstiel, the invisible force behind the camera? Like so many unanswered questions about Birnstiel, we will never know.
Sheela Birnstiel shot to prominence after the release of Wild Wild Country on Netflix in 2018. The documentary series by Chapman Way and Maclain Way revisited Rajneesh’s ill-fated attempt to set up a commune in Oregon in the United States in the 1980s. As the godman’s personal secretary, chief enforcer and spokesperson, Anand Sheela became the face of the township that came to be known as Rajneeshpuram.
Wild Wild Country is filled with sensational footage of the Rajneeshis’ antics, a host of Sheelaisms as the combative cultist took on journalists and detractors, and evidence of several crimes, including immigration fraud, poisoning, wiretapping and attempted murder.
Birnstiel was among those convicted of these crimes in 1986. Sentenced to 20 years in prison, she miraculously managed to secure her release after only 39 months. She moved to Europe and eventually settled in Basel in Switzerland, where she runs a centre for disabled people.
The notoriety that Birnstiel earned with the release of Wild Wild Country also came with fandom for her bold and brazen ways. Her comments became internet memes, and she was held up as an unlikely feminist icon standing up to her mentor.
This kind of celebrity could not go unexploited. In 2020, Nothing To Lose, an authorised biography of Birnstiel by Manabeena Sandhu, hit the stands. Searching for Sheela, filmed in 2019, follows Birnstiel on her first trip to India in over 35 years. She was 70 at the time.
Birnstiel visits Delhi, where she is fawned over by members of the city’s one per cent and journalists. Birnstiel drops into her family home in Vadodara, where she was born, and finally swings by Mumbai, where she first met Rajneesh.
Unfolding mostly as a very long out-take from Wild Wild Country, the puff piece seeks to project Birnstiel as an enigma and a survivor (she is “fierce, clear and bold”, an admiring stylist comments.) But the film actually comes across as an attempt to follow an entertaining yarn all the way to its last, fraying thread.
Firmly in control of her narrative, the smiling but steely-eyed Birnstiel swats away all attempts to question her about her past actions and evades tricky questions by resorting to gnomic statements (“Some people wear their baggage on their faces, I wear it on my shoulders”).
Karan Johar, one of the documentary’s producers, hosts a private event with Birnstiel in Delhi. I am going to get down and dirty, Johar promises, but alas, Birnstiel proves to be a slippery subject.
The burning question (at least for gossip hounds) of whether Anand Sheela and Rajneesh had a sexual relationship is finally put to rest. It was platonic, Birnstiel says, adding, his eyes were more beautiful than his penis was, not that I have seen it.
Birnstiel’s ability to make shocking statements holds her in good stead through her India tour. Among her hosts is Bina Ramani, who sees in Birnstiel a kindred soul. The designer talks of having suffered the effects of intense media attention after the model Jessica Lall was shot dead in her nightclub in Delhi in 1999.
Birnstiel frequently complains that the world is obsessed with her connection with Rajneesh and the crimes for which she was convicted. Neither Birnstiel nor the invisible makers of Searching For Sheela are able to address the real question: if not for Rajneesh, why would we be interested in his former secretary at all?
Barkha Dutt is among the wide-eyed journalists sharing warm vibes with Birnstiel. Dutt wants to know why it was Birnstiel, and not the cult leader, who took the brunt of the collapse of Rajneeshpuram. Why aren’t you angry, Dutt asks. Birnstiel’s vague reaction is perhaps the only fitting response.
Birnstiel is anxious about her personal safety while in India, but perhaps it’s the critical journalist or the sceptic she needed to have feared the most. The best moments in the film emerge when Birnstiel’s evasiveness and defensiveness are laid bare. At a party, a young man bluntly asks her why she did “bad stuff”. Birnstiel bristles at the very suggestion, and the scene ends quickly.
Journalist Shoma Chaudhury neatly puts Birnstiel in a spot. Among the charges against Birnstiel was that she attempted a bio-terror attack by deliberately infecting salad bars in an Oregonian city with salmonella.
I am not saying that you did it, but would you have poisoned a town if it needed to be done, Chaudhury cleverly asks.
The exchange indicates what Searching For Sheela could have been: a curious and layered portrait of a performative and attention-hungry former cult member that also implicates her followers and the minor industry that has sprung up around her. In its search for Sheela Birnstiel, the documentary doesn’t get anywhere. In the workmanlike and uncritical assembly of footage, there is no indication that the film ever intended to.