By Sagar S Apr. 23, 2021
Where is Rajneeshpuram’s enigmatic Ma Anand Sheela? In Netflix’s Searching for Sheela, we meet a polite grandmother who is visiting her country after decades abroad.
It’s been three years since we were last treated to any Sheela-isms on Netflix, a word coined to describe the immensely popular quips of Ma Anand Sheela, Osho’s secretary, handler, and star of Wild Wild Country. The documentary catapulted her to international fame (once again) in 2018, with clips that introduced us to a determined woman who used colourful language with the press, swore fealty to her Bhagwan, and invented plans that were deemed anti-social, to say the least.
Now, a new documentary on Netflix aims to focus solely on Sheela’s side of the story, as it follows her from her scenic home in Switzerland, where she runs a centre for disabled people, to India, a homecoming 35 years in the making. Once here, she mingles with Delhi’s socialites, visits her hometown, Vadodara, and makes a brief appearance in Mumbai.
But for those expecting to learn potentially explosive details about her life, it’s, as she would say, tough tittes.
But for those expecting to learn potentially explosive details about her life, it’s, as she would say, tough tittes. Produced by Dharmatic Entertainment — the Karan Johar helmed production house that introduced us to the Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives — Searching for Sheela almost seems like another one of Netflix’s food travel shows.
The only difference here is that the gratuitous shots of sizzling bhature have made way for pearls of wisdom from Ma herself. In the film, Anand Sheela, or Sheela Birnstiel, as she’s now known, makes several assertions that she has distanced herself from her past. This footage is interspersed with plentiful reaction shots to repeated requests for autographs and selfies, and attempts to fend off journalists who are still trying their best to get her to admit to the crimes she was accused of committing in the 1980s.
These crimes, of course, include attempted murder, arson, immigration fraud, and wire tapping, all from her time living at the Osho cult in Oregan, or Rajneeshpuram. For these charges, she was eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison but was released after serving only 39 months owing to a US law on “good behaviour”.
For a brief moment, it seems as though we are about to get a view of the home where Rajneesh stayed in Mumbai, before we’re let down by the current residents not being in at the time.
Over the years, however, the meme queen who had to “face the guillotine”, has grown tired of the relentless curiosity about her past crimes, as Searching for Sheela unintentionally reveals. In the 58-minute film, she tells us that she’s already paid her dues, doesn’t directly address any questions hurled at her, and is a far cry from the combative Ma Sheela that gave her an anti-hero tag following 2018’s Wild Wild Country.
She isn’t as angry with her Bhagwan as journalist Barkha Dutt expected her to be (even though he calls her a prostitute), she refuses to play along with journalist Shoma Chaudhury’s creative line of questioning, and seems to be amused by Johar’s euphemistic indication that she had a physical relationship with Rajneesh, before glossing over the awkward question with a well-timed joke.
In fact, there’s very little that the documentary reveals about Sheela that isn’t already chronicled, barring maybe her quick interaction with her adopted daughter Anuja, or her conversations in Gujarati when visiting her old neighbourhood in Vadodara. For a brief moment, it seems as though we are about to get a view of the home where Rajneesh stayed in Mumbai, before we’re let down by the current residents not being in at the time.
For the rest of this Vlog-style profile, it almost seems as though the uncredited director and the crew were forced to follow her out of compulsion, with zero intention on being anything but a helpful guide to a polite grandmother visiting her country after decades abroad. There is also very little attempt to go beyond relying on Sheela’s star stature, and vague musings — “some people wear their baggage on their face. I wear it on my shoulders” — to generate interest.
It’s as Sheela says herself, most journalists who approach her these days have already made up their minds about her turbulent past, and make no attempt to dig deeper. At the same time, as Dutt points out in her interview, Sheela seems to be a far cry from the outspoken woman who many couldn’t help but admire, despite her chequered past.
Meanwhile, at the various classy events hosted for her benefit, Sheela is allowed to deftly dismiss any questions that could potentially reveal an unknown aspect about her life. In her hometown, Gujarat, we are informed that she’s grieving the loss of her parents, and shown the swing her father would sit on, but told nothing about the time she spent there as a child, or her relationship with her family before leaving with Rajneesh.
Sheela seems to be a far cry from the outspoken woman who many couldn’t help but admire, despite her chequered past.
In fact, some of the documentary’s most engaging moments come from footage gleaned from Wild Wild Country, while Sheela’s less than enthusiastic interactions with socialite Bina Ramani, who talks of her own experience with the press following Jessica Lal’s murder, and pleas from her crew for her to “stand like a boss lady” take up too much time. Time that could have been devoted to actually searching for Sheela, as it were.
There’s clearly no lack of interest in the life of Ma Anand Sheela — especially over the last few years — but unfortunately the documentary doesn’t really deliver what it’s title promises. With a dramatic biopic now in the works (courtesy the executive producer of this documentary, Shakun Batra) we may have to now wait a little while longer until we finally find the real Sheela.
Sagar has lived in Mumbai for most of his life. You can often find him complaining about potholes and local trains when he isn't out having a mediocre time.