A godman thriving in India before travelling and settling in a foreign country, might seem like recent news, but Rajneesh, famously known as Osho, did it way back in 1981. His plan to move to Oregon, USA, was ideated by his-then assistant Ma Anand Sheela who went on to manage the new ashram for a few years. But when controversy erupted and ended her association with Osho, Sheela, after time in prison, settled in Switzerland.
In 2018, a Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country shed light once again on the life of the controversial Indian guru, his assistant and their Rajneeshpuram community. Now, Netflix has come up with another docu-film named Searching for Sheela that follows her first trip to India after 35 years. Produced by Karan Johar, it’s directed by Shakun Batra, who we caught up with along with Sheela, to discuss this film and the events it’s based on:
The documentary’s title hints at a journey of self-realisation.
Sheela: You can never change a person’s character from whom they have been since birth. One would play the role of ‘X’ in life, but they will have to come back to who they were originally. In the documentary, that’s what you see: the original.
It was quite a surprise to see your name being associated with this project, Shakun.
Shakun: I think Sheela and Osho’s life is something I grew up with. My parents were believers of Osho, and I grew up listening to him and reading his books. My relationship with Sheela goes before the Wild Wild Country (WWC) days. I had gone and visited her in Switzerland even before WWC came out. I thought her life journey and her story was fascinating, and I had always wanted to explore it. I was planning on working on a bigger TV series that takes a deeper look at the whole journey of Osho, Sheela and the commune in Rajneeshpuram in America. But Searching for Sheela happened by chance. She was planning on coming down to India after 35 years and I thought it was the right time to follow her and explore her journey after she became the Sheela the world got to know after WWC. We wanted to explore how she would react to the country and how the country reacts to her.
Sheela, what was it to return to India after 35 years?
Sheela: It was divine. It was a desire that I had for many years to go back to my roots, and for me, it’s India, not just Gujarat or Baroda. It was just... I cannot express in words how I felt. But I was having fun; you probably saw it in the film (smiles). I met different people which was unlike my experiences in Switzerland. Even the cows you see here have their own beauty. There were moments I enjoyed and there were also moments where I wondered how much more one can do here. I had plans to do something constructive and creative, but unfortunately, the coronavirus put paid to that. I have not been able to carry out my plans, but I hope to get the opportunity to do that before the end of my life.
The majority of whom you interacted with seem to have strong preconceived notions about you.
Sheela: I don’t think too much. When I was there, I was there with the people. Being with people was wonderful. As for dealing with criticism, I take it as a challenge. I take it from where the audience is at. It’s not a reflection of me or where I’m at; it’s about them. Then, I tell them my reality. Whether they accept it or not, is their issue. They have the freedom to interpret it the way they want.
Speaking of perceptions, did this journey with her influence your opinion on her, Shakun?
Shakun: Since I met her before WWC, I had a much more open mind when going to the story. After WWC, everyone arrived with formed opinions because they had watched six hours of her story, and they seemed to think they knew everything. She had lived and breathed too close to a man who I really learnt a lot from, and I went with no judgements. Regardless of how the world sees the story, I have learnt a lot in terms of life lessons, the complexity of human nature, philosophy, existence, god, and the world. I still find it hard to label it as it’s more than good and bad.
If it wasn’t for the commune controversy, do you think you could have spent more time with Osho?
Sheela: I think whatever has happened, happened at the right time. There are no ifs and there are no buts. In life, whatever comes your way, you accept it and move forward. That’s what I have done. I want to compliment Shakun for showing his intelligence in knowing and dealing with me.
As a filmmaker, how did you approach this documentary?
Shakun: I think it’s fascinating to explore a character that’s constantly under the weight of public scrutiny. How does she carry that weight and how does she choose to respond to the world around her? This was fascinating. From watching that, we can learn so much about ourselves and not just her. In the way we are trying to portrait a story, we have not tried to give any answers. We are just taking people to a point and leaving them where they can examine their own understanding of it. I think Sheela is someone who has been constantly looked up to as an enigma and she likes to raise more questions about her than answers. Answers are the end of intelligence. I hope the documentary does not just leave you with a sense of completion but starts you on this road to understanding and helps you form your own point of view.
You might have figured out a way to deal with criticism over the years. Is there any remaining anger in you?
Sheela: I feel no anger. That’s because I allowed people the liberty to form their own opinions and to look within themselves. I don’t judge them and that’s why I can be with such ease among all people.