Searching for Sheela review: Shallow documentary that reveals nothing

Ma Anand Sheela, who now goes by the name of Sheela Birnstiel, notorious cultist with a criminal record, Rajneesh’s (Osho) former secretary, is visiting India after 35 years. That’s an interesting premise for perhaps an explosive story. But how does Karan Johar’s Dharmatic Entertainment’s documentary Searching for Sheela start? They take her to a Raw Mango store to glam her up for her engagements in India.

Anand Sheela came into the limelight after the release of Wild Wild Country on Netflix in 2018. The documentary series focussed on Rajneesh'’s attempt to set up a commune in Oregon, US, in the 1980s. Sheela, one of the very few aides who had direct access to Osho, was instrumental in setting up the commune known as Rajneeshpuram. She was eventually charged with assault, wiretapping and a bioterror attack to influence a local election. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but was released after 39 months on good behaviour. She currently runs a home for disabled people in Switzerland.

Anand Sheela was a viral star even before the term viral existed. During an interview when a journalist told her that the Rajneeshees were unwelcome, her calm response was “tough titties”. This 59-minute documentary (no director is credited for the film) follows her at various events and talks organised by the Delhi, Mumbai gentry where googly-eyed, wine sipping boujee folks rush to take a selfie with the person who was once charged with poisoning over 700 people. The common question was whether she actually committed those crimes which she skillfully evades with her natural sass. On the charges against her, she maintains that she did her time and there can be no further discussion on it. When Karan Johar asks her whether her relationship with Osho was strictly platonic, her response was, “I didn’t have sex with him, if that is what you mean... His eyes were probably more beautiful than his penis…”

The documentary tries to add a feminist spin portraying a foul-mouthed woman who lived life on her terms but fails to recognise the irony in the woman’s complete devotion to her bhagwan (Rajneesh) who went on record calling her a criminal and a prostitute. This is a woman whose entire existence and work is defined by a man. The documentary also makes no attempt to get to know Sheela, or what were her motivations that prompted the events that changed the course of her life. How did a young Gujarati girl become an infamous cultist? The film shows her visiting her childhood home in Gujarat, talking about her parents and the influence they had on her, the place where she met Rajneesh for the first time, etc., but reveals nothing that’s not already known to the public.

The film doggedly tries to portray Sheela as the wronged woman, constantly vilified by the media. She calls herself the “queen who went through the guillotine”. Bina Ramani was seen sympathising with Sheela, drawing parallels between the intense media scrutiny into her life and what she and her daughter Malini faced as witnesses in the Jessica Lal murder case.

There were plenty of missed opportunities in the film. It doesn’t question her unconditional love for Rajneesh despite the way he treated her after their fallout. Towards the end, she says, “It is Bhagwan’s history, not Sheela’s history.” The film fails to question what place Sheela occupies in history, or who Sheela is without Rajneesh. The documentary is a case of missing the forest for the trees.

Title: Searching for Sheela

Platform: Netflix

Rating: one star

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