If you expected Netflix’s (surprisingly director-less) documentary, Searching for Sheela, to scuba-dive into the obscure, deep ocean of truths and lies surrounding its controversial subject, you are grossly mistaken. It comfortably dangles its feet above those roaring morally grey waters, seated on a homely Dharmatic Productions ferry, teasing the waves, but never really immersing its toes. There are moments when it seems like it will do the daring, but then it withdraws its limbs, chuckling pleasantly, as this is not something it truly wishes to explore. Because once it submerges itself, there will be no coming back; unanswered questions, reminiscent of bloodthirsty sharks, would have menacingly surrounded it, threatening to rip it to pieces. Despite all the hype, that is not a risk Searching for Sheela wants to take. It merely wishes to enjoy this cathartic, safe voyage, and return home to boast of the dauntless venture it undertook, that is, traversing the dreaded Ocean of Facts (without swimming in it). It remains the only witness of what it could have done, and why it did not do it. With a runtime of 58 minutes, this is what Searching for Sheela is, summed up in a single paragraph.
In a recent Film Companion interview, executive producer Shakun Batra said, “This is a closer look at Sheela, an intimate look at her journey back home after 34 years as she goes from one state to another, her reaction to those cities, the memories they bring back and, at the same time, those cities’ and those societies’ reaction to her.” Despite all its promises, Searching for Sheela is too short, and its short runtime barely does justice to its title or its promises. What are we looking for? What is the motive of this quest? If the makers were attempting to use this opportunity to delve into the psyche and more intimate details of Ma Anand Sheela’s life (obviously apart from her relationship with Osho Rajneesh; Wild Wild Country did a fair job of demonising her, and we expect a certain degree of insight into her life, separate from her involvement in the Rajneesh Movement), then nothing much comes of it. Sheela remains an enigma, from start to finish. We expect to know something more about her, about the person she truly is, free of controversies, free of the shadow of Osho, free of the personality she has created for the lights and cameras. But the search for the “real” Sheela is a lost cause, because she appears to be unable to dissociate herself from her past or the mask that remains attached to her face. There are moments when she threatens to remove that mask (for example, when she revisits her roots), but then, immediately, it is back on, so much so that one wonders whether the mask is her face. Her Achilles’ heel is her eyes, for, when they are pierced with the overwhelming memories (memories that the viewers are unable to experience themselves) of who she was before the Rajneesh Movement, they bleed many a tear.
Ma Anand Sheela’s present aging countenance is repeatedly juxtaposed with the physiognomy of her fiery young spectre from the past: the “badass” (for lack of a better word) lady who would swear, who would speak with awe-inspiring zeal, who would walk out of interviews when she liked. Now, she is much more graceful in her approach towards curious journalists, soft-spoken, calm (though the same old fire continues to burn in her eyes, now reduced to smouldering coals), replying with wit and gravitas. “Is that age? Or has Sheela changed?” she is asked. “It is a mystery,” she responds. She proceeds to reveal how all of that had been a front. What is to stop us from believing that this is all just a front and that this documentary is a slightly biased, tendentious cinematic piece? From what I have seen, I do not think Sheela would care. She seems more likely to call out the hypocrisy of humankind than hold herself completely accountable for who she is or what she has done.
Not that Sheela would ever be allowed to take off the mask if she wanted to, because the people who flock around her never let that happen. For them, she is an object of fascination and ridicule, a mere object for amplifying their sanctimony. She preys on their wonder, and they prey on her denial and vague clarifications. She is an opportunity of sorts for the inquisitive, who attempt to be “different” around her. She is a goddess for those who have seen the worst of the world, and perhaps consider her to be better than the worst. She is a mirror for the rich and the privileged, who perceive their reflections as much prettier when they are around her. (When she was asked by a reporter which role she plays, Snow White or the Wicked Witch, she says, “Both.”) However, while the documentary tries to empathise with her, its characters do quite the opposite. Several times, she faces an onslaught of questions (direct and indirect) regarding the alleged 1984 bioterror attacks and her involvement in them. For these people, she is a unique mermaid from some distant sea who wishes to grow feet to walk upon relatively new earth, but who is cursed with a tail (her scandalous past) for eternity, one that she cannot get rid of. That tail is the object of their intrigue, their condescending awe. She will never be allowed to walk by herself, as she wants.
Perhaps this review has become more of a character analysis, but this cannot be helped. Can a review ever avoid being one-sided? Searching for Sheela is about one woman, a living, breathing woman, a common human, just like you and me, who sought to bring about change in an unfathomable manner. She has influenced many lives, be it indirectly, via the news, or directly, through her actions (good or bad). Therefore, every mention of her becomes personal, and every attempt to understand her mutates into a need to judge her. One can even blame the documentary, which provides us with a blank piece of paper, and expects us to draw a map all by ourselves. The makers of Searching for Sheela are as conflicted as the real-life characters present in the documentary, because Sheela is dualism incarnate. She is a walking, talking paradox, just like every other human being, and the only difference between her and most common people is that she is open about it. But who is she? There are moments when one perceives her as an unapologetic narcissist/psychopath, who chose to worship her own ideals using the idol of another man (she still has some old photographs of the two of them together, for that matter). Then there are moments when she comes across as a misunderstood Pandora who succumbed to preordained temptation and opened the fateful box, becoming a scapegoat for humans and gods. This conflict of identity is inevitable, for she is only human. And yet, does every human get a documentary for themselves?
While the makers expect us to form our own opinions about Sheela, they subtly choose to highlight her contrasting facets in many ways. When recordings of her old passionate speeches appear on the screen, an exhilarating background score plays out, that fades into pleasant music when it comes to her present-day interviews. Even the questions asked of her by two prominent individuals – Karan Johar and Barkha Dutt – are worth comparing. While Johar’s queries focussed on her relationship with Osho, Dutt’s quizzing covertly marketed Sheela as a misperceived feminist icon. And why not? Sheela can be both. In fact, in the aforementioned FC interview, she had promised us, “I will be only me.”
If we were to look at the title from a different perspective, then Searching for Sheela probably refers to Sheela’s search for herself, which the documentary wishes to carry out on her behalf. If that is the case, then this documentary now suddenly appears to be unnaturally self-aware and alive. The lens of the camera now comes across as her eyes; she seems to be showing us what she wants us to see. In an unintentionally ironic scene in the documentary, as Sheela tells Sukirti Gupta (co-founder of Sipping Thoughts), “Often, it is my experience that journalists have already written their story before they meet me,” she is interrupted by the make-up man, who tells her to “open [her] eyes” as he proceeds to do his job. This is, perhaps, a mere observation of a trivial thing, but Sheela is a person who has already set her mind and chosen to believe that every stranger around her is prejudiced in their outlook towards her, when she has never provided a detailed explanation of her actions either. It is her word against the facts that incriminate her. Whether she was the mastermind behind it all or simply following orders, whether she was wrongly accused or not… we will never know. If Sheela is Pandora, then she has been unfairly condemned for the acts of a “Prometheus”. However, the more I watched, the more I realised that she is a polarizing Eve. An Eve who cannot be seen separate from an “Adam” (who is always credited as her origin), and who continues to be criticised even after millennia. An Eve whose actions are a moot point. That is Ma Anand Sheela. She is the Rajneesh Eve, the final living remnant of another man’s memories.
A Guardian article on the controversial ballet dancer, Sergei Polunin, described him as a person who at times “sounds messianic, at others like a little lost boy.” I think Sheela is no different. Searching for Sheela often gives the impression of being a sermon of sorts, a sermon by Sheela about life, love, death, guilt and redemption (her thoughts are rewarded with hoots, applause, laughter, and awe during her interviews). This makes Sheela look like a hallowed Joan of Arc who continues to be burned at the stake. But as the documentary progresses, as she returns to her roots, she starts looking like a little lost child; she has finally come full circle. Searching for Sheela becomes less of an exposition of her hidden life and more of a cathartic journey for its subject. But for us, the viewers, it remains a wary, surface-level presentation that steers clear of any and all problematic questions and facts pertaining to Sheela.
What we do understand from Searching for Sheela is that Ma Anand Sheela is tired. She is simply tired, and wishes for it all to end peacefully. Towards the conclusion, Sheela tells us, “Redemption lies in guilt. That’s why I cannot redeem myself.” And perhaps she is right. She can never redeem herself, because her reality is not ours. Neither do we want to accept her reality nor does she want to accept ours. There are too many questions, too many contradictions. However, should we keep all of these in the past, just like Sheela wants us to? Should we move on, just like she herself wishes to?
There is no answer.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.