Searching For Sheela, On Netflix: The Lioness In Winter

The documentary is being marketed as a ‘deep-dive into understanding Sheela’. The gaze is empathetic but the film barely scratches the surface.
Searching For Sheela, On Netflix: The Lioness In Winter

Executive Producer: Shakun Batra
Starring: Ma Anand Sheela

Who is Sheela? In Wild Wild Country, the electrifying 2018 series about the failed experiment to build Rajneeshpuram, a utopian city in Oregon in the mid-80s, she is a charismatic, Machiavellian figure who will go to any lengths to get what she wants. In episode three, someone compared her to Hitler – 'only the ovens are missing.' In episode five, she was described as a power-mad megalomaniac. Through the six-part series, we saw Sheela, wearing glittering jewellery and stylish maroon outfits, serving her master Bhagwan, taking on the US local, state and federal authorities, fleeing Rajneeshpuram, and eventually pleading guilty to attempted murder, wiretapping and assault. Sheela, once Osho's closest confidante and most powerful aide, was sentenced to 20 years in a federal prison. She was paroled after 39 months.

Searching for Sheela gives us the lioness in winter. Sheela, now 70, runs two assisted facility living centres in Switzerland. She looks after elderly patients who suffer from mental impairments. The documentary, executive-produced by Shakun Batra, follows Sheela as she returns to India after 34 years.  She plays both pop icon and spectacle – she is dressed by Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango, interviewed by Karan Johar and Barkha Dutt, and wined and dined by the elite, including Bina and Malini Ramani. She says, 'I feel like a dulha.' Sheela might be frail and mellow but she still knows how to deliver a memorable sound byte – so on stage, in an interview with Karan, she says that she never had sex with Osho, because in any case she was drowning in him, and that his eyes were probably more beautiful than his penis.

Sheela defiantly rejects questions about regrets and redemption. In a posh Delhi party, when she is asked about her crimes, she turns defensive, saying she only wiretapped Osho's room with his consent so he could be protected. But later in the film, her armour cracks a little – especially when she visits her family home in Vadodara. She sits on a swing where her father used to sit and wipes away tears. Sheela is a fascinating character, impossible to box. She is a living, breathing Rorschach test – what you take away from her story mirrors your own prejudices and fears, your own notions of good and evil. Was she a criminal mastermind or a woman punished, at least partly, for being ambitious, ballsy and brown? You recall that killer moment of archival footage in Wild Wild Country in which someone says to Sheela. "We don't want the orange people in our town," and she replies, 'What can I say, tough titties.'

Searching for Sheela is being marketed as a 'deep-dive into understanding Sheela'. Curiously, the documentary has no credited director. I'm assuming Shakun was the prime architect in shaping the material. His gaze is empathetic but the film barely scratches the surface. In archival footage, Sheela describes life as 'a good performance.' I suspect that's what we get here – she is only showing us what she wants us to see. There is little insight into how she feels about what she did or her evolution – how does a convicted bioterrorist become a career caregiver and how did she bring herself to forgive her master, who was so betrayed by her actions that he called her a prostitute in public? Her photos with him still adorn her walls.

Perhaps some of these answers are in her memoir titled Don't Kill Him! The Story of my Life with Bhagwan Rajneesh, which was published in India in 2013. I haven't read it. Searching for Sheela is a minor companion piece to the mesmerising Wild Wild Country. There is also news that Priyanka Chopra will be playing Sheela in a forthcoming Amazon film. Consider this documentary homework for that.

You can watch it on Netflix.

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