If the first Netflix documentary on Ma Anand Sheela depicted her time as a cult member, the second attempts to cement her status as a cult figure. In 2018, Wild Wild Country explored her role in the setting up of the Rajneeshpuram commune and 1984 bioterror attack in Oregon, following which she fled to Europe, was extradited to the US and spent 39 months in a federal prison for assault, conspiracy and wire-tapping. Searching For Sheela, which releases on April 22, is keenly aware, and part of, her rebranding as a pop-culture icon. It follows her return to India after 34 years as she seeks to rewrite the narrative surrounding her.
Given that the documentary focuses on a new chapter in the 71-year-old’s life, are there any satisfactory answers to be gotten about her past? Ahead of its release, Sheela, executive producer Shakun Batra and vice president of content, Netflix, Monika Shergill, talk about what to expect:
The documentary follows Ma Anand Sheela post her return to India after 34 years. What made you realize that was good ground to cover?
Shakun Batra: How many people do you know who have lived such extraordinary lives? Secondly, how many people do you know who, after having lived such extraordinary lives, have come home after 34 years? I think the one thing people felt, especially after Wild Wild Country, is that they wanted more. They wanted a closer understanding of those people and those characters. And obviously Sheela is at the centre of it. This is that. This is trying to bring you one step closer, not to the event or the investigation or what happened and what America said and what the cult said and what the commune is. We saw all of that in Wild Wild Country. This is not an investigative piece of journalism. 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.
So it’s about both sides?
Ma Sheela Anand: For me, it’s more about me. What people say is their problem. I see it as a great opportunity to come in contact with young people such as you. And I’m very happy to have gotten this opportunity.
What can we expect to see?
Ma Sheela Anand: What you can expect from me? You can’t expect anything from me. I will be only me. So if you are expecting me to be something else, you have lost.
It’s described as an ‘up-close and personal look at your life’. What’s the level of access involved?
Ma Sheela Anand: The team has been with me for more than 25 days. I never say no so they have been tagging along everywhere I go. I arrived in Delhi and since my arrival, the cameras have been following me. We did a few events there, one with Karan Johar, we went to the literature festival in Dehradun, did an event with Barkha Dutt, went to Poona, did a closed-door event there, came to Bombay, then went back to Delhi, then went to Baroda, back to Delhi, then Bombay again. From here, we’ll go back to Delhi, then Baroda.
Shakun Batra: We’ve been leeches. That’s the truth. Even Sheela’s life back home in Switzerland, if you visit, there’s complete access. I think she’s someone who’s okay with people trying to look at her and understand her. She’s never tried to hold anything back. But how many people would have that access? The documentary format gives you that access in a way that you can make sense of things. Not even after being with her for 24 hours with a camera can you ever truly say, ‘I now know everything about this person.’ You can get a taste of that life. And I think this is what that documentary attempts to do.
Sheela, even after Wild Wild Country, you’re still an enigmatic figure. People still have questions and even doubts about your past. Since the documentary looks at a completely different part of your life, are there any satisfying answers to be gotten?
Ma Sheela Anand: When they filmed Wild Wild Country, they did it the same way everyone does. They set up their cameras at 9 in the morning, then they called me in and then they started the interviews. I never looked at their questions ahead of time, they never gave me the questions — they wanted to but I said I didn’t need them and they could ask me what they wanted. That’s how I live. That’s exactly how they are filming me now wherever I go and whatever I do. I met some people who came to visit me, I went to some events. There too, I was very candid. There were some events where they didn’t want filming done so they didn’t film. But it is not because of me. There is full access. They could come and talk to me. We had breakfast together, lunch together, we talked about different subjects. Different questions, I’ve answered. In between, I’ve done interviews. I was available to them. That candidness and availability talks about the character of the person.
Monika Shergill: Sheela burst upon the scene with Wild Wild Country. Very few people knew about her, people like Shakun who were deeply fascinated by her, who were part of the commune — Shakun’s parents were. When Wild Wild Country came out, everyone had their opinions. What a Netflix documentary does is start conversations and that’s what Wild Wild Country did in a major way. When we got to know that Sheela was coming to India after 34 years and after seeing the aftermath of Wild Wild Country in terms of the conversations around it, this was a brilliant opportunity to disengage from the event that was at the centre of that controversy and to really observe her on a journey of her own. We’re not trying to control anything, there’s no pre-decided narrative. What Shakun is trying to do is to actually observe Sheela as a person — how she has dealt with her past, what she is today, where she is headed, why she came back and who she is really. It’s a fascinating piece driven by curiosity.
Shakun Batra: Our curiosity as much as yours. Let’s put it this way: Our need to make this documentary is the same reason you would watch it. We are so curious. I’m somebody who’s followed this story for so many years and I’m curious to find out what this must be like. I don’t think we can ever get enough of it. For a storyteller, it’s like leaving a kid in a candy store. There is not enough that I can get out of this story and the reason to do that is pure curiosity. I’m hoping you’ll get a taste of it — something so complex, I don’t think there are answers to the questions anyone has. But you can feel that you now know more. That you’ve now got a little more access. That you can objectively try and understand the scenario yourself. I don’t think we’re trying to find labels and give it a shape. We’re saying: Okay this is more of what we were left wanting after Wild Wild Country.
Monika Shergill: It’s her journey and the people she meets and her thought process and interactions.
Shakun Batra: And how she navigates the curiosity everybody has about her. You have it, I have it. We all want to jump on her and understand.
Monika Shergill: People ask direct questions, sometimes harsh questions, justified questions.
Shakun Batra: That’s where the documentary becomes more interesting. You’re not just exploring a character, you’re exploring…
Monika Shergill: …people who are looking at the character.
Shakun Batra: You’re exploring society, you’re exploring her as a pop-culture phenomenon, and then the layers get deeper and more interesting and that’s why this homecoming project is important. It’s not, ‘Oh let’s get further because Wild Wild Country was a hit.’ No, let’s see who we are as much as we want to know who she is.
Ma Sheela Anand: It shows resilience, my training as a child, what our parents taught us, my survival instincts. It’s just…don’t get into depression, just get up. You fall, get on your knees, get back up again.
What do you hope people take away from this?
Ma Sheela Anand: What people can take away from Wild Wild Country is the creativity of a group of people. From this, I think the takeaway is that life is still fun. I went to do garba for Navratri and felt like I was 16 again.
Shakun Batra: So everybody should do garba.
Ma Anand Sheela: That’s what life is.