Searching for Sheela: A Story of Redemption
Netflix’s 2016 Docuseries, Wild Wild Country took binge watchers by storm as they huddled around their viewing devices to watch the invigorating story of the Rajneeshpuram Religious Cult unfold. The Rajneesh are a religious community that follows a figure who goes by many names but most notably Bhagwan (aka Osho, Rajneesh), a Guru who amassed a huge following of disciples in Pune, India and eventually made his way to the United States to spread his teachings while leading a huge commune. While Wild Wild Country is centered around the events following Bhagwan and his entire commune-- the true star of the docuseries was Ma Anand Sheela who captivated audiences with her vivacious dialogues, profound storytelling ability, and badassery. Sheela acted as Bhagwan’s secretary and right-hand while overseeing the operations carried out within the community on a functional, economic, and spiritual level.
Sheela’s prowess in being able to lead the community as well as valiantly defend it from internal and external threats ultimately made her out to be the perfect antihero for the docuseries. Social Media following the premier of Wild Wild Country was up in roars, not because of the story around the Rajneesh community as a whole but because of how invigorating Sheela’s disposition was in archival footage used in the docuseries as well as the vigour she has for life giving all she has been through today.
Sheela’s prowess in being able to lead the community as well as valiantly defend it from internal and external threats ultimately made her out to be the perfect antihero for the docuseries.
Given the outpouring of support and most significantly; curiosity-- Netflix recently dropped a follow up documentary called Searching for Sheela. This documentary follows Sheela in real time as she deals with the aftermath of the Docuseries as well as a resurfacing of her life in the media. The aftermath of Rajneeshpuram led to Ma Anand Sheela’s conviction for wiretapping, assault, and poisoning where she was sentenced to serve 20 years in prison. Sheela served 39 months and was released on good behavior. In the 1990s Sheela would move to Switzerland where she opened a care home for the elderly and diasbled where she still lives today.
Searching for Sheela gives us a look at Sheela in a new light. With her return to India after 30+ years she conducts an array of interviews and fiery dialogues, recognizing the role she played in the growth and fall of the Rajneeshi Commune while reminiscing her experience before, during, and after her affiliation with Osho.
It is important to recognize the nuance of Sheela’s impact not only as a woman who was convicted of a crime but also as a woman who was able to take up space in a white-dominated society. While being a spokeswoman for the Rajneesh, she was a powerhouse who appeared on Television defending their right to exist under the first amendment. Searching for Sheela looks at Sheela as a woman who was able to come to terms with her actions but also prove that her life is more than just her crimes and shortcomings.
It is important to recognize the nuance of Sheela’s impact not only as a woman who was convicted of a crime but also as a woman who was able to take up space in a white-dominated society.
The reception and following that Ma Anand Sheela has garnered in the recent years is centered around curiosity; audiences got to see a woman of South Asian descent go up against numerous political and television personalities while holding her ground. Arguing the morality behind her affiliation with Rajneeshpuram is superfluous to the analysis of her impact as an outspoken woman of color who had operational control over an entire religious community. This definitely challenged traditional racial and gendered norms that were present in the United States in the 1980s and beyond.
American culture is obsessed with the obscene, perpetrators who are White and Male are all too often treated with a great deal of nuance but when a Non-White individual is dubbed with this title, society is much less forgiving and does the very most in order to ostricize. Searching for Sheela is about a woman who recognizes her own humanity and duality. A woman who has not let her past define her but instead motivates her self growth and ultimately taking her experiences as lessons to inform and motivate others. I highly recommend you check out Wild Wild Country and Searching for Sheela.
Searching for Sheela is about a woman who recognizes her own humanity and duality.
All images and archival footage belong to Netflix's Wild Wild Country, Searching for Sheela and Associated Press.