REVISION: Netflix’s fantastic and detailed 2018 documentary series ‘Wild Wild Country’ is arguably one of the finest, well-researched and in-depth non-fiction works the OTT giant has acquired in recent times. So when the trailer for ‘Searching For Sheela’ started generating tons of reactions from curious people on social media, naturally we thought this documentary would be a by-product of that. But the latest offering from Dharmatics Entertainment lacks depth, a proper narrative structure, and it’s criminal to offer a mediocre visual artwork when the subject of the documentary is as interesting as Sheela.
The close-up takes us to Sheela’s home in a small village in Switzerland: the former Rajneeshpuram resident and leader, who is now a major pop icon mainly for profanity and fierce behavior in her youth, has been living in the exile for more than 30 years after spending 39 months in a US prison before being released for good behavior. Sheela is sincere and is now looking for love, happiness and “moving on in life”. That she has committed these crimes, and has been accused of many others, is completely inconsequential to the high-society hosts who come into contact with her in India. The hour-long documentary was filmed during his 2019 trip to India, during which he visits literature festivals, talk shows, and rubs shoulders with high society and rich kids who line up for selfies and autographs and laugh. and gossip about her the moment she turns her back to the other side. “Now you can tell people that you hosted a murderer… it was an attempted murder. Is that what we are going to do now? whisper two enthusiastic women at a closed-door event in the Chattarpur area of South Delhi. A cunning and feisty woman like Sheela knows this farce very well; he gives two shouts about his ‘fans’ and journalists alike. “They have been asking me the same questions for 35 years. There is no creativity, ”Sheela jokes when a senior journalist pushes her to search for answers that are on everyone’s mind. Sheela, in her flamboyant way, dodges them. Every time.
At its best, ‘Searching For Sheela’ is a behind-the-scenes episode of the makeover of a 70-year-old woman with a colorful past, and also a promotional tour for a book. We say colorful and uncontroversial because that is exactly how the documentary has been projected: words like ‘interesting’, ‘lovely’ and ‘devoted’ keep coming out of everyone’s mouths and the fact that she could have inflicted serious damage and caused The grave anguish of thousands of people has no place for this glamorous outing. “This is power? We got it, ”proclaims Sheela, the lady surely knows how to appease her audience; we give you that.
From the point of view of a documentary filmmaker, an otherwise impressive Shakum Batra (who has also co-produced it with Karan Johar), fails to explore his eccentric subject to its optimal level. If anything, it’s a fly on the wall, both literally and figuratively. The only time Sheela is filled with genuine emotions is when she visits her family’s home in Vadodara. In such moments, you see a woman pining for her loved ones and not a supposedly malicious figure who once made a failed attempt to poison an entire village.
Our biggest takeaway from this is that no level of ‘I share, you share’ tactic is shocking enough to draw anything from a fluent talker of Sheela’s stature whose carefully crafted responses only generate more curiosity. But Sheela is fluent in German, runs two handicap nursing homes, and has no qualms about loving Rajneesh. “As a woman, I want you to be angry, why aren’t you angry?” asks an experienced journalist. Sheela’s devotion to Osho, even after a very public betrayal, and after all these years, inspires respect. “Redemption is for the guilty,” he reasons. No, Sheela has no regrets, she just wants to get out of the media circus that she herself has chosen to be a part of. “Why?” You can ask. The answer could well lie in Osho’s bitter spiel about her from the ’80s: Sheela likes power.