Cast: Ma Anand Sheela
Director: Shakun Batra
Rating: 1.5 star (out of 5)
A documentary film without a credited director, Searching For Sheela revels in beating about the bush. It attempts to come up with a representation of a fascinating woman whose story is definitely worth a film. What it manages is a bland apologia for an eventful, error-strewn life that has seen more than its share of ups and downs and has for decades been surrounded by mystery.
Produced by Dharmatic Entertainment for Netflix, the one-hour film is an extended, circuitous version of a Koffee With Karan episode that ferrets out nothing of import regarding the well-documented scandals that landed Ma Anand Sheela, Acharya Rajneesh's personal secretary in the early 1980s, in a US prison. The questions posed to Sheela are shallow, the answers even more so. Searching For Sheela is strictly anodyne fare: resolutely unprovocative.
Sheela says at one point in the film that journalists who approach her for interviews have their minds made up about her and her turbulent past - the actual tete-a-tete is always only a mere formality. This film, too, has its bandwidth and eventual direction cast within a pre-determined mould. The idea is to give the lady a platform to rid herself of the bad press she has had to reckon with all these years. This film isn't particularly interested in peeling off the shrouds that cling to the enigma.
Searching For Sheela would have been an infinitely more watchable film had the clash between the "public truth" and the purported "reality" revealed a Sheela that the world doesn't know. No churning happens, no depths are probed, and no real discoveries made. The lady, on her part, is a cool customer all right. Even when she is seemingly flustered a tad by the line of questioning she is subjected to, her response is gentle and calculated, designed neither to divulge any more than is absolutely essential nor to offend.
Searching For Sheela, filmed during Ma Anand Sheela's first trip to India in nearly 35 years in the wake of the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country, has several noted journalists and celebs (most of them in Delhi) interacting with the Vadodara-born woman who was Acharya Rajneesh's personal secretary in the early 1980s and wielded great power in the guru's Wasco County, Oregon ranch.
Several journalists and interviewers, including Karan Johar himself, ask her virtually the same question over and over again - it pertains to the crimes that she pleaded guilty to and was imprisoned for - but she stalls their probing with the benign smile of a woman who has faced the grilling times without number and is now a past master at not wilting.
A feminist spin is inevitably put on the film. Here is a wronged woman who has taken on the world on her own terms and survived, if not come through unscathed. To suggest what she was up against, the film incorporates Rajneesh talking disparagingly of Sheela. She was a former hotel waitress, uneducated, not very intelligent, the spiritual guru says. And there is worse in store. "She says she was my love," Rajneesh says. "I don't love prostitutes."
There you go, you want to root for Sheela, you want to give her the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, the film does not go beyond the obvious in its bid to put up a defence for her. Searching For Sheela shows us no unknown facets of her personality. It is meant to be a sympathetic portrait of the 70-year-old woman who has weathered many storms, but it never delves into the more interesting details of the upheavals, of her own making or otherwise, that she encountered over the decades.
The Acharya Rajneesh aide, in the mid-1980s, was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a US court of law on multiple charges of assault, bioterror and wiretapping and has had to live with that millstone around her neck ever since. She was paroled 39 months later. In 1990, she moved to Switzerland, where she set up a home for elderly people with special needs.
To understand her approach to life, the film uses an old interview. Sheela says, I am not a woman who backstabs, but I don't believe in turning the other cheek. "If somebody's going to give me a whack, I'm going to give it right back," she adds. The belligerent streak isn't probed any further. Searching For Sheela does not do any investigation of its own. It does not bring in the voices of any of her old Ranjeeshpuram associates, nor does it go lo0king for layers beneath those that are floating on the surface.
What Searching For Sheela proffers is nearly a record of Sheela's brief return to where it all began. She visits the neighbourhood in Vadodora where she grew up. Old residents there recognize her. She stops by at the cremation ground where Acharya Rajneesh's last rites were performed in Pune. At the apartment in Mumbai in where Sheela recalls first meeting the guru who changed her life, the door is slammed on her face. We do not get a view of the inside of the abode.
That is Searching For Sheela for you: a hollow, window-dressed, soft-soaped shell. The picture it provides is made up of solely of broad strokes. This is Mild Mild Country. It certainly isn't the end of the search for Sheela. We await a tougher, more insightful, and completely unblinkered portrait.