Searching for Sheela review: Netflix docu investigates whether the enigmatic woman has moved on from her murky past

We only understand Sheela better through the dichotomies of views around her, and true to her illusive infamy, she lives up to her noncommittal status, clinically veiling it as the whole truth.

Shreya Paul April 22, 2021 16:38:54 IST
Searching for Sheela review: Netflix docu investigates whether the enigmatic woman has moved on from her murky past

"Redemption lies in guilt, that's why I cannot redeem myself." - Ma Anand Sheela

While Netflix's docuseries Wild Wild Country tried to dissect the scandal, the culture clash, and the facts around Rajneesh Osho’s downfall, Shakun Batra's latest documentary Searching For Sheela explores the journey of a woman who, for many, has been a subject of utter fascination.

Sheela Ambalal Patel aka Ma Anand Sheela, Osho’s admiral, was a character that Wild Wild Country did not delve enough into. The journey of Searching For Sheela is precisely towards that. It is a journey that follows her through a "homecoming" after 35 years.

We only understand Sheela better through the dichotomies of views around her, and true to her illusive infamy, she lives up to her noncommittal status, clinically veiling it as the whole truth.

While young kids look at her like a pop-culture phenomenon, some might consider her an icon of feminism, a few simply label her a "criminal" with a murky past, but how she paves her way through it all is what Searching for Sheela is all about.

The documentary balances delicately Sheela's reaction to her audience and their gaze towards a woman who is very difficult to categorise or box.

In an almost meta-narrative format, the film is a mirror to people's consciences while they try to demystify Sheela's multiple layers.

Sheela, through her “tour," professes and confesses to only one truth – that she has always lived beyond the obvious. She admits that to understand her is to understand how to shed burdens or boundaries of any higher being — God, religion, State, or even law (I, daresay). It is only when we detach ourselves from these demarcations, will we truly understand what we stand for in the present. Much to the exasperation of her detractors, then, she remains steadfast and fiercely guarded of her innocence towards and passion for Bhagwan (meaning God, another name with which Osho was referred to).

Searching for Sheela review Netflix docu investigates whether the enigmatic woman has moved on from her murky past

Ma Anand Sheela in Netflix's latest documentary. Image from Twitter.

But that is not to say that Searching For Sheela defends the former empress of Rajneeshpuram. With ample footage from Sheela’s former years as Rajneesh’s commander-in-chief, the documentary paints an image of a formidable woman with desperate bravado, one that rarely hesitates before taking fatalistic steps to suit her means. Such drama and gorgeous extravagance make for good television content. As Batra puts it in an interview, “It’s Greek theatre, just playing out in real life.”

Much to Batra’s style of unambiguous storytelling, Sheela’s existence is viewed through one such prism that global media has long since loved to eviscerate — that of an unrequited lover, of a woman spurned in her affections towards a larger-than-life man. She unabashedly states to director Karan Johar (in a segment in the documentary) that she has only had a platonic relationship with Osho, and that she thinks his eyes were probably even more enchanting “than his penis.”

Searching for Sheela review Netflix docu investigates whether the enigmatic woman has moved on from her murky past

Still from Searching For Sheela. Image from Twitter

Through the documentary, Sheela is placed before fellow social targets like Bina Ramani and her daughter Malini, two main witnesses embroiled in the Jessica Lal murder case. They discuss how they tackled complete ostracism following court judgements against them. Even though Sheela empathises with their pain, she distances herself from the collective guilt that many in such situations share. “I do not live with any remorse,” she says plainly.

Searching For Sheela creates an environment in which the 71-year-old former Vadodara resident can be herself. A brief segment into the documentary, which in fact stands as the most authentic, witnesses Sheela break down when she is taken to her ancestral home in Gujarat. A certain swing with her father’s favourite cushions makes her sentimental, and you are compelled to see the free-spirited, small-town girl, giddy with dreamy eyes and sworn to stardom.

Sheela’s erstwhile notoriety seems to have aged gracefully in tandem with her grey mane and numerous wrinkles that sit elegantly on her face. She defends herself till the very last, proudly declaring that she did what had to be done in order to protect the ones she loved and cared for, much like her nurturing instincts with her patients at her current special help home in Bazel, Switzerland.

The message embedded in Searching For Sheela is that the woman behind the enigma has moved on from her past, and can only look beyond towards better days of guilt-free existence. Whether the documentary truly uncovers the lady is the inevitable question that looms large over its 57-minute-runtime.

Searching For Sheela is streaming on Netflix India.

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