Why Dharmatic's Netflix documentary Searching For Sheela is a crime against Journalism 101
Searching for Sheela is so tremendously low on insight and curiosity about someone as fascinating as Sheela that it seems like a criminal waste of an opportunity.
What are the chances that the folks at Dharmatic Entertainment, the streaming subsidiary of Karan Johar's Dharma Productions, already know they have goofed up in a big way with Searching for Sheela? Once the credits roll, there lies a conspicuous absence of a 'director' in the film.
I might be speculating here, but it seems like no self-respecting individual wants to be known for directing this glorified V-log parading as a documentary, on one of the most enigmatic pop-culture figures since 2018. When Maclain and Chapman Way's Wild Wild Country released on Netflix almost exactly three years ago, it was a dense, thrilling, and nuanced documentary about a conflict that broke out between a cult and a predominantly white American town in the '80s. Emerging out of this, was Ma Anand Sheela, who captured the imagination of viewers with her fierce loyalty towards Rajneesh Osho, and her colourful language on news shows to defend the very existence of Rajneeshpuram.
A spin-off about the journey of Sheela after she fled from Rajneeshpuram, would almost seem like a no-brainer, right? However, in Searching for Sheela, we get a documentary that seems like the equivalent of a panting teenaged fan, hours after they have finished Wild Wild Country, breathlessly asking, "What happened to Sheela? Did she really do everything she was accused of?" only to be met with a blank stare.
One of the most jaw-dropping things about Searching for Sheela is its lack of inquisitiveness. Picking up from a time when we are reasonably acquainted with Sheela and her larger-than-life reputation, one would imagine the filmmakers to start at the beginning. What was her life before she met Rajneesh? Was her family particularly devout, what made them reject conventional ‘Gods,' and follow a strange young man claiming to have the 'answers?' At what point did Sheela leave behind her middle-class Indian conditioning and embrace the 'openness' of Rajneesh's spiritual philosophies? What were the foundational principles while laying down the Utopian town of Rajneeshpuram? When did she first get an inkling that it was going sideways? What were the initial hardships after leaving? What has she learned from the experience in Oregon, how has she dealt with the casual xenophobia that she was subjected to even in Switzerland, when she opened a healing centre for the disabled?
Shockingly, Searching for Sheela asks none of these questions. Instead, Johar (who opens the slate of Sheela's interviews in India) asks her if she has been in a sexual relationship with Rajneesh, and Sheela sportingly indulges him like it were a salacious Koffee With Karan episode.
There is an overwhelming Dharma imprint all over the 58-minute film, which works against the subject matter.
Sheela, after she lands in Delhi, is driven to a designer store in Lodhi Colony, where we are told about the sartorial choices made by the organisers. It is telling how the film wastes precious minutes within its already brief runtime, choosing to force-feed this avoidable detail. Even when the questions begin, most interviews seem to race to the allegations of bio-terror attack against Sheela, for which she was convicted, but charges she continues to deny till date. The questions also border on the frivolous as they discuss the nudity and the free sex within the communes.
So it is no surprise when Sheela erupts during an interview with Shoma Chaudhury, when she tries a sly approach about a 'hypothetical' situation about whether 'she would infect people and towns to defend Rajneeshpuram.' Sheela groans at the question first, and laughs with the audience for a bit, and then admonishes Chaudhury for being "curious about the same shit." When it comes to facing cameras and sitting down for interviews, Sheela has been doing it longer than most of these interviewers have even been professionals. None of the interviewers find a creative way to get Sheela to drop her guard, to say something she already has not repeated in a thousand other interviews. "Journalists always seem to have written their stories on me, even before meeting me. Sitting across me is almost like protocol for them to write what they already have in mind, without really listening to me," Sheela grumbles to an organiser at one point.
The disappointment and fatigue eventually begins to show on Sheela's face, and invariably finds its way into the film too. Why did the makers not use those moments as cues to ask something else to Sheela, on her way to the hotel, or even during a candid conversation taking place in a green room, minutes before she goes up on stage? We will never know. Sheela never seems to veer from her script and her 'performance,' which adversely impacts the film. Instead, the organisers are shown asking Sheela to pose for social media, like a 'boss lady.' It is interesting to note how filmmakers would have a subject as interesting as Sheela in front of them, and instead choose to do such silly things, rather than inundate her with questions.
There is an interesting moment where Bina Ramani, while speaking to Sheela, talks about a stressful moment referring to the Jessica Lal murder case. Ramani was a prime witness in the case, and she says something to the effect of knowing what Sheela feels, especially because she had the cameras pointed at her during those few years, as if they were 'animals in a zoo.' Ramani's daughter Malini mentions how all three of them have been to jail, almost like an achievement unlocked. Then she ostentatiously poses with Sheela, renewing Sheela's status as a 'zoo animal' amongst New Delhi's high-profile socialites. Ramani mentions how they have both endured tough times, but that 'God was with us,' something Sheela does not seem to agree with. But we do not hear Sheela voice her doubts.
Searching for Sheela is so tremendously low on insight and curiosity about someone as fascinating as Sheela that it seems like a criminal waste of an opportunity. It does not even ask the bare basic questions when Sheela is visiting her father's home in Surat. The film has no point-of-view of its own, and it rather relies on the questions of a Barkha Dutt or Shoma Chaudhury, which frankly are not particularly novel either, to carve a narrative.
What we get in the end is Sheela's reticent face through most of the runtime, as she holds on to all her secrets. There is little to no digging that filmmaker do of their own, rather lazily including footage from Netflix’s archives from Wild Wild Country. Sheela occasionally spouts 'profound' nothings like "Redemption lies in guilt. That's why I cannot redeem myself." In the hands of a curious filmmaker, this would have been the starting point for a million questions. For all the hype around Johar buying Sheela's life rights at the behest of executive producer Shakun Batra, Searching for Sheela feels like the result of an impulsive shopping spree.
Searching For Sheela is streaming on Netflix India.
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