Stranger than Fiction: ‘Wild Wild Country’

“Someone will write a book about this, and I will guarantee you when that book comes out, people will say that it’s fiction”, remarks one of the characters in the six-part Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country. Imagine then what a six-and-a-half hour documentary on the controversial 1981–1984 Rajneeshee commune in Antelope, Oregon, culled from interviews of devotees, Oregon residents, law and government officials, and a startling 300 hours of archival footage, has to offer. For me, a good work of art is one which makes me feel the widest possible range of emotions, a story that can look at itself from different angles, present different perspectives, with a view to validating different kinds of experiences. And this one sure fit the bill, as I watched in awe, fear, disgust, horror, envy, sorrow and sympathy. Like the other magnificent documentary series O J Made in America, this too probed meaningfully into a specific historical moment and incidents around it that captured the American popular imagination, to reflect on the larger narratives of the times. It is an exciting time for documentary lovers, or even for those who have always dismissed documentaries as drab or didactic, for film makers today are fusing the aesthetics of documentary and fiction film, whether through camerawork, background score or narrativisation.

For this is not just investigative journalism about the scandal caused by the controversial ways of a ‘sex guru’. Things are more complex than the numerous infamous examples of exploitative self-styled godmen, false prophets and corrupt evangelists, and their brazen disregard for laws and the consequences of flouting them. Here is a man, ‘Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’, who by challenging the institution of heterosexual marriage and the diktats of organised religion, tapped into the anxieties of thousands of his followers worldwide, who till date believe that they had built a utopic commune on the foundation of love, happiness and peace, cruelly destroyed by the greed and jealousy of a corrupt few. The Rajneeshees who are among the talking heads of the documentary, and have experienced different levels of disenchantment with their guru over the years, still reverently remember the sheer magnetism of his presence, the life-changing turn that was their encounter with him, and recall with immense pride their building of an extraordinary self-sufficient community of urban professionals in the middle of a quiet desert — ‘the land of promise’, Shangri-La. ‘Rajneesh, who has by no means faded after his death or the collapse of his commune, held out the promise of a life where spirituality and materialism could blend together in an enlightened human consciousness. Tanul Thakur in his perceptive review of the docu-series evokes Tolstoy’s formulae of all good literature and combines the two options to present a third, “But there’s a third kind of story too, where a man embarking on a journey becomes a stranger in a town.” And that is the beginning of this tragedy.

The story of the forty-odd Antelope residents who are uncomfortable with the sudden ‘invasion’ of their town with people so evidently different from themselves, is telling. Their self-righteous resistance and later open hostility, to these strangers in their midst who create a city overnight, with its own police and mayor and other urban facilities, is voiced in terms of ‘the fear of the unknown’. Their staid, conservative middle-class lives are rocked by the suspicion that they have in their midst a Satanic cult that indulges in orgiastic frenzies night and day, and are there to corrupt and take over their quiet neighbourhood. Their fear propels them into vigilantism and (suspected) violence. The Rajneeshees for their part retaliate with an even more militant resolve. Ultimately, both sides are too culturally alien to each other and refuse to engage or compromise. Where the Oregonians believe that the Rajneeshis are interlopers, arrogant and dismissive of their less intellectual and (class-wise) inferior neighbours-cum-adversaries, the Rajneeshis are firm in their belief that the conservative and jingoistic rural Americans are illogically intolerant of their new and free ways. Interestingly, the directors have in interviews explicitly stated the ironic similarities between both parties, in their taking over land (legally or illegally) from earlier inhabitants, and building their own community, church and school. Eventually, things escalate as the Rajneeshees are challenged by first, the townspeople of Antelope, then Wasco County, the state of Oregon and the United States government itself, as larger questions about separation of state and church in a secular nation, bioterrorism, immigration fraud, manipulation of easy voting laws by both parties took over the issue. Today, ironically — or not perhaps — the area runs a Christian youth camp.

Rajneeshpuram in 1983 (Source: Oshobookstore.com, © 2003 Samvado Gunnar Kossatz)

Rajneesh had no qualms about accepting that his utopia, with its luxury meditation facilities and rampant commercialism, was meant for the wealthy; he is known to have declared, “Let them take care of the poor, I will take care of the rich.” In the light of this, the campaign that bused-in hundreds of the homeless with promise of free shelter, food, clothing and the purpose behind it is all the more sinister. The Rajneeshees played the ‘religion’ and ‘marriage’ cards as per their convenience, both to disavow these on principle, and then to take advantage of immigration laws concerning them. The Rajneeshees, attracted by the intellectual and spiritual promise of a new way of life, with their free venting of frustration through seemingly bizarre rituals of uncontrolled laughter, sobbing and sex, fed into the deepest anxieties of a quiet town which remembered well the horror of Jonestown from a few years back. They are still proud to have been a part of what they sincerely seem to believe was a beautiful failed experiment, one that conceptualised ‘The New Man’ living in harmony with others and Nature. But the hollowness of this claim is also evident in its exclusion of those existing outside its order. They never reach out to the ranchers, mostly retirees, of the town that they had rather arrogantly barged into and proceeded to buy out. Rajneesh’s philosophy was one that had space for love and compassion only for oneself and one’s fellow subscribers to the ‘cult’, with little of that for others. His dictum was one of unfettered and ruthless individuality; with reference to the non-violent method of turning the other cheek, he professed, “take both the cheeks’. On the other hand, the townspeople too were quick in their profiling of the group as ‘evil’, ‘immoral’ and ‘Satanic’. As Ma Prem Sunshine piercingly observes, “The way that your enemies fight is what you become, so pick your enemies carefully.”

A still from Wild Wild Country, dir Chapman and McLain Way (2018)

The story is very psychologically rich, for the exploration of its enigmatic guru, his steely personal secretary of many years, Ma Anand Sheela, and the development of the cult as a whole. Though there is much fodder for psychoanalysis and this is not my field, yet I cannot help wonder about a narcissistic man, attracted to shiny things (most prominently, a fleet of 93 Rolls Royces and a Rolex diamond watch), content to withdraw into a world of silence as his appointed female disciples take over the charge of his well-being and that of the community. For the most part, he allows his followers to wear only warm colours like red, orange and purple. Either he is complicit, or fails to take notice of the increasingly sinister plots around him to threaten and eliminate opposition and manipulate the vulnerable in the name of larger good. When Sheela leaves him, along with her trusted aides, he is compelled to break his extended silence and lashes out at her to degrade, defame and expose her, much like the wrath of the little boy who feels abandoned by his mother. Soon after, his fantasy crumbles and he tries to reorganise his community in a bid to salvage it. He gives his followers the freedom to wear any colour they please, and refashions himself as ‘Osho’ and it is by this name that he continues to exercise his sway over many people around the world as a meditation and New Age spiritual guru, through books and CDs. His ashram in Pune still thrives. Tracing the trajectory of the commune, one is led to the conclusion that an unbridled exploration of one’s id, whether in one’s personal or collective identity, with its attendant focus on the pleasure principle and its amorality, is bound to erupt in disruptive chaos and self-destruction.

For me though, the protagonist is undoubtedly Sheela, the hero and villain of the piece, whose charismatic and almost hypnotic persona forms a fascinating aspect of the journey of the Rajneeshees. The confidence with which this articulate Indian woman undertakes the hugely ambitious project of transferring the tree of the Rajneeshees, roots and all, to a different country, and coordinates the building of the city of Rajneeshpuram from scratch, building upon the strengths of the community and the provisions and loopholes in the legal system, does not fail to impress. She emerges as the real leader, the mastermind of the Rajneesh empire, who alone perhaps recognises her guru for what he is, what he envisions and then does all she in her power to realise it. Witty and strong-willed, soft-spoken yet often virulent, Sheela uses her shrewd business acumen to sniff out money-making opportunities. She is also diabolic, manipulative, pettily vengeful and remorseless, not hesitating to poison and attempt to murder those that stand in the way of the cause to which she had dedicated her life. (There is also something too unspeakable to do with beavers.) She is stylish, irreverent and combative, glibly familiar with the American law and an understanding of its ethos. But she also takes her fall with great equanimity and makes a dignified exit when she realises that her importance in her ‘Bhagwaan’s’ scheme of things is diminishing, and her control over the commune and its functioning decreasing by the day. Even when she is forced to return, or narrates her memories for the interviewer, what we receive from her is not deceit and lies, but an unflinching account of the truth, her truth, but truth nevertheless.

Ma Anand Sheela being blessed by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Wild Wild Country, 2018)

There is no instance of regret. Amongst the framed photographs on the wall behind her, is one that captures the moment of bliss when her ‘Bhagwaan’ had touched her forehead in blessing in the initial days; she has no misconceptions about her attraction towards her guru, and his infantile dependence on her. There is a glow on her face when she speaks of him, even after his love for her turns to malice, and she stands firm in her belief that the world has lost a great opportunity by not recognising her Master. She also curiously reads the American chapter of the movement as a grand ‘opera’ that the American public should have felt grateful about witnessing! One can’t help wondering if she is the convenient and necessary scapegoat, and only a front for an empire that she had helped built, but which could survive and thrive in her absence as well. Thus, she does not invoke anger or horror alone. The pain and sorrow in her voice today softens her arrogant and flippant smirks from her television appearance footage from before, and her faith in her guru shines through.

The fate of the Rajneeshees cannot be seen through the moralistic lens of triumphant tradition and its use of state machinery to halt the growth of a threatening ‘other’. It must be also viewed through the sympathetic lens turned upon a tragic people, who gave the best and most productive years towards a blissful utopic possibility, and lost sight of their moral compass along the way and had to survive betrayal and disillusionment, choosing to hold on to the lies and half-truths they have told themselves. The righteous zeal with which the law enforcement and government agencies wait, watch and eventually hunt down and turn out Rajneesh from the country, obviously to undermine his credibility and show him down, makes one squirm. One cannot feel the jubilance of a criminal enterprise being brought to brook, as one watches the frail man dragged around from one American prison to another in chains, over the course of a month. The only sympathetic treatment is that meted out to Ma Shanti B, which is a heart-wrenching story in its own right.

Directors Chapman and Maclain Way collaborated with the Duplass brothers Mark and Jay in this riveting and sensitive presentation of a huge national issue of its time, that was also a clash of cultures, but take it beyond the pale of the usual ‘true crime’ series. The wild and epic proportions of the story, more outlandish and improbable at every unexpected turn, and the deliberate emphasis on ambiguities rather than clear answers, are signalled by its title, camerawork and atmospheric music (which is in no way intrusive to my Indian ears!). Each side gets to tell its story; the talking heads have been carefully chosen and their recollections, along with the incredible footage especially from inside the commune, create an aura of authenticity that draws one in, forces one to engage with both sides and their multiple realities, and make up one’s own mind about the reliability/unreliability of the narrators provided. One is compelled to question assumptions, set aside prejudices and dwell on obscurities. It deliberately does not focus on Rajneesh’s teachings, or his Indian origins and return, (that has irked some Rajneeshee viewers) which occupy little space in the narrative, nor does it take sides (again, rankling with others who see themselves as victims of the ‘cult’). The film moves beyond the salacious aspects of the story, and provides enough to disbelieve, and then introspect.

One is left with many questions and doubts. Were the Rajneeshis doomed to self-destruction, or pushed against the wall too soon? Were the disasters waiting to happen or did the hostility of the Oregonians (with their slogan ‘Better Dead than Red’), and the American state and law agencies, with their well-entrenched prejudice and instinctive bigotry, anticipate the attacks upon its democratic society? Leaving the connotations of a sex cult aside, could Rajneeshpuram have survived as a model for sustainable living and green technology? “…was (it) a New Age utopia destroyed by corruption or a brainwashed cult that operated as a massive criminal enterprise?” How complicit was Rajneesh in the illegal activities inside the commune and who was the real deluded megalomaniac here? The commune was both a product and victim of its times, both in terms of its capturing the counter-culture energy in America, and falling prey to the cult prejudice and cultural paranoia that was widespread in the nation post Jonestown. This tragic cycle of mistrust and violence is perhaps doomed to continue till the end of time.

Rajneesh and his followers (Image source: digg.com)

What makes the docu-series of interest is also its continuing relevance for these times. The existence of religious/quasi-religious cults and self-help discourses that claim to provide the best of both, Western materialism and the Eastern spirituality, is still pervasive. So is the popular Western suspicion of immigrants, and the lax American policy regarding access to firearms, that facilitated the militant, dangerous turn of the Rajneeshees. The cocktail of religion, politics and struggle for supremacy is by no means any less potent today. Debates about religious freedom of the individual and the role of the state in the matter is a hotbed of vigorous debate across the world. For those who dismiss the power of organised religion in its ability to tap into the spiritual yearning of people and their instinctive desire to belong to a higher cause, loved, welcomed and understood, this story is a lesson. It teaches us that as the world moves towards a more urban and materialistic order, people will continue to turn to forms of religion that can adapt themselves to the times and address people’s guilt, fears and hope. But it also serves as a warning to us who are only too eager to place all our hopes on an individual leader; to be wary of any philosophy that claims that material comforts need not be incommensurate with spiritual attainment. Ultimately, any multitude that believes that it is ‘the chosen ones’, part of ‘the great experiment’, coming together to transform the world, whether a religious group, or the army of a dictator, is bound to lose perspective of the boundaries it transgresses in its self-righteous project. It is a very contemporary story, for the cult of the individual leader, whether in religion (especially one that associates itself with spirituality rather than religion) or politics (where self-righteous morality determines public policy) is by no means an old-fashioned one. And we are never the villains of our own pieces.