By Vrinda Saxena
The frame opens on nearly a thousand people walking down in red and orange, identical robes with the traditional Bhagwaan “mala(s)” and you could very well mistake it for a zombie-culture invasion if you take it at the face value of 1980s America.
Highly addictive Netflix series alert!
In March this year, popular online video streaming channel Netflix released a six-part documentary series on the life of self-proclaimed Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, known widely by the name Osho. The docu-series titled ‘Wild Wild Country’ explores the making of the “orange cult” and anything and everything related- from the sannyasins (followers) to the city of Rajneeshpuram.
The piece is set amidst the period of the 1980s when the followers of the Osho cult built for themselves a supposedly utopian new city by the name of Rajneeshpuram after their mentor, in the small town of Antelope in Oregon, USA. Directed by siblings Chapman and Maclain Way and produced by the Duplass brothers- Jay and Mark, the videos unfold in an engrossing manner, partly attributed to the story and partly the screenplay, though the scales lean heavier towards the former. What starts off as a simple tug between cultures gradually escalates into something difficult to imagine- but this certainly makes for an interesting watch.
Why should you watch it?
One so-called liberal and alleged “sex cult” leader and his followers, 64,000 acres of land in the middle of Oregon, and the controversial episodes that ensued- documented through actual video footages and testimonies- is what makes for an endearing and eye-opening watch.
This tale which begins with Bhagwaan Shree Rajneesh in India preaching the philosophy of a “new man” and dynamic meditation, goes on to explore extremes such as one of the largest bioterrorism attacks the USA has ever witnessed, which is, sadly enough, a bitter truth. Rajneesh’s concepts were rather too radical for the times- promoting sexual liberation and blatant disregard for institutions like marriage, religion and ideology- which the Indian society held in high regard. No surprises then that he found instant fame with the like-minded and moved to the US alongside taking a vow of silence spanning a period of three years. The way he advocated capitalism and wealth and still promised refuge in spiritualism contributed to the fondness he enjoyed among the Westerners.
In fact, his aversion to marriage and related emotions led to one of the largest immigration frauds ever. A lot of his followers being non-US citizens, Rajneesh asked each to pair up with one US citizen, married in another state, and then return to Rajneeshpuram where the marriage did not enjoy validity. His freedom-loving followers created for themselves a haven in the conservative Antelope and what emanated was not a mere clash of cultures but something more advanced- from rigging elections for political clout to poisoning, not people alone but their lives and psyches too. The depiction of this really is as good as real, for it is extremely hard to not be moved.
Sex in the guise of asceticism?
Ostensibly the orange robes in which the followers were clad stood for Hindu ascetics and the flashy cars for his staunch bias for capitalism.
To the natives of Antelope, this development of Osho cult was anything but pleasing. The term “sex cult” came to be synonymous with it since naked sun-bathing was almost a common sight here. In the words of the natives of Antelope, the followers seemed to be “living in their bedroom” because of the loud noises they made. It only corroborates for their discomfort with the residence of the cult’s followers.
One peculiar thing that strikes is that contrary to these expectations, Rajneesh does not take up most part of the screen space; he is shown like a grey-bearded figure looming large, mostly silent and bedecked in luxe clothes.
His personal secretary and “right-hand man”, Ma Sheela Anand is perhaps undeniably the character which steals the show. She personifies the phrase ‘looks are deceptive’. The short-haired woman with seemingly attractive soft features unravels as a layered personality- or better- a cold mastermind criminal, loathed by opponents of the cult and even some within it. Surprisingly, she is unbelievably calm and soft-spoken in her on-screen interviews, some of which find their way into the documentary. Nonetheless, halfway through the documentary, it is no surprise to find such juxtapositions. Sample this: when an old woman is a mere bystander till you know she attempted murder!
The series, to its credit, has revelations about the issues associated with the cult. It brings to light the fact that the city had with it a humongous amount of weapons, or as they say more than even what the state of Oregon owned. Support for this claim is found in the Antelopian description of hearing shots being fired all day and oral testimony of Jane Stork, one of the sannyasins who admitted to buying weapons from different stores and handing them over to Anand.
This compelling docu-drama will keep you glued as you stumble upon a series of illegal activities cleverly disguised in the name of faith and spirituality. Ma Sheela Anand very effectively slides into the pivotal role as the show progresses.
The FBI, it is said, found 10,000 tapes as part of the largest wiretapping case that yet again goes to make the Osho cult so distinguishable. Anand, who now lives in Switzerland, had bugged Rajneesh’s house and that of several others in the city, daily recording and analysing conversations, with an obvious indifference to the law.
A former Rajneeshee, Roshani Shay, wrote on the site OshoNews.com, “Viewers of this series can learn a lot about how not to behave from its episodes”.
So much for spoilers!
The best part remains the neutral stance of the makers. No side is taken, and all views are presented without any bias before the viewer to watch and decide for himself. The documentary is not conventionally stacked with a lot of talking; it is only the people who have central roles who have made an appearance and they have their perspectives, which the audience is exposed to with the right balance and filmmaking. There is constant unsettled ambiguity, maybe due to lack of obvious villains, or maybe due to people’s reluctance to admitting their faults so openly when they were erstwhile convinced of being heroes or maybe something else.
Speaking to Weekend All Things Considered, director Chapman Way said, “The interesting thing about this spiritual group was that it was actually much more of this almost extreme libertarian philosophy that you can build yourself up by your own bootstraps: They wanted to build their American dream, their own law enforcement, their own education”.
This series reveals hours of home movies, shot by the cult members themselves, in the feverish belief that they were building a true nirvana-home in the mountains of Pacific Northwest. Rated 8.6/10 by IMDB, it has earned itself the reputation of being one of the most binge-worthy shows that Netflix has released in a while and it justifies the tag once you watch it.
Watch it, if nothing, to witness a thorough documentation of such an important event of the past for the first time. Watch it for a display of strangeness, for a display of shrewd deftness, and for a display of enticing storyline sans over-dramatisation.
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