Code Red

Skye Arundhati Thomas on Wild Wild Country (2018)

Maclain and Chapman Way, Wild Wild Country, 2018, still from a TV show on Netflix. Episode 1.

“YES, SHE POISONED A WHOLE TOWN, BUT . . . ,” a friend texts me after watching the recently released Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country (2018), and it is a popular response to Ma Anand Sheela, the true heroine of the show. The six-episode film presents an extraordinary amount of footage from the four years of Rajneeshpuram, a sixty-three-thousand-acre ranch in Wasco County, Oregon, established in 1981. The five thousand people who lived at Rajneeshpuram wanted to be with their Bhagwan (the Hindi word for “God”), Rajneesh, who is better known by the name Osho. The Rajneeshees flipped bananas instead of bacon, got violent during therapy, and left behind their families, high-profile jobs, and sometimes even their children. They also built check dams, planted trees, irrigated farms, put in solar power, and laid out thousands of square feet of lawn carpet. They had an airport and a fleet of customized Rajneesh Air aircrafts. They were rich and smart, and they were being led by a woman of intensifying prowess: Sheela, Rajneesh’s personal secretary and power of attorney.

Sheela was not just a small-town girl. At her peak she was managing millions of dollars and her actions were escalating wildly: attempted murder, assault, wire-tapping, and arson. Whether she is indeed guilty of these charges is totally beside the point. Sheela teases open a moral spectrum. She has an innate ability to incense white TV presenters who try to catch her in a lie and trap her with their questions, which is her most delicious quality: She will raise her voice well before the moment calls for it, and speak about herself in third person. She won’t quit serving iconic soft-butch looks.

Maclain and Chapman Way, Wild Wild Country, 2018, still from a TV show on Netflix. Episode 1. Ma Anand Sheela.

While brothers Maclain and Chapman Way were doing research for their all-American underdog film The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014), an archivist at the Oregon Historical Society casually mentioned having “525 raw U-Matic tapes on the most bizarre story that ever happened in Oregon.” The brothers switched on a tape and out came lush 1980s saturation: leaky ultramarine skies and silky desert clay. Cinematically, the filmmakers just couldn’t refuse, although it helped that everything about the story was ripe for the telling. Rajneeshpuram was about twenty miles from the small town of Antelope (population: forty), whose residents were affronted by the ways of their new neighbors. In the film, the two parties battle it out, and the Way brothers set up a straightforward plot: We have the Rajneeshees on one side, the residents of Antelope on the other, and the federal government as the interlocutor between the two.

The footage, more than three hundred hours of it, was largely shot by the Rajneeshees themselves. “We filmed everything,” Amrito, aka Dr. John Andrews, told me as I sat across him at the still-thriving Osho International Meditation Resort in Pune, India. He made sure I got this right and corrected me when I said “ashram,” as I have always called it. I grew up not far from the resort, hanging out at its public park with my friends, mostly for a sign of anything out of the ordinary: public sex or people on psychedelics, as the rumors promised. We were desperate to know what went on in there, sharpening our attention to the dripping maroon robes that hung loosely off Oshoite bodies. When I got in touch with the resort for a comment on the series, I was surprised to be given an audience with Amrito, who is something of a talisman in the documentary. Sheela and her “Jesus Grove Gang,” as they were called, had tried to murder him twice—and both times they were successful in injuring him enough that he was sent to a hospital. He was one of two people at Osho’s deathbed, and one of two people to benefit greatly from his will.

We were seated amid several of Osho’s drawings, which are often composed entirely of his own signature. Amrito is charming in a well-rehearsed way. He heavily pronounces all jokes and is generous with his time. The filmmakers did not contact him, he says, and it is a shame that Osho’s philosophies are missing from the film. I offered that perhaps such detail is irrelevant, since the series is designed to be binge-watched and is less interested in getting things right than in making sure we’re hooked. “But imagine making a documentary about an experiment based on Einstein’s work and not mention the theory of relativity!” he laughed. As for Sheela, “She is a super liar,” he whispers, rubbing his hands together. “I mean, absolutely. She is the cunningest lady you can imagine.” This seems to be the official statement from Osho corp: Wild Wild Country is Sheela’s requiem, her cover-up story.

Maclain and Chapman Way, Wild Wild Country, 2018, still from a TV show on Netflix. Episode 1. Amrito.

Early in the series it is clear that the real protagonist is not the “cult” in question, nor its leader, but plain-old American xenophobia. “In the United States if the government decides to get you . . . they’re gonna get you,” notes Philip Toelkes, aka Swami Prem Niren, Osho’s chief litigator, during one of his interviews in the film. In one particularly tense moment, the National Guard was dispatched to surround Rajneeshpuram and helicopters circled above, loaded with machine guns. Former Assistant US Attorney Robert Weaver, who was prosecuting Osho’s arrest, describes a “very strong presence of a dark aura” on meeting with Osho, a sentiment repeated to him later by the courtroom artist, who told him she had felt this “eeriness” only once before, when she was in the presence of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

What the Other is remains slippery and amoebic. The Other is the brown import from India, with the long wispy beard and sequined robes, but also the white Americans who joined him and strayed too far from the Christian path. The Other is not afraid to disinvest from the state, self-govern, and teach one another how to use automatic weapons. Such bigotry is set deep in the fabric of the American dream, which ironically brought the Rajneeshees over in the first place. “We’d rather be dead than red,” chant the residents of Antelope: red like the commies, red like the Indians, and red like the clothes of the banana-flipping Rajneeshees.

Wild Wild Country was released March 16, 2018, on Netflix.