Searching for Sheela movie review: Ma Anand Sheela gets Dharma treatment in Netflix's directorless documentary
- Searching for Sheela movie review: Netflix's hour-long documentary is a Dharma-style, surface-level profile of Ma Anand Sheela. It brushes aside everything that is interesting about her in favour of fluff.
Only in Incredible India can nationwide protests be mounted against fictional characters, while an actual convicted felon gets the Dharma treatment. Searching for Sheela is an hour-long documentary that pretends it is giving the controversial Ma Anand Sheela an opportunity to present her side of the story, but ends up resembling nothing more than a discarded DVD bonus feature.
Executive producer Shakun Batra — there is no credited director on Searching for Sheela — was said to be working on her biopic a few years ago, and it is very likely that this originated as a side-project. Sheela, who by then had taken a victory lap in the press, had even endorsed actor Alia Bhatt for the role, challenging a rival project being put together by Priyanka Chopra.
Watch an interview with executive producer Shakun Batra here
She was hot property, a divisive figure hailed as a beacon of bada**ery by urban masses who conveniently decided to ignore the serious crimes that she had pleaded guilty to. Searching for Sheela is pegged as the emotional story of her grand homecoming after years spent in exile in Switzerland, but it is merely a puff piece designed to promote whatever future Ma Anand Sheela project that Batra ends up directing.
We watch as socialites and trust fund kids slice each other’s throats to get a selfie with her, while a prominent journalist virtually prostrates herself before Sheela, looking at her with the sort of devotion that the former aide to Osho reserved for her Bhagwan. They sold a lifestyle to white people back in the day; she’s just selling a different one to desis now.
Sheela in the film is projected as a fierce, independent woman — indeed, that is how she has been portrayed in the press — but I have never seen someone this devoted to a man. When we meet her first, at her house in a Swiss village, her walls are adorned with old pictures of Osho. A few minutes later, when producer Karan Johar asks her in one scene if their relationship was strictly platonic, she replies, “I didn’t have sex with him, if that is what you mean... His eyes were probably more beautiful than his penis…”
Many years have passed since the events depicted in the cracking documentary series Wild Wild Country, but Sheela’s opinion of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh hasn’t changed one bit. Neither has her stance on what transpired between them. Everyone from Bina Ramani to Raghu Rai tries to pry information out of her, but Sheela doesn’t relent. She sticks to her story, which essentially amounts to, ‘I did my time, it’s all in the past’.
This is the extent to which the film is willing to go in its examination of Sheela. Most of it, instead, is devoted to scenes in which she tries out spectacular outfits at Lodhi Colony and hobnobs with entitled youth at a Chhattarpur farmhouse.
In by far the most cringe-inducing scene of the film, a bunch of women are heard whispering to each other that they will now be able to boast about ‘hosting a murderer’. Their freshly uploaded Instagram posts appear on screen. For status-obsessed Indians, a celebrity is a celebrity is a celebrity. But what the film doesn’t realise is that while it is okay for Sheela to project herself as an enigma, it is majorly off-putting for the film to play into that narrative.
And that, in a nutshell, is the vibe of this operation. It’s a misjudged, miscalculated misfire; a knee-jerk reaction to a top trending pop culture phenomenon, informed by an utterly baffling misreading of what Wild Wild Country was actually trying to say. And as we all know, you don’t need a Netflix subscription to gawk at a Gujarat-born cult figure. All you need to do is switch on the news.