Life and death of a utopia

Wild Wild Country is the title of a monumental six-part documentary series that has just opened on Netflix. In painstaking detail over six one-hour episodes it reconstructs the life and death of Rajneeshpuram, the 64,000-acre utopian commune Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh aka Osho and his orange-clad band of international sannyasins, created in the boondocks of Oregon between 1981 and 1985. 

I am neither an indiscriminate Netflix binge-viewer nor much of a Rajneesh-watcher, ever since I spent time reporting on this bearded, bulbous-eyed sermonising guru at his Pune ashram (“The Spiritual Supermarket”, Vanity Fair describes as “something of a pop culture phenomenon, the latest opportunity for voyeurs to absorb an improbable, shocking, and sprawling true crime tale”.

It is utterly compelling — as much for the assurance of the two young sibling directors, Maclain and Chapman Way, in culling hundreds of hours of archive footage and contemporary interviews (without a single line of voice-over narrative) as for the galloping growth of the media giant Netflix. The online streaming service-turned-content producer of blockbuster series such as Sacred Games, starring Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. But a host of Bollywood’s best talent is angling or negotiating film deals.

Sacred Games”, is stranger than fiction. In Pune Rajneesh earned notoriety for his advocacy of free love and rumours of orgies among his foreign followers; puritanical politicians like Morarji Desai were having none of it despite adherents including actors Vinod Khanna and Terence Stamp; in the small rural community of Oregon disquiet turns into hostility as the “Rajneeshees” stage a political takeover of the local council, electing their mayor, renaming streets and cafes, and swamping the town in saffron. While the Bhagwan himself — gliding in Rolls Royces and swathed in outlandish robes and diamonds — makes occasional appearances, the charge is led by his ambitious, loose-talking, publicity-seeking private secretary, the Indian-born, American-educated Ma Anand Sheela. Media frenzy builds up as she attempts to take over the district legislature. Denouncing opponents as “bigots”, her inflammatory utterances, TV appearances and press conferences are marked by an array of flashy designer outfits. She is both media trophy and media victim.

Dark underhand activity at Rajneeshpuram descends into crime. Hundreds of potential voters are afflicted by salmonella poisoning in salad bars; bombs go off; the commune turns into a fortress as armed sannyasins patrol the streets and practise at a shooting range in self-defence.

State and federal investigators get into the act to unmask a secret surveillance network, mysterious medical lab and attempted murders (including a Sheela confidante piercing the Bhagwan’s personal physician with a poisoned syringe).

Inevitably the collapse of this utopia is triggered by internal dissensions and factional feuds. Sheela is banished — Bhagwan abuses her in public — and is replaced by a rich Hollywood producer’s wife.

As the noose closes round him Rajneesh tries to escape in two private Lear jets with a few disciples and his hoard of jewellery. He is intercepted, jailed and eventually deported to Pune, where he dies in 1990.

Sheela serves a two-year prison sentence, retires to run a home for the mentally-disabled in Switzerland, and appears only too happy to give her account in an extended interview.

The questions Wild Wild Country poses are as layered as its dense plotlines. Is it a classic decline-and-fall saga of a religious cult’s deterioration into dystopian nightmare? Or a morality fable of epic egos clashing over naked greed and power? A disquisition on the roots of xenophobia or the limits of democratic freedom? It is all of these but, shrewdly, the filmmakers take no particular position, allowing viewers to make up their minds.

The story is told entirely through the voices of the participants — a large and gripping cast of real-life characters from besotted acolytes to terrified locals, criminal attorneys and investigative journalists. Although the docuseries broadly follows a chronological structure of what happened in those four fateful years, it traverses a complex terrain of weaving the past and present, and the shifting standpoints of the main players as they come to terms with their post-Oregon lives. Some appear broken with contrition; others are unrepentant or continue to believe in Rajneesh’s sanctity and spirituality. Meanwhile the desolate, rotting shell of Rajneeshpuram has been turned into a children’s resort by a new buyer.

A formidable exercise in film-making, Wild Wild Country puts Netflix in a commanding position creatively in its conquest of new markets.

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