Folks in flowing orange and maroon robes, a fleet of Rolls-Royce, an Indian guru who doesn’t speak in public and his fiery secretary who does all the talking — all in the middle of a sprawling 64,000- acre ranch in distant Oregon in America. Wild, Wild Country, which released on Netflix last month to instant fandom, documents the arrival of Indian Godman Rajneesh — or Osho as he came to be known later — from Pune and his mostly Western followers into the Big Muddy Ranch next to the sleepy town of Antelope in 1981 and the not-so-happy ever after.
Directed by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, the seven-hour, six episode docu-series chronicles the setting up of Rajneeshpuram, the heady first months of building a promised land — complete with an airport, hospitals, stores, cafes, schools and its own government and police — in the wilderness, the escalating friction between the small local community of 40 that balloons into an all-out confrontation with the county and the United States government.
With its rich spool of archival footage that lets you travel back decades, and, present-day interviews, Wild Wild Country is an intimate chronicle of a group that went from being synonymous with free love to something more sinister. Rajneesh’s flamboyant personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela and other followers were involved in poisoning a town to suppress voter turnout, rounding up homeless people from all over the country to bolster votes, wiretapping and immigration fraud, leading to the eventual eviction of Rajneesh from the US in 1985 and a prison spell for Sheela. In an interview, the Way brothers, whose earlier documentary, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, about a minor league baseball team in Portland, opened to critical acclaim in 2014, talk about why a utopian experiment from the ’80s still has relevance in 2018 and why Ma Anand Sheela made fun of them:
In India and in many parts of Europe, Osho is a familiar name. Considering he ran a huge commune in the US, were you surprised to discover that most Americans, including you, hadn’t heard of him and the commune?
For some reason, oddly, in the US, given the level of criminality that they were involved in, people didn’t really remember Bhagwan (Rajneesh) and if they did, it was maybe for his 93 Rolls-Royce! We were shocked that we hadn’t heard of him. As we travelled abroad for the series, we saw that people had a much better grasp of him — of course in India but even in places like Brazil, Australia and Italy. We were very excited to do a six-part series that showed their utopian dream, an ambition that was sky high and what their homecoming to Oregon was like.
The 40-odd residents of Antelope who were mostly retired and the retiring kind and their new neighbours are almost two ends of a spectrum. Would you say the fear of the Other — on both sides — is at the heart of your documentary? Does this have relevance in 2018?
A fear of the Other is at its core. In hindsight, the Rajneeshees chose a bad place in the US to be in. You know, east Oregon is conservative, Christian, they are pioneers. It’s not just them (Rajneesh followers), they dislike all outsiders. The concept of Bhagwan and his success in India was not something they knew. Remember, these were pre-internet days. All this was scary for them. As we spoke to them, as we heard them, it was interesting — we found them to be intelligent people. They were not just some one-dimensional, red necks that the Rajneeshees would see them as perhaps because they did not walk their path, or they were not looking to raise their consciousness or seeking enlightenment. But they did have legitimate fears. This is still relevant in 2018, we’re living in a period of identity politics and tribalism in the US…where each side is becoming more and more entrenched.
This documentary belongs, perhaps, less to Rajneesh and more to his go-getter, power-tripping secretary Ma Anand Sheela. She is almost the anti-hero of the series. From correcting someone on the number of Rolls-Royce they had to saying they don’t charge for sex to an interviewer who asks if their group promotes free sex, she is provocative and nonchalantly arrogant. Who can forget her dismissal of an opponent with her “tough titties” comment! When you met her, what was the first thing she said to you?
We spent five days interviewing her. One of the first times we met her was the day after (Donald) Trump was elected and she was making fun of us and saying how the US had gone down the toilet ever since she had gone. She was fun and very charming.
She ran the Rajneesh Foundation worldwide and was convicted in cases of poisoning and attempts to murder. Did she ever show any remorse? Was she difficult to interview?
We knew she was running retirement centres for the disabled and infirm in Maisprach in Switzerland. We tracked her down from (an) email address. It wasn’t difficult to interview her because she felt she hadn’t got an opportunity to tell her story. She wanted to give her version of the events. Sheela was incredibly, deliberately provocative. She didn’t show any remorse. You know, she justified all her actions as things done to protect Bhagwan and her community.
What about about the residents of Antelope? Were they reluctant to be interviewed after so many years?
Both sides were reluctant to talk initially. The Antelopians were sceptical. It was a painful part of their life and they didn’t want to revisit it after so many years. But finally, both sides decided to speak and tell their part of the story.
The series is about this commune started by a rockstar guru but we don’t get much sense of just who he was, what his teachings were and what made him such a draw.
The Bhagwan had taken a vow of silence in those years. Had he been talking or had there been more news footage on him, he would have been a bigger character in the series. When he was in Oregon, he had kind of retreated — you could see him driving past in his Rolls Royce. That vacuum was filled by Sheela. There were many intellectuals who had joined him because they felt he had all the answers to what they were looking for.
How difficult was it to be objective? Did you find yourself veering towards any group?
As we were making this documentary, we wanted to have more and more voices, especially of government officials too. We would have hour-long discussions amongst us — who is in the right, who is in the wrong. Both sides had fascinating stories and we were going to let you hear it from them. We wanted to make this an immersive experience. We are not giving you any easy answers.