Hashim's Daily Sutras

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The heady rise and tumultuous fall of Osho

The heady rise and tumultuous fall of Osho

The new Netflix documentary on controversial godman Rajneesh and his cult shows what non-fiction can achieve when diligent, unfettered creators are at the wheel
Depending upon where you stand, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (also known as Osho) was a philosopher, a religious guru of rare wisdom and candour — or one of the greatest conmen of the 20th century. Wild Wild Country, Netflix’s remarkable new documentary series (directed by brothers Maclain and Chapman Way) is a little more ambitious than that. Through the course of six hour-long episodes, the series shows us that Rajneesh was, in fact, all of these and more. And although Wild Wild Country keeps its focus firmly on Rajneeshpuram, the Oregon community taken over by Rajneesh’s followers briefly in the 1980s, viewers are given a picture of the riveting timeline of the movement. The rise and fall of any significant cult is entertaining and tumultuous enough — what makes this one special is the fact that Rajneesh’s teachings remain wildly popular across the world today.

One thing helped the filmmakers straight off the bat: even those in Rajneesh’s inner circle had decidedly mixed feelings about the entire experience, especially after the very public split between Rajneesh and his hawkish secretary, Ma Anand Sheela. This helps the Way brothers establish moral ambiguity very early on in the piece — we are never quite sure which Sheela has an ‘authentic’ self, the little old lady in her late 60s, interviewed at a secret location, or the fiery devotee-turned-demagogue who became the public face of the movement. Philip J Toelkes, who was Rajneesh’s lawyer in Oregon, receives a similarly patient hearing, so that the viewers understand where he was coming from.

Within these little flashbacks, the Way brothers pack the movie to its gills with a few sociopolitical asides. We hear Toelkes reminiscing about his childhood in post-WWII America, “When the middle class could make a decent living for the first time ever,” and when being smart was good enough to secure a good school, a college seat. You could be literally penniless and still coast through college on education loans and scholarships. Toelkes continues his story — college, a blue-chip job with a top legal firm, burnout, disillusionment and finally, Rajneesh. But while he’s doing so, at the back of our minds are Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg and all their friends, whose articulate stewardship of the anti-gun movement flows downwards from their stellar public school education, the kind of education a poor kid like Toelkes would never get in today’s America.

And that’s far from the only place in Wild Wild Country where a piece of long-forgotten history becomes suddenly, magically urgent. When we see the Rajneesh (somewhat confusingly, the same word is used for the man and for his followers as a group) being viewed with distrust and suspicion by the locals in Antelope, Oregon (and elsewhere), we are reminded of the mess that is the US’s current stance on immigrants. When we see Sheela and her cohorts drunk on their power, talking down to these same salt-of-the-earth locals (“they thought we were not very smart and that they’d educate us,” an old-timer comments wryly), we realise just how out of touch the Hillary Clinton campaign was with rural America. Inevitably, when we see the Rajneesh stockpiling weapons like a doomsday cult, we are reminded that this is a country where guns comfortably outnumber pets.

The Way Brothers are accomplished students of cinema — although the bulk of the film is technically conventional, there are far more audacious stretches in every single episode. Like the often hallucinatory jump cut montages (typically used towards the end of each episode), where the debauchery of the Rajneesh’s controversial “therapy sessions” [where initially, as Sheela admits, “anything goes”] hits you like a punch to the jaw. At one point, we see shocking footage of what seems to be violent, non-consensual penetrative sex. And just like that, the dopey mysticism of these “laughing strangers, dancing with no music on” feels a lot less innocuous. Similarly, there’s a segment where we meet Bill Bowerman, all-American hero, Olympics coach, and one of the first prominent Oregonians to loudly and publicly oppose Rajneesh and his followers. The way in which Bowerman’s son is introduced appears like an elaborate advertisement — until we’re told that Bowerman was one of the most successful entrepreneurs of his time, being a co-founder of Nike. Suddenly, the faux-advertisement style makes sense.

Excerpted From: thehindubusinessline.com