In the early '80s, a multi-million dollar organisation run by Rajneesh and his followers bought 80,000 acres of land in the US, setting off a bizarre story.

Wild Wild Country A docu series on Osho that proves truth is stranger than fiction
Flix Documentary Tuesday, March 27, 2018 - 17:11

In the opening act of Wild Wild Country, the Netflix documentary series directed by Maclain Way and Chapman Way, an elderly gentleman tells the residents of Wasco County, Oregon, “You know, someone will write a book about all this, and I guarantee you that when that book comes out, the people that read it will say it’s fiction.” This was in the mid-’80s when Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh a.k.a Osho became a hugely popular guru among the westerners, which eventually led him to founding Rajneeshpuram, an u topian community, in Oregon, USA. Two decades later, the story seems stranger than fiction, as depicted in Wild Wild Country.   

Where do we even begin to describe the impact which this bizarre story creates? The documentary is filled with home videos and news clips shot in the early '80s and it focuses on the events that unfolded in Antelope, Rajneeshpuram, and The Dalles in Wasco County, Oregon during the period. To make things even more dramatic than what the premise offers, the directors offer a great amount of insight into the events as they get talking to some of the key players behind all the drama.

One of the prime characters in the story, apart from Rajneesh, is Ma Sheela Anand, who was also Rajneesh’s personal secretary at that point of time. Other important characters are key member Jane Stork, Rajneeshpuram mayor David Berry Knapp, and Swami Prem Niren, Osho's personal attorney.

In the early ’80s, the people of Antelope, Dalles, and the whole of Wasco County found themselves in an unusual situation. Antelope, a town in the middle of nowhere, as one rancher calls it, is home to 40 residents, most of whom just want to spend the rest of their lives in solitude and solace. And one fine day, it all comes to a standstill when a multi-million dollar organisation run by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, his secretary Ma Sheela Anand and his followers, buys 80,000 acres of land - Big Muddy Ranch - nearby. Slowly, the Rajneeshees trickle down this barren piece of land, and within a short time, it’s transformed into a full-fledged self-sustaining community that’s capable of housing almost 50,000 people. Alarmed by the presence of such large number of ‘outsiders’, the people of Antelope alert the district attorneys and this opens the floodgates for a battle that rages on for almost four years.

It’s a classic case of David Vs Goliath; however, the biggest achievement of Wild Wild Country is that it doesn’t tell us who the underdogs here are. It doesn’t take sides to justify the actions that were taken by people from both sides of the battle. In turn, what we get is a first-hand information about the events that unfolded in the way they did, and why some of the people involved were compelled to take extreme measures.

To understand what makes Wild Wild Country such an explosive story, it’s vital to understand the relationship which Sheela shared with Rajneesh. She confesses to being deeply in love with Osho, and it is out of this love and a burning desire to make his dream come true that she finds herself in the centre of a raging battle between Rajneeshees (followers of Rajneesh) and the law enforcement officials in the US. It’s a story of fear and paranoia, and what people end up doing to protect something that they love and worship. In a way, this is about xenophobia and mistrust, racism, the story of two ideologies and cultures clashing with each other, the story of locals vs immigrants, the story of conflicting lifestyles and beliefs, the story of what’s moral and amoral. No wonder, the story resonantes so much even today because, even though it unfolds in 1980s, there is so much that mankind hasn’t learnt yet about what happens when greed engulfs your mind.

This isn’t about whom you want to believe in the end. Of course, Sheela Anand and some of her cohorts are guilty of conspiring to commit some horrific crimes, but it wasn’t so in the beginning of this story. She admits to have taken a hard stance, sometimes even issuing threats explicitly, to ensure that Rajneesh’s vision of creating the perfect community, where humanity is liberated from the shackles of the society, comes true. And there lies the biggest conflict in this series. Sheela won’t compromise or take a backstep to reach a consensus with the people in Antelope, and the residents are too wary about her ploys to seize control of their town.

As days go by, it becomes evident that Sheela is losing ground and it’s there that she hatches a cunning plan to control the local politics. When the authorities get a whiff of what’s happening in Rajneeshpuram, they launch a counter-attack on Sheela’s plan which ultimately comes back to haunt her. If your moral compass doesn’t go for a toss while watching the series, I don’t know what else will. There are no heroes or villains here - Wild Wild Country is about people who refused to budge and did what they thought was right. 

The documentary also raises several moral questions - Why do we trust someone, who promises to enlighten us, so much? What is it we seek from our lives? Why does our judgement fail so often? In a world which is governed by a flawed sense of what’s right, is it even possible to create an utopian society? On the flip side, Wild Wild Country leaves out some burning questions like - How much did Rajneesh know about what Sheela and her team were doing to get the job done at the time when things were going haywire? Why were the people in Oregon so hostile towards the Rajneeshees right from the first day? Sure, the residents claim that they wanted to live a normal and quiet life, but that doesn’t stop them from pushing the Rajneeshees to the wall to drive them out of the town. Moreover, despite getting an extensive interview from Sheela to tell her side of the story, Maclain and Chapman way don’t quite tap into her guilt. It feels like she doesn’t quite understand the enormity of the situation that she dragged everyone into when she decided to take law into her own hands.

Wild Wild Country is also a wake-up call to the modern society that no matter how much the society evolves, there’ll always be people who are gullible and allow themselves to be drawn into an ideology that appeals to them. We see that happening in real-time in every nook and corner of India. The ‘gurus’ are all over television, internet, and radio, sharing their ‘knowledge’ and wisdom. So far, so good. But when things go terribly wrong, as they happened with Rajneesh’s short-lived stay in the US, it begs us to ask a question - Why do we allow ourselves to treat some people as Gods? And what’s the price you have to pay for your happiness?

Towards the end of Wild Wild Country, it struck me that the widespread violence that happened in Haryana and Punjab in the wake of raids on Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan’s ashram were no different from what happened in Oregon. Whether it’s India or the US, perhaps there’ll always be a ‘guru’ who promises his followers that there is a better world that beckons us. After watching Wild Wild Country, you might want to think twice before falling under any such spell. Two big thumbs up for the documentary series. You’ll not forget this anytime soon.

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