The difference between a religion and a cult is a matter of scale. A religion is a marriage; a cult is an affair. A new Netflix documentary series, Wild Wild Country, is about a particularly tumultuous affair – one that lasted four years but aspired for permanence – between the spiritual leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers, in Oregon. Like most successful romances, this relationship too was built on Folie à deux, or the Folly of Two, a psychiatric condition where the delusion of one partner is transmitted to the other.
But there was one key difference – thousands shared that delusion in Rajneeshpuram, a commune established by Rajneesh’s followers in Oregon’s Wasco County in the early ’80s. And nothing was out of bounds for them – neither immigration fraud nor mass poisoning or attempted murders.
The potential for drama here is immense, evoking a famous Leo Tolstoy line, “All great literature is one of the two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”
But there’s a third kind of story too, where a man embarking on a journey becomes a stranger in a town. In 1981, before the first batch of strangers arrived in red robes, buying a 64,000-acre ranch and spending $125 million to develop a utopian commune, Oregon’s Antelope wasn’t even a town — it was populated by 40 people anticipating a quiet retirement. If they were enjoying the sunset, then the Rajneeshees were blinded by the light, an unending beacon of Truth that kept them enchanted and addicted.
Directed by Maclain Way and Chapman Way, Wild West Country tells its story from three points of view: from the people of Antelope who were first intrigued and, later, baffled and scared by the Rajneeshees; and the two sets of Rajneeshees, the ones who remained loyal to Bhagwan (his attorney and Rajneeshpuram’s mayor, Swami Prem Niren (Philip Toelkes) and the ones who broke out (Rajneesh’s fiery personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, and her trusted aide, Ma Shanti B (Jane Stork). Each individual in this motley ensemble can stand on their own; their triumphs, loss, and realisations are personal. One also completes the other — they’re friends, foes, foils, each imbuing the documentary with a unique energy and poignancy, a bundle of swirling, scary contradictions.
Take, for instance, easily the most fascinating character in the piece, Sheela, who, now in her 60s, speaks in an almost hypnotic, musical tone. A leader with a petty dictatorial streak, who was known for being haughty and remorseless, Sheela is an arresting presence. So is Niren, a headstrong lawyer from Seattle who left his world to join Rajneesh’s, first in Pune and later in Oregon. Even years later, he retains his persuasive skills as a lawyer, defending Rajneesh, commune, and their decisions at every step. Then there are the people of Antelope (the documentary focuses on three residents) — relatively calm and quiet, as compared to Sheela and Niren, who recall the days of Rajneeshees with horror and (latent) anger, a time when their pastoral middle-class propriety was severely challenged.
The Way brothers structure this six-part series first as an unlikely love story – between Rajneesh and his devotees – and later, when things take a darker, sinister turn, as a thriller. At each step they’re helped by their eloquent subjects who cast moments of unexpected beauty and terror.
When Rajneesh first arrived at the commune, built over several months with care and ingenuity, replete with dams and meditation centres and townhouses, he was given a grand welcome. He was received in a Rolls Royce; 4,000 square feet of green lawn carpets were rolled out around his house; some devotees played sitar. We see the old footage of the reception, but it is Sheela’s words that stay with us, “It was like a beautiful Fellini movie.” Or when Niren, who otherwise seems rational and clear-headed, dismisses the critique of commune with a loud laugh preceded by, “There’s a darkness in everyone — doesn’t make you a bad person”.
Even though Wild Wild Country is a documentary, made possible by its protagonists’ recollections, the filmmakers use the finest techniques of a fictional feature — an immersive sound design, a clever juxtaposition of images (splicing current interviews with old footage), apposite lighting that reflects the subjects’ current mindscapes (Niren, for instance, is shot in soft, warm light, foreshadowing his vulnerability, while the residents of Antelope are filmed in bright, white light, indicating their status of eventual victors) — that lends this piece a textured, atmospheric quality.
At times, the cinematic embellishments are needlessly ramped up, both in terms of sound design (for example, when Sheela says “pin drop silence” in a scene you can literally hear the sound of a pin drop) or dramatic reconstruction (when we find that John Silvertooth, one of the Antelope residents, was spying on the Rajneeshees, the camera films his walk in slow-motion from behind). But these silly bursts of ambition are so minor that they don’t impinge on the overall experience.
Besides, the film isn’t interested in finding new narrative trails. It is a faithful retelling of Rajneeshees in Oregon, nothing that can’t be gleaned from a series of newspaper articles or books. But Wild Wild Country is interested in bigger — and better — truths. It not just shows how the Rajneeshees tried taking over the Wasco County (by exploiting the loopholes in the law and using coercive means), but also poses a more difficult and unanticipated question, burning with relevance in Trump’s America, that demands our attention: Were the Antelope residents naturally opposed to assimilation? Were they, to put it in harsher terms, xenophobes? There are obviously no clear answers but some stray hints.
Rajneeshees turned out to be dangerous, but what if they weren’t – what if they had just kept to themselves? Wild Wild Country examines the clash of cultures – the fear of the ‘other’ – in fine detail. At one point, we learn that Sheela, in a bid to influence the outcome of Wasco elections, promised food and shelter to homeless Americas in different states who moved to Oregon in large numbers. Silvertooth remembers that incident, smiles, and says, “It was a magnet for crazy people”. But is being homeless the same as being “crazy”?
By incorporating different points of view, Wild Wild Country also asks us another fundamental question: Do human beings secretly crave subservience? When Sheela becomes increasingly autocratic — breaking laws, imposing rules — even the powerful Rajneeshees keep quiet. There are moments in the documentary that remind you of the German Drama Das Experiment, based on the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which showed the effects of perceived power and how it can quash individual agency. The fascist and communist regimes provide another parallel in the real world; so do the collective indifference of the Indian middle-class to Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule.
Intricately tied to that is the inadequacy and routineness and absurdity of everyday life, a malaise that makes people over compensate in strange ways. Some find solace in drugs, some become travellers, some create art, some surrender their bank accounts and lives to godmen or gods. Out of the several exit options, excessive devotion is the most acceptable. And it is so because it is laced with the most obvious and recognisable form of love, legitimising the latent insanity of the masses. (Surely most of us remember that September afternoon, in 1995, when an entire nation was convinced that Lord Ganesh had begun drinking milk?)
But the most spellbinding aspect of Wild Wild Country is not its ideas but its people. The followers of Rajneesh weren’t outcasts of society. They were educated, aware, and rich — they chose to stay. And even decades later, when the rush and intoxication of love have faded, they’re still held in its sway. When Niren talks about how Bhagwan was treated by the U.S. police officials, paraded from one prison to another, his voice cracks and the tears follow involuntarily. Out of all the people in this world, there’s one kind who cannot be broken or persuaded or reasoned with: the ones who believe in their lies.
Similarly, Rajneesh discredited Sheela, tried everything to destroy her, and yet, when she talks about Bhagwan, her eyes light up. Her house still contains framed portraits of Rajneesh. Sheela exhibits no empathy, no remorse for her past actions, but when she talks about Bhagwan and their fallout, her cold façade crumbles — a cellar inaccessible to everyone else, a core that retains the innocence of a girl.
History doesn’t remember the Rajneeshees kindly — and for a good reason. Yet while watching Wild Wild Country, especially in parts where they’re enjoying moments of bliss while building a world from scratch, hoping that their otherwise mundane lives can have meanings, it’s difficult to not feel envious of them. That no matter what their eventual fates came to be, they at least experienced — in whatever bizarre and twisted ways — something most long an entire lifetime for: acceptance and love.