Mercurial, reflective, pragmatic — the new documentary ‘Searching for Sheela’ shows the multiple facets of Osho’s personal secretary, Sheela Birnstiel, and leaves viewers with more questions
In the two years that she has been in our public consciousness, after the investigative six-part documentary Wild, Wild Country, Sheela Birnstiel has seen polarised opinions of condemnation and sycophancy. “I am a mirror for them. I reflect the other, so what they want to see, they will find in me,” she says, of people’s opinions and questions. “I accept both without judgement. People have a habit of dissecting, so they should have their pleasure, and I know I am not boring.”
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You see both sides — the demonising and glorification — in the way journalists, social influencers, and celebrities react to the 70-year-old, in a new documentary, Searching for Sheela. Shot by Dharmatic Productions, Dharma’s digital content company, across 22 days, during her visit to India in 2019, the film runs for 58 minutes. It begins and ends with her home in Switzerland, far from the life we saw her live in the previous documentary. In between are scenes from interviews and visits to dinners and her old family home in Gujarat — this was her first trip to India after almost 35 years.
“My team found it [the movie] lovely,” says Sheela, who watched this movie, unlike the previous one.
Shot in an observational style, by a team put together by executive producer Shakun Batra, it documents her navigation through people and places in India. When Batra looked at the rushes, he saw an “audience in need of this idea of redemption from her”. So the film became about examining how “someone like her who is carrying this weight” responds to people’s questions on her past with Osho: of assault, poisoning, wire tapping of which she was convicted in 1984, though now denies. “Some people wear their baggage on their face; I wear the baggage on my shoulders,” she says, in the documentary.
In the film she seems, at times, to be laughing at those around her: “I feel like a dulha,” she says, of the Raw Mango outfit before her interview with Karan Johar. At the event she tells the director-host-producer, “You know, I have bigger scandals than show business.”
On a drive in a car she speaks to the camera matter-of-factly: “I didn’t want to become spiritual…enlightened, or learn about meditation. I have no interest in them.” At another time, pragmatic, when they’re in the hills: “Just don’t look down, there’s garbage; look up.” And reflective: “Life is multi-dimensional. There’s no black and white. They have shades of colours, shades of information.”
At socialite-entrepreneur Bina Ramani’s residence, she manages to put a slightly overbearing Raghu Rai in his place. And at an event at Gurugram’s The Quorum, she does not react to a bizarre introduction: “Today we have the pleasure of asking her about her crimes, her past, and Osho,” checking, instead, with the team if they’d got some rest.
The film doesn’t give answers, but Batra says that wasn’t his job. “My effort is not try and over-simplify things and not arrive at answers, because I don’t think I know the answers.” Sheela says she simply accepts how people react to her, even though they are “stagnant”, if all they want to ask her is whether she really did attempt murder. Instead, she wants people to ask about “the love that I feel, I felt, the work I have done”.
Life and love
Love is a constant through all her interviews, but it’s love for Rajneesh, the people she currently lives with, and her parents; she doesn’t speak of her three husbands and her daughter though. “After Rajneesh, I focussed my love on my parents. They suffered my dark days in imprisonment. I wanted to take their pain away, and in love you can take pain away from people,” she says.
She also talks about the people with disabilities and those with complex mental and psychological illnesses she currently takes care of in her two homes called Matrusaden and Bapusaden. “I live with them, just the way I used to live with Bhagwan’s people in Rajneeshpuram.”
Batra, whose forte has been feature films like Kapoor and Sons and Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, says this experience has been different, because in non-fiction “you arrive at the meaning after you’ve shot it”.
In terms of the content, he says it’s difficult to flesh out any person in such a short time, least of all Sheela with her range of experiences. “I can make another six-part series and there will still be questions, because that’s just who she is. She is a person who leaves you with more questions than answers,” says Batra, whose parents were followers of Osho, and who “were not very fond of Sheela…”
Even before Wild, Wild Country, Batra had gone to meet Sheela, with questions. Some days before the release of the movie she asked him if he’d found his answer: had he found Sheela. He still finds her an “enigma”.
Perhaps the answer lies in Sheela’s own words in an old interview when she was at the height of her fame as Rajneesh’s secretary. In response to a reporter who asks what role she plays, that of Snow White or the wicked witch, she says, “Both.”
Searching for Sheela is now streaming on Netflix