Sheela Birnstiel, formerly known as Ma Anand Sheela, or more simply Sheela, emerged as by far the most colorful character in the Duplass Brothers’ “Wild Wild Country” documentary series, released by Netflix in 2018.
While the Rajneesh religious group rose and fell, Sheela’s individual narrative included impassioned entanglements with media and prison time for attempted murder.
Sheela today considers herself absolved. She argues that she’s served her time and, therefore, can no longer be considered a criminal. Her answer to so-called “cancel culture” is to stand her ground and refuse to be canceled.
“I have no explaining to do. People understand me from where they are — from what is their understanding about themselves and their lives, they project it on me. And I have no complaints about it, either,” she tells Variety. “Good, bad, ugly, it makes no difference. I am me. Their opinions will not change me.”
Barely out of her teens, the young Sheela quickly ascended the organization that followed Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh. She became bodyguard and personal secretary to the guru, and was in large measure the person most responsible for executing the organization’s decamp from Poona, India, to the U.S.
As the most devoted followers (Sanyassins) built their cash-rich city of free love and ecology in rural Oregon, articulate and feisty Sheela emerged as the Bhagwan’s spokeswoman, strategist and attack dog. And when the local residents looked on course to defeat the Rajneeshis’ attempt to win county elections, Sheela’s group attempted to suppress opposition voters by making them sick with salmonella.
Sheela served 38 months of a 20-year jail sentence for attempted murder of Commissioner Matthew and Judge Hulse. (She pleaded guilty only to wire-tapping and immigration fraud.) But even when her spiritual leader denounced her as a prostitute and a thief, Sheela appeared unbowed and unrepentant.
So, it should be little surprise that when offered the chance of another serving of the notorious character, Netflix dove straight in with the documentary special “Searching for Sheela.”
Interest clearly remains high. The BBC has already produced YouTube short “Wild Wild Country: What Happened to Sheela?” and rival streamer Amazon Studios has announced a feature film adaptation with Priyanka Chopra-Jonas as Sheela.
Produced by Bollywood star Karan Johar’s Dharmatic Entertainment and Jouska Films, “Searching for Sheela” follows Sheela as she departs her home in Switzerland and returns to India for the first time in nearly 35 years.
Director Shakun Batra pitches the film as tracking a character who is constantly under the weight of public scrutiny. “How does she react to the country and how does the country react to her?” he says. “How does she go about her life when everyone has something to say about her?”
In her month there, Sheela is shown being feted at literary events and invited to high society residences. In quieter moments, she is seen tripping down memory lane, tracking down the apartment where she was born, one of six children. The location footage is spliced with Sheela speaking unflinchingly to camera from Switzerland where she is the owner-operator of two care homes for the geriatric and demented.
If there is anything truly enigmatic in Sheela, it is her enduring ability to look an interviewer in the eye and answer without hesitation, deviation or self-pity, but still appear to leave much unsaid.
Her entertaining rudeness in the face of authority or imprecise media questions emerged at an early age.
“Fearlessness comes from my father-mother. My father was also a freedom fighter. From childhood we were taught not to be afraid, to say your mind, say your truth, say your reality — and stand your ground,” she tells Variety. “Articulation comes from Bhagwan. My father was articulate. But Bhagwan was even bigger as an orator.”
She did not mind giving offense. “For Bhagwan, it was not strong enough. He was my trainer to confront, those days, journalists.”
These days, despite the denouncements, the jail time and the notoriety, Sheela says she still loves Bhagwan, who later became known as Osho. “In my bedroom, there are still a few pictures of Bhagwan. And opposite my working desk, too. But other photos where I get my inspiration are from my parents. My parents and Bhagwan are prominent in my life. And I love them all today.”
But her faith has diminished. Asked what her religious beliefs are today, Sheela says she has none. “I believe in being here for my people, [the people] where I live, my [nursing home] residents, my family. I have very few friends. I’m there for strangers, for my audience who are so curious about me.”
Sheela twinkles when quizzed about the celebrity reception she received in India: “You don’t find me like a rock star?” she fires back. It might have been a moment of pride, but scarcely hubris.
“For me, next is coming closer to departure from earth. There is an inner preparation for acceptance of this reality of death. I have a good understanding of it through my father-mother, Bhagwan, and the daily work I do,” she says. “It is good to be conscious of this event instead of denying it. Or thinking that death comes to others, not me. That is not my approach, or attitude.”