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Searching For Sheela: How The World Is Unable To Understand Unapologetic Women

Posted: April 23, 2021

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Unable to digest an unapologetic woman who won’t fit herself into neat boxes, we’re so conditioned to the trope of the ‘repentant fallen woman’ that allowing women to be all parts of themselves is rarely accepted.

To those who watched the 2018 Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country, Ma Anand Sheela needs no introduction. For those who did not, she was the godman Osho Rajneesh’s right-hand person and executor of his every wish.  At the height of her power back in the 1980s, she left the commune in Oregon, USA, subsequently facing criminal charges. Sentenced to 20 years in prison, she served 39 months.

Cut to present-day Switzerland, where Sheela now lives, a phone call interrupts a quiet morning. Her trip to India is confirmed. As she speaks, the camera pans to several framed pictures of Rajneesh, addressed as Bhagwaan by his still-devoted follower.

“Happy homecoming, Sheela”

With her ties to Rajneesh as the backdrop, Sheela visits India after nearly 35 years. She attends a blitz of events carefully curated around her “anti-hero” persona, all hoping to get to the ‘real’ Sheela. Escorted around the country with an army of designers, makeup artists and event managers for her ostensible ‘comeback’, she rubs shoulders with cultural cognoscenti amid candlelight and clinking glasses.

From a Karan Johar interview egging her on to reveal whether she had sex with the godman to Barkha Dutt urging her to be angry at his dismissal of her, multiple narratives are thrust onto this incredibly complex personality, who, to her credit, fends them all off with admirable ease. Interviewers and live audiences alike experience a jarring dissonance of witnessing an elderly ‘aunty’ delighted to return to a long-lost home, and recollections of the sassy young Rajneeshi with her eminently quotable quips and ruthlessness. The dichotomy of ‘being an epitome of feminism or the woman who tried to poison an entire town’ is one that Sheela appears acutely familiar with.

Snow White or the Wicked Witch? Tough Titties, it’s Both!

When asked which of the above characters she identifies with, her answer is both. And one gets the sense that society is unable to digest an unapologetic woman who won’t fit herself into neat boxes. So fulsomely fed are we on the trope of the ‘repentant fallen woman’ that allowing women to be all parts of themselves is rarely accepted.

“People who know me don’t misunderstand me,” she asserts, a far cry from the tired ‘log kya kahenge’ worldview women are pressured to internalize. Through the dogged external gaze of preconceived notions and brazen curiosity, Sheela remains rooted in herself and in the knowledge of who she is. She refuses to pander to people’s notions of her personality and actions, and what she should feel at Rajneesh’s eventual rejection of her. This in itself is a departure from women seeking social validation as ‘good girls’.

Who is the real Sheela?

Hailed as ‘the new pop culture’, Sheela quickly catches on that she is a curiosity. We watch a composite human reduced to being society’s flavor of the week, and a snappy, eyeball-grabbing social media experience.

Remaining an enigma is an inconvenience to those who want to pigeonhole her. This is brought to light best when an anchor asks Sheela what she is seeking, is it redemption for herself? Without giving her answer away, I will only share that how you interpret it will tell you more about yourself.

Besharam or the Shame I Do Not Feel

Throughout the documentary, Sheela rejects the narrative of shame and sees no need for an apology. We get a front row seat to her wide-open acceptance of life, and the consequences of her choices. She doesn’t blame anyone, least of all herself, in stark contrast to how women typically self-flagellate. At the same time, she doesn’t deny feeling hurt, or the need to move beyond what continues to define her externally.

Moving forward, sans apology

This documentary invites us to witness a journey home: not just to the country left behind by a 30-year-old woman, but a journey inward, to the true Sheela that only Sheela knows.

She repeatedly shares her urge to lay the ghosts of the past to rest and move on. Sadly, to an audience that is not on board with this plan. “This is not my reality,” she announces, “it is public truth. Without knowing my reality.”

One is left wondering: do we seek redemption in her so we can redeem ourselves? Or is it the utter novelty of a woman who doesn’t embrace penitence? Redemption lies in guilt, she states, and that’s why she cannot redeem herself. There is no guilt. And we are left grappling with this unusual phenomenon of the unapologetic woman, whose narrative has finally emerged where once only her Bhagwaan’s existed. Therein lies Sheela’s triumph—and one for unapologetic women everywhere.

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