Most of the stories that are told today, be it through books, TV shows, plays or movies have a protagonist, or at least someone to root for. The nature of the protagonist may differ, from Superman-like perfectness to the Deadpool-like anti-hero cynicism. The protagonist does not need to fit society’s yardstick of a good person. People even empathize with the notorious Pablo Escobar, a narco-terrorist, in Narcos. Wild Wild Country, a six-episode documentary series, however, is quite refreshingly different.
Wild Wild Country, released in March 2018, follows the controversial Rajneesh Movement, spearheaded by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh aka Osho, with the help of his secretary Ma Anand Sheela. If you’re thinking that doesn’t sound interesting, you might want to change your mind soon. The story documented by filmmakers Chapman and Maclain Way brings forth such radical ideas such as utopianism, free sex, attempted murders, arson and bioterrorism, that it is sure to keep the viewer hooked till the end. Yet, the label of a true-crime documentary isn’t quite enough to fully describe this series. To see why, here’s the backdrop against which the story is set.
Capably assembled from hundreds of hours of archival footage, Wild Wild Country tells the story of how Osho, a man best described as a confluence of the Old Age Indian Guru and the New Age hippie archetypes, founded a movement quoted to be based on the ideas of peace, compassion and sexual freedom in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. His followers, dubbed ‘Sannyasins’, chiefly composed of the cream of the socio-cultural crop, wore red clothes, underwent conventional therapies such as meditation along with some unconventional ones involving lots of screaming, shuddering, and writhing about en masse, sometimes involving even free-love orgies.
Perhaps the Daily Beast puts it best: “It was touchy-feely spirituality designed to spread across the globe and be easily marketable to consumers via retail books and international centres.”
Bhagwan, having run afoul of the Indira Gandhi government, fled India and moved to Oregon in 1981 in the hopes of establishing his commune/ashram there. Having wealthy donors meant that Bhagwan had no shortage of funds, and so without much tribulation, he bought a 60,000 acre ranch in Wasco County, right next to the town of Antelope. Now, Antelope, a small town comprising mainly of retired workmen spending their hard-earned life savings in the hope of a peaceful and quiet life, suddenly founded itself overrun with thousands and thousands of these Sannyasins. In effect, an equivalent of a city had just become their newly moved in neighbours. On top of that, in the eyes of the aged, devoutly Christian population of Antelope, the free-sex, cult-like practices of these ‘hip’ new people seemed Satanic. Eventually, a battle began brewing, with ranchers and farmers on one side, and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s second-in-command, “secretary” Sheela Silverman aka Ma Anand Sheela, on the other, with each side trying to get the other to move out.
This battle turns out to be as complex as it is dirty, involving the rich Hollywood clientele of the Bhagwan, eminent politicians and personas such as the Attorney General of Oregon and the likes of Bill Bowerman, the co-founder of Nike. Fought with guns, constitutional loopholes, immigration fraud, espionage, wiretapping, bioterrorism and so on, this chapter in American history shook the very foundations of the American Constitution, upheaving any pre-existing notions and norms on religion, separation of church and state, militias, guns, cults, mind-control, fraud, murder and individual and communal sovereignty. This article doesn’t go into the different arguments offered by different people in the documentary – that could encompass more than one article on its own – however, the charm of the series lies not only in the ideas it brings up, but their amazingly unprejudiced portrayal.
Within a time span of just over six hours, we get to see multiple facets of and various viewpoints on these highly controversial issues – issues which are still hotly debated upon even today. These ideas are presented to us as monologues by the different people involved, where each one of them convey their version of the events that followed. As soon as we, the viewers, begin to conform to one viewpoint, the documentary presents us with a character having an opposing viewpoint. Surprisingly, the opposing viewpoint still makes a lot of sense when seen from that character’s end of the table. The documentary does a commendable job of making sure that we don’t take sides immediately in any situation. Had the story been presented in any other way, it is quite unlikely that I would have thought as much about these issues in all their intricacies.
That is why the timing of its release was so important, at a period when ideological and political differences has caused such a large-scale polarisation in society. One side so strongly believes in the stupidity of the other, that reconciliation between the two sides seems nearly impossible. This series essentially brings out the fact that nearly every issue is complicated and one needs to sift through different arguments to eventually come up with a solution that not only everyone agrees with, but is also the closest that one can get to, to being the right fit for the society.
Skilfully put together by the Way brothers, Wild Wild Country recounts a truly insane episode in recent American history, which to the older generation would be unforgettable, and to the younger, unbelievable.
Regardless of one’s familiarity with its subject, the Ways’ non-fiction effort functions as both an eye-opening expose into society and the assumed norms that hold it together, with an even-handed (sometimes to a fault) look into a host of contentious issues that America, and the rest of the world is still grappling with today.