Think of everything you know about spirituality. Now add a diamond watch, a Rolls Royce, millions of dollars, and widespread corruption to it. This barely scratches the surface in the Netflix docu-series Wild Wild Country. Directors Chapman and Maclain Way bring us a true story – a cocktail comprising spirituality, politics, law, and a lot of bling.
Wild Wild Country documents a part of the life story of the controversial guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho) and the rise and fall of his ashram in a vast farmland in Oregon, USA in the 1980s. The word ‘ashram‘ here is an understatement, as this community could accommodate thousands and thousands of people. In fact, it was so vast and populated that the community filed to register themselves as the independent city of Rajneeshpuram in Wasco County, Oregon.
Music supervisor Chris Swanson did a magnificent job by putting together the soundtrack for the series. Various tracks perfectly captured the pan-shots of the vast landscapes at the heart of the American country. While the tone was consistent with the country-folk genre, the soundtrack also encompassed the surreal and the psychedelic, and a little bit of disco (a tiny amount, hence bearable). The soundtrack was also perfectly paced with the suspense element. The scene can be something very simple, such as showcasing a trial proceeding or zooming up on a newspaper report – the background score could generate bated breath even in the presence of the mundane.
While the conflict was supposed to be centred around a legal battle, it went on to become an incident of massive biological terror.
Broadly speaking, the story can be divided into two narratives – the residents of Rajneeshpuram and the residents of the nearby town Antelope. A tiny retirement community comprising approximately 40 people suddenly found themselves neighbours to thousands of followers of the guru Rajneesh, who called themselves Rajneeshees. The town was later completely taken over by Rajneeshpuram. The narrative represents both parties in a balanced manner, wherein it becomes difficult to side with either party.
Following immense community effort, a barren piece of land becomes a home to thousands of people, a large number of restaurants, a huge assembly hall, and a private airstrip, complete with a disco and casino. However, Rajneesh and his followers cause immense disruption to the town decorum. Rajneesh was a vocal critic of Socialism, orthodox Hinduism, who did not care much for the institution of marriage and allegedly encouraged uninhibited sexuality and gender equality. This stood in sharp contrast with the residents of Antelope, Oregon who were conservative Christians, orthodox with the idea of morals and held the institution of marriage in the highest honour.
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The Rajneeshees initially claimed to be a peaceful community. When they became subject to immense federal legislation, the media painting them out as a ‘cult’ and then with the bombing of their hotel, this peaceful demeanour abruptly changed. They militarised and formed their own security force. Rajneesh’s outspoken secretary Ma Anand Sheela interacted with the media the most and accommodated no filters when verbally dismissing opponents, issued threats against the opposition and routinely cussed out the critics. While the dominant voice of the community was Sheela, the series never lets one forget that the diamond-watch-flaunting Rajneesh is the silent puppet master in the background.
While Wild Wild Country focuses on the legal battle between both parties, it also provides adequate footage to the themes of fanatic zeal, a free-thinking approach to sexuality vs Christian orthodoxy, the concept of free will among spiritual followers, media sensationalism around ‘cults’, attempted murders, and the manipulation of the voting system. While the conflict was supposed to be centred around the legal battle, it went on to become an incident of massive biological terror. It was alleged that the Rajneeshees had subject 751 residents of Wasco County to food poisoning.
With every obstacle thrown their way, the Rajneeshees were prepared. They infiltrated legislative assemblies, created their own economy which generated a vast amount of wealth, and formed their own legal team. When it seemed likely that they were going to be voted out of the area by the locals and organisations dedicated to dismantling them, they retaliated by picking up hundreds of homeless people from around the country and housing them. The latter were then registered as voters in Oregon to subvert the popular vote against Rajneeshpuram. In the case of Rajneeshpuram, tokenism went a long way. Once the voting process was no longer needed, the homeless parties were promptly rejected.
In the case of Rajneeshpuram, tokenism went a long way.
Given the vast media coverage of Rajneeshpuram, the Way brothers had a massive amount of archival footage to tap into. Each controversial moment was backed up with clips from the 80s, to Sheela cussing away on television to the bombing of the hotel. In contrast, we are granted present-day narratives from former Rajneeshees and those who opposed them and hauled them to court. Which then enabled a spirit of reflection of the tumultuous decade. The truth is in there somewhere, but it is too complicated to determine which truth should one reconcile with.
The rise and fall of Rajneeshpuram is similar to many tales we have heard about civilisations such as the Roman Empire and the Indus Valley Civilisation, albeit the short time span. It is surprising how this incident has not had more space in mainstream narratives of history. When watching Wild Wild Country, one can forget about taking a side. The series expertly handled the fight between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and ‘the outsider’. But it will never actually indicate who the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ really is. While also leaving behind a careful reminder that religious/spiritual devotees are not to be treated lightly and assumed easy to take down.
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Featured Image Source: Book Riot