Wild Wild Country
Directors – Maclain Way, Chapman Way
Rating – 4.5/5
Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache…. Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.
– George Orwell
As you walk along the narrow streets of Rishikesh, a quiet riverside town in Uttarakhand, famous for its proximity to the Ganga, and for being nestled at the foot of the stunning Garhwal range, you notice the sort of people you wouldn’t normally spot elsewhere. They’re all mostly white, mostly European, some American. You also notice, at least if you’re paying attention, posters advertising everything from mundane yoga classes to decidedly more mystical experiences – these posters are usually cheaply printed and photocopied, but they seem to get the job done. They’re plastered with the faces of outrageously dressed old men – again, some of them are white – promising solutions to any problem – physical or metaphysical – that you might have.
I’ve never had the courage to take the plunge and attend one of those sessions, but I’ve seen and spoken to several of those white people, hungry for salvation perhaps — or maybe just curious, like me — who flock towards them in droves. They all look similar – with long, matted hair and a general air of unkemptness – and they dress the part, too – with colorful, baggy pyjamas and cloth backpacks. There’s a sense that it’s all a part of the illusion, more of a fashion statement than a utilitarian choice.
Certainly, clothes were the easiest way in which one could identify the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who is the primary focus of a terrific new documentary series on Netflix, called Wild Wild Country. Rajneesh’s was a philosophy that championed freedom – of thought, of expression and most controversially, of sex. Of course, this freedom ended the moment the question of clothes was brought up, because Rajneesh’s followers did not seem to mind wearing variations of orange – or even if they did, they didn’t complain. And so they arrived in their thousands to the town of Antelope, in Oregon, where Rajneesh had purchased 60,000 acres of land, much to the disapproval of the locals. Together, the master and his people set about building a utopia. They called it Rajneeshpuram.
Wild Wild Country focuses on a relatively short period in Rajneesh’s life – roughly a decade – in which he uprooted his ashram from Pune – he was always more popular in the West than he was in his home country – and moved to an America just emerging from the flower power movement, with the Jonestown massacre fresh on its mind.
There, he became just as infamous for his public displays of ostentation as he had been in India for his liberal philosophies. We are no strangers to godmen in our country; if you were to fling a mala into the air, it would probably land on a spiritual guru’s neck. The series tracks down voices on either side – the panicked locals and the devout followers, each of whom at different points liken the other to Hitler – years after they found themselves in the middle of one of the most unbelievable stories in modern history.
Wild Wild Country is quite incredible. On several occasions, I found myself questioning the authenticity of what was unfolding on the screen. And in one disturbing moment that I was utterly unprepared for, I wondered whether I wanted to continue watching at all. To an outsider, which most of us are likely to be, witnessing the sort of blind devotion that Rajneesh’s legions of followers displayed towards him can be unsettling. As one law enforcement official says in the show, “When people are under pressure, most react out of fear.”
And it was fear – of both the locals and Rajneesh’s disciples – that fuelled the confrontation that Wild Wild Country recalls. Although, honestly, it’s not about one thing or the other. But of all the ideas it has on its mind – greed, revenge, bigotry, corruption, jealousy, betrayal – the one that makes its presence felt most forcefully has to be the fear the Americans had of these outsiders. For they, with their free love and carefree attitudes, were seen to be dismantling the very foundations upon which red-state American society seems to be built on.
To the residents of Antelope, Oregon, these ‘strangers,’ these ‘Rajneeshees’ were taking over their town. As one cowboy says, “They had that look in their eye, like they were under some kind of influence.”
And they were. There’s no denying, especially after you see the sort of effect Rajneesh had on his people, that they were drugged – sometimes even literally. It went beyond intellectual and spiritual attraction – most of these ‘sannyasins’ chanted and wept and danced at the very sight of their ‘Bhagwan’, as if in a trance. And this is probably as close as you or I would ever come to witnessing the secretive goings on inside quasi-religious groups such as this. I hesitate to call it a cult – even though it fits most of the requirements – because that would be displaying the sort of prejudice that caused most of the trouble depicted in the show.
And since Wild Wild Country doesn’t appear to be taking any sides, neither will I. But common sense would suggest that there are elements of truth behind everyone’s recollections of what happened in those 5 years in Rajneeshpuram – whether or not the bioterrorism allegations made against the Rajneesh’s followers were warranted, or whether or not his most devoted disciple, Ma Sheela (whom he would later publicly call a ‘b**ch’), actually attempted to murder other followers. You don’t get to brag about owning 90 Rolls-Royces and having assets worth over $50 million without having taken advantage of fools, but on the flip-side, being rich isn’t a crime – although a lot of what went on inside Bhagwan’s commune was.
In essence, the story of Rajneeshpuram – its rise and its eventual fall – is the story of humanity. What it reminded me the most of was, keeping with the general air of strangeness, the recent Darren Aronofsky movie, mother! – a parable about God and creation and how mankind has abused our planet beyond repair.
Wild Wild Country makes you wonder if perhaps ‘god’ made a mistake about us when he looked out into the emptiness and declared, “let there be light!”. As Rajneesh, or Osho, as he went by in his final years, says towards the end of the show, “Rajneeshpuram was a beautiful experiment that failed.”
Perhaps we’re hard-wired to self destruct, perhaps we’re programmed to look at the success of others and feel nothing but jealousy. Perhaps we were always destined to be betrayed, the easily corruptible souls that we are. In an episode of The Simpsons, the late Stephen Hawking once joked that utopias were not possible. I’d like to add an addendum: They could, without people.
Wild Wild Country