Reshaping Sheela: the woman and the media myth

'Wild Wild Country' On Current Affairs

Subhuti comments on Priyanka Chopra taking on the role of Osho’s former secretary, Sheela, and producing the film.

Subhuti comments on Priyanka Chopra taking on the role of Osho's former secretary, Sheela, and producing the film.

When you think of actresses who might play Ma Anand Sheela, Priyanka Chopra probably isn’t the first name to spring to mind. The beautiful 36-year-old Indian superstar doesn’t look like a tough-talking badass. In fact, she has just finished co-starring in a fluffy Hollywood comedy called “Isn’t It Romantic” where she plays a frivolous “yoga ambassador” who falls in love with a handsome hunk.

But Chopra is no dummy. Before she won the Miss World title in the year 2000 and her showbiz career took off, she was a hard-working student who fancied a career in aeronautical engineering.
Her beauty pageant triumph changed all that and she subsequently starred in numerous Hindi movies, before making the cross-over from Bollywood to Hollywood in 2015. But now she doesn’t want to just act. She wants to produce and that’s why she has teamed up with veteran director Barry Levinson to develop a movie about Sheela.

Chopra made her surprise announcement on one of America’s most popular TV talk shows, hosted by Ellen DeGeneres. She told DeGeneres the idea arose out of watching ‘Wild Wild Country’, the Netflix megahit series about Osho’s arrival in Oregon and the conflict that mushroomed between his disciples and the locals.

“We’re developing it as the character of Sheela, who was this guru’s right-hand woman,” Chopra explained. “She was just devious and created a whole cult in America – brought people here. The documentary was amazing, and I’m developing that next, for me to star in and produce, which I think would be really cool.”

Cool indeed. And what will be fascinating is just how Chopra portrays Sheela, who, thanks to her leading role in the Netflix series, is now transitioning from an actual person to a movie myth and cultural icon.

Fame has its own way of shaping, or misshaping, a person’s character. The image embraced by the public doesn’t necessarily stay true to the human being who triggered the process.

In this respect, one of the most insightful comments came from Keith Richards, lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones, who, looking back at what had happened to him during 50 years of rock ‘n’ roll, said “It’s impossible not to become a caricature of who you thought you were.”

Norma Jeane Baker understood this very well. She wanted to be respected as a talented actress, but when she shot to stardom as Marilyn Monroe and was promptly branded as the iconic “blonde bombshell” of the 1950s, Norma could never escape from her sex symbol image.

Greta Garbo, the legendary Swedish-American actress, experienced a similar distortion. Garbo’s name became almost synonymous with her famous statement “I want to be alone,” generating a romantic image of a self-isolating star who longed to be rid of human company. In fact, Garbo didn’t say it. What she said was “I want to be left alone,” referring to the media paparazzi’s obsession with stalking her. Otherwise, she loved people.

So, what’s going to happen to Sheela? Chapman and Maclain Way, the brothers who created ‘Wild Wild Country’ surprised everyone by not taking sides in their documentary, allowing people on both sides of the struggle to tell the story in a seemingly unbiased way.

But in order to create a commercial success, the brothers knew they had to dramatize their story, so they focused on the crimes and shrewdly cast Sheela as a sinister character, using spooky lighting, mood music and slow-motion action. As the camera followed her hunched-over figure, shooting from behind as she shuffled slowly along a hallway, one might be forgiven for thinking this was a Hitchcock movie scene about to get seriously scary.

But Sheela also won admiration from some viewers, mainly for her seemingly indomitable spirit, her unrepentant attitude and her “tough titties” comments. She also gained traction as a symbol of feminist power, unafraid to take on the Reagan Administration and anyone else who got in her way.

In terms of a lasting image, Sheela would love to go down in history as a misunderstood heroine, a personal dream that she made abundantly clear in a BBC follow-up to the Netflix series, titled “What Happened to Ma Anand Sheela?”

“I am the winner, which is what is wonderful in life, because everybody feels like a loser,” she told the interviewer, although she certainly didn’t look like a winner while she was talking, staring with grim and weary defiance at the journalist in front of her.

Sheela’s view of Osho, spelled out in her book, titled Don’t Kill Him! is schizophrenic: she says she was madly in love with him and that he was an amazing person, but he was also fatally flawed.
The mystic dangled the twin carrots of meditation and enlightenment before a spiritually hungry world, attracting thousands of seekers, but for Sheela it was simply a good business, in which she saw herself as Osho’s partner.

It was going well, according to her tale, until the mystic’s unceasing demands for Rolls Royces and diamond watches broke the commune piggy bank. Then he turned on her and called in the cops, so she became the innocent scapegoat, serving 39 months of a 20-year jail sentence.

“I have done no criminal act,” she told the BBC.

For anyone who has even a rudimentary understanding of what happened in Oregon, this statement is a massive stretch, or, to be less diplomatic, a downright lie. The list of people she wanted to “bump off” was as long as it was ludicrous.

But, in the shaping of historical drama, facts play only a minor role.

“Let them eat cake,” said Marie Antoinette, when learning the Paris poor had no bread, thereby going down in history as a pampered queen, indifferent to the hardships of the masses. Actually, she didn’t say anything like that. It was a fictional quote attributed to her by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss philosopher, and, by the way, he used the word “brioche”, not “cake”. But it is Marie Antoinette who has been immortalized through it.

Osho once said that his vision of life will not be widely understood for another 200 years. Which means that two centuries from now his personal story is also likely to be remembered. Which means, in turn, that the role of Ma Anand Sheela, as his secretary in Oregon, will be part of it. The lady has achieved a kind of immortality. But what kind? The heroine of her own liking? The Netflix badass? The secretary who wanted to be co-chairman of the board? The shape of Sheela’s historical image is not yet clear, but Priyanka Chopra will be making her own contribution to it soon.

One promising aspect of this upcoming movie is that Chopra was born and raised in India, the daughter of a Punjabi Hindu, which means she has some cultural knowledge of mystics, meditators, sannyasins and spiritual movements. This, hopefully, will invite more depth than one might expect from a mainstream Hollywood production. For sure, it holds more promise than, say, Lady Gaga – who once also expressed her interest in Osho – attempting to do the same thing.

It will be interesting to see if Chopra can fully comprehend what happened to Sheela: how her love for Osho became so possessive and filled with jealousy; how her role as his spokesperson – when he was in silence – gradually convinced her that she was not just his secretary, but his equal, playing queen to his king.

One wonders if Chopra will be able to grasp and portray the turning point, the moment when Sheela’s self-image really started inflating, when she travelled to Europe in 1983, representing Osho, and was welcomed as near-royalty by many of his newer disciples (the older ones, who’d worked with her in the Pune ashram during the 1970s, were less reverent).

And what will Chopra make of the endgame? When it all came crashing down? When Sheela left the Ranch in 1985, convinced she could take half of Europe away from Osho, only to find that not a single centre would follow her? That’s a scene inviting some pretty impressive acting.

Other intriguing situations come to mind. For example, will Chopra visit Sheela in Switzerland, to meet and study her? If so, it would be well worth being a fly on the wall to overhear that conversation.

But the real challenge is the portrayal of Osho himself. As the movie’s co-producer, is Chopra intending to reduce him to a good-time guru, with a human appetite for luxury? Or will she somehow be able to convey what it is like to be an enlightened being, who, out of compassion, adopts all kinds of unorthodox methods – including the acquisition of 93 Rolls Royces – as he accepts the challenge of trying to awaken others?

In this regard, one wonders if Priyanka Chopra realizes what she has taken on, because anything other than a superficial “guru-and-his-gopi” soap opera on the silver screen is going to take some very insightful acting and intelligent directing. The wannabe aeronautical engineering student may come to realize: this ain’t rocket science, honey. And it ain’t Tinsel Town schmaltz. It’s altogether another ballgame. Let’s see how you play it.

One more thing: the recent decision by Osho Foundation, the official managers of Osho’s legacy, to sue Netflix for infringing copyright, when using old video footage of the mystic and his Oregon experiment in ‘Wild Wild Country’, shouldn’t create problems for Priyanka Chopra.

If successful in its lawsuit, Osho Foundation will certainly be able to limit how the 300 hours of archive material, stored in Oregon and accessed by the Way brothers, is used in future. But it won’t affect the impersonation of historical characters by actors in regular movies, which is what Chopra is proposing.

As far as Hollywood is concerned, the Osho-Sheela saga is unrestricted and open to all interpretations. Ready? Lights…camera…action!

SubhutiSubhuti is a regular contributor

More articles by this author on Osho News

Related from Media Watch
Priyanka Chopra to play Ma Anand Sheela of Osho movement in next Hollywood film – Priyanka Chopra, who recently appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, revealed that she will soon star and produce Ma Anand Sheela’s biopic. Published on India Today, January 30, 2019. (updated with YouTube video)

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