Poor Akshaye. His Dad abandoned him and ran off and joined a cult when he was a little boy, that kind of thing is probably why he is still unmarried, has no children, and needed to take a 4 year break in the middle of his career and just take care of himself for a while. So in honor of his birthday, I am going to remind us all just how HORRIBLE Osho is/was.
This isn’t really directly related to Indian film, the ostensible topic of this blog, but it is related to India, and it is a film (a very very long one, but still a film), so I think it is appropriate to cover? Anyway, I want to cover it because that “really really stupid” possibility is nagging at me and making me worried that is what people are seeing when they watch this instead of the “really clever” option.
The thing is, there are NOT two sides to this story. The Osho people were on the run out of India ahead of Indian authorities for drug dealing and prostitution, they came to Oregon and built an illegal community, forced their way into local government and then POISONED PEOPLE. And planned assassinations and attempted to carry them out. And that’s on top of taking massive amounts of money from their followers and encouraging them to leave their lives and dedicate themselves to the community. Oh, and also of course the violent and sexual encounter groups which just couldn’t be healthy.
(And took Vinod Khanna away from his babies. And many many other people away from their babies, and their parents, and everyone else in their life who wasn’t willing to give it all up and move to Oregon)
But the show presents it as though there are two parts. If anything, it leans towards the Osho folks. We have hours of footage of the very charming Sheela Silverman in her cozy room directly facing the camera. And meanwhile the government attorney is shot in an anonymous conference room, in a formal suit, backlit with kiltered angles. Sheela is our friend, is honest and trustworthy and delightful. The government attorney is dark and untrustworthy, a heartless force of the state.
It’s more than just the visuals, it’s the background as well. Sheela and the other Osho folks, we get their whole life stories. Meanwhile, the residents of the town of Antelope are presented in their living rooms with their animal heads and simple art on the wall. But they have no backstory, I don’t know what their jobs were, where they grew up, why they decided to move to the town of Antelope. The only person on that side who gets a backstory is the founder of Nike. And he is presented as an untouchable golden boy hero, never humanized, no story of family jokes or childhood moments, nothing like that.
(His parents divorced when he was 2 and that same year his twin brother died in an elevator accident. We get none of that, but we get ten minutes on the death of Sheela’s husband)
One top of this, there is the avoidance of dealing with other evidence, we hear of an investigative reporter and his massive series of articles going all the way back to why they were driven out of Pune, and yet we do not hear any details of why they left Pune. We see a tiny bit of the film made of a Pune encounter group, but rather than focusing on the content of the film, we just hear the reaction from the people who watched it, and the smooth explanation that it was an unfair film, taken without permission, and they don’t follow those practices any more anyway.
If this is a really really stupid film, then the problem is that the filmmakers got caught up in the cult psychology themselves. They liked Sheela and her wit and intelligence, and they didn’t like these old tight-lipped small town folks. So they sold the story of these misunderstood freethinkers and selfish small minded towns folk who just weren’t willing to understand. Of a town and a county that were afraid of change and openness, that had out of date values and were just as blinded by their Christian faith as the Osho folks were by their faith in Rajneesh. They wanted it to be a story of clever people laughing at stupid people, and they were inviting the audience to join them in laughing with the clever people who saw that the whole world is just a joke.
But if this is a really clever film, they were challenging the audience to see the truth for themselves. To recreate the cult experience, to see all the charm and warmth given by the leaders, the false intimacy, the sense of being “better”. One of the first things told to the audience about the cult is that they were looking for only the top of society, the most successful and intelligent people. And that is how they sell themselves, with wit and an attitude of being the “cool kids” that appears to the educated and upperclass types. And which would also appeal to the kind of people watching a Duplass produced documentary on Netflix.
(She seems very cool, both in her tough clever bitter 80s mode, and in her caring loving elderly woman mode. But in the 80s, she was ordering the poisoning of people. And in 1999, the Swiss government convicted her of planning murder, again. She may own two nursing homes, but that doesn’t make her a saint now, any more than spouting philosophy made her one in the 80s!)
In contrast, the townspeople of Antelope are very much not the type to watch a Duplass documentary on Netflix. They are older and uniformly white and in dowdy boring clothing, and they have animal heads on the walls. The way they talk about the Osho folks (I am purposefully using the modern name, by the way, as a reminder that this is a story that has not ended), it sounds like racism, or fear of some kind. We are presented with two sides to this story, the one with the charming intelligent “people like us” and the other with the small town small-minded “people like them”. The challenge is, will we be able to get out of our own heads enough to look at it objectively and see which side is correct?
Over and over again, we are presented with the straight-forward boring usual approach, and the free-thinking exciting wonderful approach. One example that stood out was the way the arrest of Rajneesh was handled. First we get the basic fact, that he was flown slowly around the country for almost 3 weeks and held in jail after jail with the general population. And then we get the state’s attitude, which is a blunt acknowledgement that they were playing a game, traveling him all over in order to weaken him and make him more willing to plead guilty once he arrived in Portland since he had a better sense of what incarceration would be like. And finally, we get the story from Rajneesh’s lawyer of the conversation he had with Rajneesh when he decided to plead guilty. Rajneesh said that he was weak, he couldn’t survive jail, and besides the government would clearly break any rule to get him, and so regretfully (although he knew he was in the right), he would choose to plea guilty and leave the country.
Clearly his lawyer/follower still finds this a deeply touching and meaningful memory. And it is easy to get swept up in the drama and tragedy which is how he sees it. But if you take a step back, well, the boring regular practical version from the state’s attorney is exactly what it was. They dragged him around from jail to jail to make him see what prison life was really like and make him more willing to cut a deal. And he saw what prison was like, didn’t like it, and cut a deal. Just like any other convict, soften him up a little and he’ll decide to plead guilty instead of fighting.
That’s how cults work, and that’s how conman work. They take any fact and they find a way to present it so that it supports their view of the world. That is what this documentary does for them, over and over again. The building of Rajneeshpuram wasn’t illegal land development that was harming the environment, it was a wonderful accomplishment bringing life back to dead earth. The busing in of homeless people wasn’t attempted voter fraud, but bringing dignity and love to forgotten members of society. And, most dangerous, it was the people of Antelope who were the aggressors, with their guns and their big talk, and it was to defend themselves that the Osho people began to bring in guns and poison and drugs and everything else.
And what makes me think this documentary was very very clever, in making the viewer culpable as well, in making us struggle to sympathize with those clearly in the right, in challenging us to see through the smokescreens to the real facts instead of putting them on a plate in front of us, is that is how the film ends. With the former town council member who survived the whole experience, who found the documents in the town dump that started the first court case, who still lives in Antelope, saying that what they did was create an enemy in order to unite the people against them. And that’s what this documentary did, it created an enemy for the viewer, the regressive folks of small town Oregon, funded by the millionaire Nike owner, versus the open-minded funny free thinking Osho folks. And then it challenged us to see through it, to see who the real enemy was.
(Hint: the real enemy were the ones with all the guns and target practice and poison and so on)
One more thing that I found fascinating both about the story shown in the documentary, and how that story is presented, is the gap between the information known in India and the information known in America. The Osho folks present the idea that they wanted to expand beyond what they could do in India, that they were persecuted by religious fundamentalists, and implied that Indira Gandhi and her authoritarian government unfairly tried to prosecute them. But in fact, they were so clearly illegal that the Congress party and the opposition fund themselves in a rare moment unity in wanting them prosecuted. Not only that, they were so clearly over the line that even in a country where they were NOT completely against all religious traditions, people still found them odd. Which would be clear with just the slightest amount of investigation.
And on the flip side, in India, the Osho center today is treated as a normal place to go for meditation and retreat. The Oregon years are forgotten, the mass poisonings and druggings and so on. This documentary is specifically about the Oregon years, but even here they spent not even five minutes to establish what had happened in India before Oregon, the early signs of darkness and reasons to look for an escape. Doesn’t even bother to point out the parallel between Rajneesh’s flight from Oregon and his flight from Pune, in both cases with no warning to the larger community of followers. We may be in a more global world now, but that only means wealthy powerful types can travel and share information, the quiet local communities in Oregon and in Pune don’t have that luxury. And sometimes documentaries aimed at a particular audience (Americans who watch Netflix) choose not to take advantage of that luxury, aware it may make their audience uncomfortable.
Which brings me to the other part of this. The people of Antelope were frustrated by the way their new “neighbors” seemed to have no interest in compromising, in coming together. Which the Osho people spin as the townsfolks not understanding their open attitude toward life, their sense of humor and so on. But we get a few descriptions of these same people arriving in India to visit the Pune compound, they talk about how over-whelming India was with all the noise and people and slums. And what a relief it was to reach the compound where everything was beautiful and happy.
These are not people who really want to connect to outsiders. Whether it is in small town Oregon or Pune India, they want to reach the compound and be with clean beautiful happy people, not have their beliefs confronted, not risk contact with the outside world. Which is, sadly, the thing that is still most true about Osho visitors today. They have their gorgeous massive complex, with armed guards standing in front and everything provided inside. You can go straight from the airport to the compound without ever risking contact with the actual people of India, without anyone who may puncture your balloon of joy with a reminder that there is real work to be done in the world.
(Not exactly like the rest of India)