This week’s potential things to watch at home, as we head once again into a kind of lockdown, features two documentaries, of very different sorts. One is a character-driven while the other stuns with its landscape and camerawork.
Searching For Sheela (2021, Netflix)
Anyone who has watched the documentaries Guru: Bhagwan, His Secretary and His Bodyguard (2010) and Wild Wild Country (2018, Netflix) based on the life of the controversial (to say the least) Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesha aka Osho, knows who Ma Anand Sheela is.
The fierce, petite yet (presumably) deadly assistant of Osho who helped relocate his entire ashram to Oregon where they set up their own community, Rajneeshpuram, were constantly at war with the neighbouring city and was later charged with multiple counts of assault, poisoning and wiretapping. Oh, and Sheela has a bit of a potty mouth. Even now, at 70.
Searching for Sheela traces her journey back to India after being away for 35 years.
Searching For Sheela is for those heavily invested in the story of Osho while Winter Land of Pakistan shows a side of the country few are even aware of
The documentary opens with her arrest/expulsion from the community in 1986. A beaming Sheela is seen exiting the courtroom in handcuffs and surrounded by the police. A video clip of Osho has him saying, “She is the murderer.” Sheela was later convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1986. She only served 39 months and was released for good behaviour.
We also meet where she is now: at a shelter home for special needs people she opened in 1990 in Switzerland. In her own personal space, her walls are dotted with photos of her time with Osho — dancing together, being blessed by him, taking care of him — intimate photos of a couple deeply in love from a happier time. Her devotion and dedication to him hasn’t diminished the slightest even after he condemned her, ousted her and made her the scapegoat for all of the criminal activities the community was engaged in.
Her time in India is dotted with fancy dinners, giving interviews at festivals and reconnecting with her roots. She handles it all like a pro. All of the public appearances are being done in part to promote her book Don’t Kill Him: The Story of My Life with Bhagwan Rajneesh, so Sheela can finally tell her side of the story. And she doesn’t care if you believe her or not.
There’s a point in the film where she talks about how people in India are using her words and making memes out of them. It’s hard not to — she gives perhaps the best lines and comebacks. “The show is irreverent and fun, it’s meant to be mildly scandalous,” Karan Johar tells her about his chat show. “You know, I have bigger scandals than show business people,” responds Sheela with a hint of smug glee.
In an interview out of the archives, she says, “I’m not a woman who stabs from the back. But I don’t believe in turning the other cheek. If somebody’s going to give me a whack, I’m going to give it right back from one hand, other hand and bottom too.”
But the truly moving part comes when she’s away from the spotlight, the glitz and the glamour. When she traces her roots back to her old Gujarati neighbourhood, there’s a crack in the steely armour she seems to have on all the time and you see her being truly vulnerable.
In spite of myself, by the end of the film, I felt for her a lot. Sheela might be Satan, but she is human too. A very smart and somewhat scary human.
Watch only if you have seen Wild Wild Country or are familiar with the incredible-yet-bizarre story of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesha, Rajneeshpuran and Ma Anand Sheela.
Winter Land of Pakistan (2021, YouTube)
Feast your eyes on this film because the imagery, the camerawork and the locations are jaw-droppingly stunning. It’s hard to believe that such beauty exists in Pakistan and somehow the vast majority of the population outside of these areas is unaware of it.
But imagery isn’t enough to carry a whole film forward. Umar ‘Ukhano’ Khan, the director, cameraperson and presenter of this vlog weaves three different winter sports experiences together in an intelligent script that is both personal and yet informative about the places he goes to, the events he attends and the people he interacts with.
His first stop is Malam Jabba, where the Pakistan International Snowboarding Cup is taking place. There we meet local snowboarding heroes as well as teams that have flown in from Europe to compete in the competition.
While Ukhano is extremely skilled on the one-wheeler, in my opinion a modern version of the skateboard, he’s never snowboarded before. So, his time in Malam Jabba covers his struggles with getting on board (pun intended) and we trace his journey from being a newbie to actually competing.
His second stop is at the remote yet scenic village of Mandaklasht near Chitral, where the Hindukush Snow Sports Festival is taking place. His friend, Hasham Ul Mulk, the president of Hindukush Sports Club, has invited him to come along with one of the French teams at Malam Jabba to this event. Other than snowboarding, there are plans to do split boarding and ski touring. Skiing was first introduced in Mandaklasht in the 1930s. This festival is an attempt to train locals and to make this a destination for winter sports.
But Mandaklasht is no Malam Jabba. There is no steep ski slope, there are no chair lifts, nothing. Instead, the locals have improvised. What were potato farms in the summer is the designated ski “slope.” Other than training the locals, the French team that is there has their own personal motive for being in Mandaklasht, which we see in the vlog.
And finally, the last destination is the Naltar valley, the other well-known ski resort in Pakistan. He lands at the PAF mess and we get to experience the historic Wildbore Slope.
The Naltar Valley ski resort is fully equipped, but even more than the Malam Jabba one — for this is where our Olympians train.
It first started off as the training ground for PAF fighter pilots to be taught snow and mountain survival and the slope was eventually opened for the locals. However, even before that, the locals were already skiing — albeit on wooden skis.
The Shah Khan Ski School was established here too with the intent of training locals, for jobs and scholarships based on skiing, and the school has also produced Pakistan’s first Olympian in the Winter Olympic Games, Mr Muhammad Abbas, as well as current Olympian Mr Karim, who has represented Pakistan in two Olympic games, and hopefully in the future, will represent the country in a third.
And while Ukhano is there, doing his best not to slip and fall off the slope, he gets to experience a few practice sessions between two domestic teams in ice hockey.
Although figuratively, the snow has started to melt — the season for winter sports is over. But this film is a great primer on what currently exists out there and for adrenaline junkies, or even as spectators and explorers, to plan their next winter adventure.
Published in Dawn, ICON, May 2nd, 2021