The woman known for uttering the defiant phrase “tough titties” isn’t backing down.
Ma Anand Sheela, whose dogged defense of the controversial Rajneesh spiritual movement and its attempted takeover of a small Oregon town made her the star of the hit documentary series Wild Wild Country, says there’s nothing about her actions she would change.
“I do not regret anything,” she insists. “If there is again opportunity I would do it exactly the same. Maybe little bit even more feistier. Because now I have also experience under my belt.”
The Netflix series directed by Chapman and Maclain Way, which is contending for five Emmy Awards, recounts Sheela’s role in the early 1980s spearheading the construction of a massive religious commune for followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Residents of rural Wasco County, who considered the Rajneeshees a cult and fought the group tooth and nail, found in Sheela a formidable opponent. To those that didn’t like her political tactics she often responded “tough titties,” a retort Wild Wild Country’s airing helped turn into a trending internet hashtag.
Executive producer Mark Duplass calls Sheela, admiringly, a “badass,” and many viewers embraced her as a feminist figure. Sheela seems to take the attention in stride.
“For me, I was just standing up for our rights, our community and man I loved [Bhagwan],” she observes. “But I also understand the women who see me as a feminist, because I stood up in a man’s world, stereotyped man’s world, and I did not take any nonsense from anyone. I still don’t take it. That’s just a basic nature of mine.”
As the series relates, the movement’s battle with locals escalated into something approaching all-out war. Sheela was implicated in a poisoning scheme and eventually even her spiritual mentor, Bhagwan, denounced her. She served more than two years in prison for attempted murder, but recalls her incarceration with surprising fondness.
“It was a very profound and special time in my life,” she states. “In the beginning I felt I would cave in from outside negativity, international negativity from Bhagwan, Bhagwan’s people, Bhagwan’s well-wishers. And Oregon public, government…I used that time to test what I had learned from my parents, and what Bhagwan had taught us—to accept life as it comes.”
Perhaps another surprise is that Sheela hasn’t seen Wild Wild Country start to finish. She lives in Switzerland and operates group homes there and in Vietnam and Mauritius that she describes as serving “mentally, psychologically and bodily handicapped people.” She says those activities keep her so busy she didn’t have time to watch all of the docuseries.
“I work still 12 to 13 hours a day,” she comments. “And one doesn’t have the luxury of looking at this film for seven hours or six hours, whatever it is…I fast-forwarded [through] it.”
The series has attracted huge attention, but Sheela says there is no point to addressing whether she considers it fair.
“It is not my place to judge what Way Brothers present, because it was their project,” she insists. “They have their perspective. They are the filmmakers. It’s like when someone is doing a painting, you can’t tell artist how you want your painting, because then it’s not [art].”
Wild Wild Country is nominated for Emmys in documentary/nonfiction directing, picture editing, sound editing and sound mixing, as well as Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series. The Awards will be handed out at the Creative Arts ceremony on September 8 at the Microsoft Theater in downtown LA. Sheela has been looking into tickets.
“I did request a possibility to send my daughter and a couple of my sisters and brother-in-law. If it is possible, it would be nice for them to have that present from me,” she tells Deadline. But Sheela herself does not plan to attend.
“I have no intention of coming there,” she states flatly.
Asked why, she points to her time in the US in the 1980s as a polarizing figure at the center of a massive controversy that led to the collapse of the Rajneesh movement in Oregon and, ultimately, to her imprisonment.
“Somehow, I don’t have the trust I used to have…with justice system. I don’t have it now. I find the firsthand experience not so good,” she laughs, adding, “People don’t live a sweet life like I do. Maybe they have still bitterness against me for one reason or another. Who knows.”