Your first reaction to Wild Wild Country, the six-part Netflix documentary about the rise and fall of an Indian guru and his followers when they relocated to America in the 1980s, will probably be jaw-dropping disbelief. And if the series did nothing else then it would still suffice as gripping entertainment: told with impressive clarity and an eye for telling details, it's overflowing with little-known but shocking events.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh told his followers his spiritual teachings – a heady if seemingly contradictory mix of eastern spirituality, creative freedom, sexual healing and capitalist ambition – would lead to the ascent of "the New Man", and he built a huge following in India that attracted westerners throughout the 1970s. When political troubles threatened his position, he and his followers relocated to a ranch in rural Oregon in 1981, which soon brought them into conflict with the nearby town of Antelope, population 40.
Local election vote-stacking, illegal development, armed harassment and mutual antagonism soon took root, as the Bhagwan's personal secretary and fixer Ma Anand Sheela began to push through the creation of a self-contained city. But because directors Maclain and Chapman Way take their time establishing this narrative, talking to most of the key figures involved inside and outside the orange-clad Rajneesh, the escalation has an orderly outlook. Even as events run out of control, it has a clear logic to those involved.
The series never makes assumptions. For many outsiders, for example, Bhagwan was a fraud and his fervent Rajneeshees cult members, but Wild Wild Country establishes the faith – in some cases still abiding – of his followers. The story is mapped out like a thriller, as Sheela's plans become more extreme and increasingly state and federal officials target the organisation. At its heart, it's about faith. Everyone involved believes in something, whether it's the Bhagwan's teachings or the U.S. legal system.
What fascinates audiences about the series, which has overcome Netflix's usual lack of advance promotion to become its most talked-about recent release, is how far people will go in the name of their beliefs. One veteran Rajneesh, West-Australian-born wife and mother Jane Stork, who was reborn as Ma Shanti B, recounts in great depth her ecstatic conversion and complete satisfaction, and how much the Bhagwan meant to her.