"Well, we are theoreticians, aren't we? So many things look so good in pen and paper or when we say them aloud amidst cheering peers But, when it comes to acting them out, we back out." -Chaitali C.
To say that Vijaya Mehta's movie "Rao Saheb" is about the issue of discrimination against widows --as some synopses of the movie put it-- is like saying that Ray's Pather Paanchaali is about the poverty in the villages of East Bengal: True--but just barely. Rao Saheb is much more than a dry portrayal of the mistreatment of widows. It is about the staggering complexity of reform, and about the depressing insufficiency of good intentions alone in bringing about effective change.
The eponymous protagonist of the movie, Rao Saheb, is a man with relatively good intentions. He can see the difference between good and bad when exposed to both. He has the interest in making things better. But he is also an otherwise very ordinary person with several foibles. Left in India, Rao Saheb may have grown to more or less accept the mores of his society. But, just like you and me, he has seen a significantly different society, and by simple comparison came to the forced realization about the mistreatment of women in his society. Settled in Britain, he may have continued to think of himself as a neo-liberal who has understood (and grew above) the problems besetting his society back home. However, life has other plans for him, and he finds himself back in India, compelled to try and eradicate the practices that he learned to detest.
The difference between many of us and Rao Saheb is really rather simple--unlike us, life has subjected him to a true test of his liberalism and his propensity for reform. The results of the test are not quite black and white--Rao Saheb does succeed on several counts--in the long term, people like him do improve the society, if only slowly. It is however his failures, not his successes, that contain much more valuable lessons for many of us. Because, you see, we have a lot more in common with Rao Saheb than we care to admit.
It would be infinitely easier to understand Rao Sahbeb's character if he were a simple hypocrite. Unfortunately, just like many of us, his is not a clear cut case of hypocrisy. He is a basically well-intentioned person who just underestimates the enormous patience and personal effort needed to bring about meaningful changes in society. The movie depicts very touchingly how ordinarily insignificant foibles can so insidiously obstruct one's attempts at reform.
First, there is Rao Saheb's inability to face a problem head on. Time and again during the movie, we are shown the curious contrast between this and his propensity for reform. We see him advising his associate to bring his widowed sister out of her seclusion and educate her. When asked why he doesn't do the same with his sister, he airily dismisses the suggestion with the statement that his sister doesn't listen to him. Even when he does wind up making a positive contribution, it is invariably because of a rather large-scale help from the circumstances. It is impossible to imagine Rao Saheb effectively helping Radhakka, if not for the accidental death of her tradition-bound father-in-law.
Whenever the going gets tough on one front, he invariably insulates himself from that front, continuing to endorse "liberal" practices on other fronts. As an example, we are told that when he realizes the difficulty of bringing about change in his sister's life, he succumbs to an all too familiar "blame the victim" syndrome, and stops communicating with her for some nine years.
Rao Saheb fails to understand the fundamental complexity of reform-- the line between desirable behavior that a human being considers "filmy ideal, impractical, implausible and unattainable" and the one which they would consider "attainable and worth changing for."
Presenting a set of principles as worth changing for involves more than drily lecturing people about how wretched their current conditions are! It requires patience, kindness and continued support. Unfortunately for Rao Saheb, all this puts the kinds of demands that he is not quite equipped to handle.
Another failing of Rao Saheb is in underestimating the value of "change from inside". Faced with the dauntingly entrenched conservative mores of his society, he is always falling back on "sneering" at the society. Nearly all his attempts at reform are from outside--almost as if he were an enlightened foreigner trying to knock some sense into the natives. This, once again, is something that ought to be painfully familiar to us all.
Well, history taught us time and again that reform just does not work from outside. Nobody changed a society by simply sneering at it. And what is more, nobody will be able to muster the kind of inner strength needed to carry out any kind of reform without a deep sense of identification with the society. This, in a sense, is the fundamental difference between Gandhian and Nehruvian approaches to reform--Gandhi was always the consummate insider--"one of us". Nehru, while sharing many of Gandhi's ethical concerns, and his sincerity, typically failed to achieve the same effetiveness because of his "outsider" persona.
Rao Saheb never does really identify with his society; he merely feels obligated to it. This acute alienation virtually ensures the doom of all his attempts at reform.
The third failing of Rao Saheb's character is his lack of "long term vision". Because of this, he fails to take Radhakka with him. Consider the time when he fails to make a decision about "marrying" Radhakka. On the surface we see his trade-mark indecisiveness as his main nemesis.
However, even after factoring in his indecisiveness, there is still a larger question. Why, we might ask ourselves, after all, should Radhakka expect that the logical culminations of Rao's reforms should be marriage?
This reasonable question still fails to exonerate Rao's character on two counts.
First, he never really conveyed to Radhakka a sense of "betterment for her own sake"--predicating it instead on external factors such as "remarriage". Of course, this particular failing can not be judged too unkindly--after all, he, like other reformers of his day, saw "remarriage" as almost the only way of "rehabilitating" widows. And, given the circumstances of that time, it was a reasonable first step.
That brings us to the second and more decisive indictment against his character: Rao Saheb's real failing is not that he predicated Radhakka's betterment on remarriage, or that he vacillated on marrying Radhakka-- It is that he never really foresaw the ramifications of the reforms he is initiating, and thus failed to convey to Radhakka the overall aims of his mission. This also prevented him from understanding the amount of support that he would be required to provide to a Radhakka slowly breaking the shackles of a conservative society.
He did the right thing in initiating the reform, but lacked the long term vision to prepare himself or Radhakka for dealing with the ensuing societal censure. When the ramifications do materialize, he is ill equipped to deal with them. This comes out very clearly when he tells Radhakka that if and when he marries her, they would both go back to London and bring up Radhakka's kid in Britain.
The man who starts with the conviction that there is no use to foreign education if it is not put to use in improving ones own society, resigns himself to "running away" as he realizes his woefully inadequate preparation to deal with the real complexities.
By our enlightened standards, Rao Saheb may be judged to have failed the test of life. And to an extent, the director does seem to want us to come away with that impression. However, the real lesson of the movie is elsewhere. It is about the depressingly large distance between good intentions and effectiveness, about the magnitude of conviction and decisiveness required to make a difference in a conservative society. Something that anyone interested in "change" ought to be acutely concerned about...
If at all Rao Saheb had failed, he failed at a much higher level than many mercenaries among us do. Make no mistake about that. Society needs an abundant supply of Rao Sahebs with some semblance of social conscience to bring about any kind of societal change. In short the movie's intent is not to discourage potential reformers, but to address them as a fellow sojourner. It talks to those of us who already do possess a social conscience, and induces us to explore the factors influencing success in such endeavors.
Reforming societal practices is not easy. It can be demanding and draining. In comparison, following the herd is infinitely more easy. The critical failing of Rao Saheb is that he never really understood the complexity of reform before embarking on it. This, in the final analysis, is the lesson that Rao Saheb teaches us.
As for the character itself, one can almost empathize with Rao Saheb's battle-weary resignation to follow the herd or run away to a safer haven. He, like you and me, is after all only an ordinary human! And no one said that "ordinariness" ought to be condemned. Though extra-ordinary circumstances are merciless in exposing the foibles of ordinary people...