SUBJECTS — World/India; Religions/Hinduism; ELA: symbol and irony.

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Human Rights; Suicide; Breaking Out;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Respect; Caring; Fairness.

AGE: 13+; MPAA Rating — PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexual situations, and for brief drug use;

Drama; 2005; 117 minutes; In Hindi with English subtitles; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

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TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.


Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.


Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.


Set in India in 1938, Water opens as Chuyia, an 8-year-old child bride is told by her father that the husband she has seldom met has died. In traditional Indian society, widows are not allowed to remarry and with no son to take care of her, Chuyia must be sent to a widows’ ashram to live out a monastic life of deprivation, purity, and prayer. She is befriended by a beautiful young widow, Kalyani, who is forced to work as a prostitute to earn money for the Ashram. Soon after Chuyia arrives, Kalyani meets Narayan a young, handsome follower of Mahatma Gandhi, a national leader who advocates many reforms in Indian society. Tragedy, as well as hope, follows in the unfolding of the story.


Selected Awards: 2006 Genie Awards: Best Achievement in Cinematography; Best Achievement in Music – Original Score; Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Seema Biswas); 2006 National Board of Review, USA: Freedom of Expression Award; 2007 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Foreign Language Film; 2006 Genie Awards Nominations: Best Motion Picture; Best Achievement in Direction; Best Original Screenplay (Deepa Mehta); Best Achievement in Editing; Best Achievement in Art Direction/Production Design; Best Achievement in Costume Design.

Featured Actors: Lisa Ray as Kalyani; Seema Biswas as Shakuntala; Sarala as Chuyia; Kulbhushan Kharbanda as Sadananda; Waheeda Rehman as Bhagavati; Raghuvir Yadav as Gulabi; Vinay Pathak as Rabindra; Rishma Malik as Snehalata and John Abraham as Narayan.

Director: Deepa Mehta. (Ms. Mehta also wrote the script.)


Water exposes students to the rich world of foreign film and to the progressive changes that are reshaping India as well as other rising third world countries. Water is a unique learning experience. Students have been exceptionally open to its story and the many lessons it teaches.

History Classes: Students will learn about conflicts that come as tradition faces modernity by focusing on the plight of widows in India and the advances advocated by Mahatma Gandhi.

ELA Classes: The aesthetic qualities of the movie offer an opportunity to explore visual symbols and other devices used in literature as well as film, such as irony and symbol. Students will exercise research and writing skills.


Minimal. The film earned a PG 13 rating because of sexual situations consisting of verbal references to Kalyani serving as a prostitute and Chuyia being sexually abused. No sex act is shown or described. The brief drug use mentioned in the rating consists of the villains of the story taking a few puffs on a cigar laced with opium or containing some other drug. It is not shown as anything anyone would want to do.


Watch the film with your child, take its educational value seriously and discuss some of the key elements with your child at the end of the film.


Information Helpful in Appreciating the Film:

Students will better appreciate the movie if they know some basic facts about:

(1) India;

(2) Hindu Religion and Indian Culture,

(3) Mahatma Gandhi, and

(4) Treatment of Widows in India Today.


Presentation of the introduction can occur as follows:

(A) students can be assigned to read TWM’s Pre-Viewing Enrichment Worksheet for “Water” in class or as homework, responding to the questions in a journal or short essay format;

(B) teachers can provide the information in the worksheet to the class through direct instruction; for lecture notes with prompts, see Introductory Lecture; or

(C) following the Facilitator/Learner model of instruction, groups or individual students can research the following or related topics and present their findings to the class:

  • Geography and demography of India, including land mass, rivers, population, and natural resources;
  • History of India from ancient times to the present;
  • British conquest and control of India from the East India Company to Independence;
  • Mahatma Gandhi and his legacy for India, for the U.S., and for the World (non-violent civil disobedience, also called non-violent mass action, non-violent action or just non-violence), including its contribution to the U.S. Civil rights movement, the fall of the Soviet Union, and peaceful change in three other countries);
  • Basic beliefs of Hinduism;
  • The Caste system, historically and today;
  • The use of spices, including tumeric, for medicinal purposes;
  • Patriarchy and the status and treatment of widows in India, historically and today;
  • Hira culture and eunuchs in general;
  • Cultural change in India in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Pre-Viewing Enrichment Worksheet for Water


India occupies most of the Indian subcontinent. It is about 1/3rd the size of the U.S. and now has more than 1.24 billion people. (Show a map of India and the surrounding nations.) Most Indians are very poor. India has an ancient civilization which has given much to the world, including the concept of zero and the principle of non-violent mass action as an agent to force political change. India is the largest functioning democracy in the world. The two main religions of India are Hindu (80%) and Muslim (13%).

Beginning in 1757, the British East India Company controlled increasingly large parts of India. By 1858 virtually the entire country was subject to British rule, which was transferred to the British Crown. Led by Mahatma Gandhi, India achieved its independence in 1947 through a campaign of non-violent mass action. Gandhi’s tactics of non-cooperation, civil disobedience, protest and petition were often referred to as “passive resistance” but they were anything but passive.

One of the ways in which the British had ruled India was to pit Muslim against Hindu. The tactic was called “divide and rule”. When Britain granted independence in 1947, it partitioned its former colony into two separate countries: a predominantly Muslim Pakistan and an overwhelmingly Hindu India. Mass chaos resulted as Hindus fled Pakistan and Muslims left India. (India still has a Muslim population of well over 100 million people. It is the fourth largest Muslim nation in the world, after Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.)

The Ganges River is one of the major rivers in India. It flows from the Himalayan mountains through eastern India and empties into the Indian ocean in what is now Bangladesh. The water of the Ganges is believed to be holy with the power to wash away sins. It is also believed that a person who dies with holy water from the Ganges in his or her mouth will have an easier path to heaven. Indians use the Ganges to bathe, to wash their clothing, and to carry their ashes to heaven in small containers that float on the river. Stone steps, called ghats, lead down to the river in many places, especially near temples.



Hinduism is described in ancient Sanskrit books called the “Vedas.” Hinduism teaches that a soul has many lives. It returns to earth in various body forms to learn the lessons that life on Earth has to offer. The level of each rebirth depends upon how well the soul lived out its past life. If a person is good in this life he or she will be born to a higher incarnation in the next life. In the order of rebirth, people are higher than animals and men are higher than women.

The goal of Hindu religious practice is to be liberated from worldly desires and released from the cycle of rebirth and death.

In 1938 India was a society bound by ancient customs. Although much has changed, rural India is still quite tradition-bound. Over the thousands of years that Hinduism has held sway in India, many traditions have acquired a religious sanction even though they are antithetical to the basic teachings of the religion. These include the caste system, patriarchy, and the treatment of women, especially if they are widows.

The Caste System: Castes are groups in society ranked in a hierarchy and set by birth. Since occupations are often handed down by birth, caste has a definite relation to occupation. People generally marry only within their caste. In India, there are thousands of castes and sub-castes. They are seen as fundamental to the subcontinent’s social structure. When people converted from Hinduism to Islam or Sikhism, they retained their caste affiliation.

Despite the fact that the caste system has been outlawed by the Indian constitution, caste ranking and its influence on social interaction are expected to continue to affect life in India in the future. Caste is stronger in the countryside than in the cities and its effect is felt more in matters of kinship and marriage than in interactions that are less personal in nature.

The Brahman caste was traditionally the most respected, honored, and esteemed of all the castes. Brahmans were permitted to read and interpret the holy texts. There were other castes and sub castes for warriors, government administrators, merchants, etc. Some people were not even in the class system. These were called the Untouchables and they occupied the lowest rung in society. They were restricted to “unclean” occupations such as cleaning toilets or cleaning the hides of dead cattle. If a member of a higher caste came into contact with an Untouchable they had to perform a bathing ritual to cleanse themselves of contamination from the touch. If Untouchables tried to improve their situation in life, they were subjected to brutal repression.

Question #1: Write a one-page argument contending that there is nothing like a caste system in the U.S. In your article, rebut claims that racism, classism, and entrenched economic inequality have effects that are similar to a caste system.

Patriarchy: A basic belief of Hinduism and traditional Indian society is male dominance. It permeates almost every aspect of Indian society. Men are considered superior to women. Women pray to be reborn as a man, which is seen as a step up in the universal order.

A section of the Vedas called the “Laws of Manu” have been interpreted to designate a woman’s life as having three stages. The first stage is when a girl is under the protection of her father. In the second stage, as a woman, she is under the protection of her husband. The third stage is widowhood, taken care of by her oldest son. But if there is no male child or if the son’s wife doesn’t like her, the widow is shunned and isolated. Basically, a woman doesn’t have a real life unless she has a man by her side. She is to look to her father and her husband as her teacher, her provider, and her keeper. When her husband dies, she is to dedicate her life to Lord Krishna, the highest Hindu god. Krishna is often pictured playing a flute.

Treatment of Widows: A married woman is considered to be half her husband’s body and when he dies she is considered to be half his corpse. When a husband dies his widow must atone for her sins, which were thought to have contributed to the death of her husband. Widows, no matter what caste they were originally born into, were (and still are in many instances) relegated to the lowest stratum of society. They are considered bad luck and unclean. For traditional Indians, even the shadow of a widow is dangerous. Widows are therefore shunned by society. The pronoun for a widow in India is “it” rather than “she.”

There were few good choices for a widow in traditional Indian society. She could throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre and burn with his body. This was called Sati. This custom has recently fallen into disfavor and is now illegal. The best solution was for the widow to live with her eldest son. She could not remarry, unless the husband’s younger brother consented to marry her.

A woman with no male child to provide for her, or whose son wouldn’t take her in, was relegated to a lonely ascetic life of prayer. Some found a haven in ashrams, strict regime religious communities. Life in widows’ ashrams was simple and sparse. The widows got one bland meal per day. Tomatoes, spices, onions, and sugar were forbidden to widows. There was no luxury in the ashram and women slept on mats on the floor. Their heads were shaven and they dressed in all white or all red. They were forbidden to wear makeup. Their days were to be entirely focused on finding salvation in Lord Krishna hoping for a good after-life and a better situation in their next reincarnation. One of the few times that widows could celebrate was the feast of Holi, a festival of color. One of them would be dressed as Krishna and color applied to their faces and clothing.

Question #2: Just one hundred years ago, the U.S. was a patriarchal society. Women could not vote in most states, their rights on divorce were inferior to those of men, few women graduated from college, fewer still were in the professions, there were no female members of Congress, etc. While women are still not treated as equal to men in all respects, much has changed. This has not happened in some other parts of the world. What reasons can you give for why the U.S. attitude toward women has changed so much?



  • In India married women wear metal bands on their left wrist. When their husbands dies, the bands are broken off.
  • Tumeric is a yellow/orange colored spice known for its antiseptic effects.
  • Hindus believe that when they die, they should die in the open so that it’s easier for their souls to gain access to the gods.
  • Hindus are vegetarian and cows are sacred to them.
  • The swastika, both right and left facing versions, are ancient religious symbols of Hinduism. In Hindu designs there is often a dot in each quadrant. It is considered an auspicious sign and adorns many temples. It is used on jewelry, in books, and on buildings. The Nazis took the left facing version of the swastika for the symbol of their political party. The Hindu swastika has nothing to do with that of the Nazis.
  • A eunuch is a man who has been castrated. A hermaphrodite is a person born with both male and female sexual characteristics. In India there, are 500,000 to 1 million eunuchs and hermaphrodites. They form societal groups and have particular functions. They sing at weddings and births. Lately some eunuchs have been elected to political office in India as people who will be less subject to corruption because they do not have families and children.


Mohandas Gandhi was the greatest political leaders of the 20th century. His influence was not only felt by the Indian people but all over the world. India’s refusal, under Gandhi’s leadership, to use violence to throw off the yoke of British Imperialism showed the world that there were ways to fight oppression that did not require injury and killing. People seeking political and social change adopted Gandhi’s tactics of non-violent mass action, also called civil disobedience, with great results all over the world. A few of the many examples are: the U.S. Civil Rights Movement; the fall of the Soviet Union (one of the world’s two superpowers) in 1991; forcing the end to apartheid in South Africa in 1994; removing the long-time dictator of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, in 1986; the defeat of the fascist dictatorship in Argentina in 1983 which began from the peaceful protests of “Los Madres,” the mothers of political opponents of the regime who had been killed or abducted; the “Velvet” Revolution in which Czechoslovakia removed communist rule in 1989; the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003; the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine in 2004; and the Arab Spring of 2011.

Gandhi was also a great religious and moral leader of the Indian people who called him “Mahatma” which means “Great Soul”. They also called him “Bapu” which means father in Gujarat, one of the languages spoken in India. Gandhi’s highest principles were love and truth. Throughout his life, Gandhi was a religious Hindu, but he acknowledged the validity of all other religions. When asked if he was a Hindu, Gandhi replied, “Yes I am. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.” Gandhi rejected Indian/Hindu traditions that did not recognize the worth of the individual and campaigned for reform in many areas of Indian life.

Many religious texts stress the equality of all beings before God. This was the bedrock of Gandhi’s reforms. He looked at Indian society and saw where its customs and practices violated this basic principle. These included sectarian tensions between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, the oppression of the Untouchables, child marriage, and the treatment of widows. Gandhi preached that all men were brothers, whatever their religion. He advocated civil rights for the Untouchables and called them “Harijan” which means children of God. He campaigned against child marriage and supported remarriage for widows, especially child widows. He challenged the Indian people to go to the roots of their religion which incorporated loving and inclusive messages similar to those of Jesus Christ. He asked Indians to reject the cultural overlays on Hinduism (that had been thought to be religious doctrine for centuries) and to reject the old rules that supported the caste system, denied equal treatment for women, and oppressed widows.

Gandhi was an Indian of a mercantile caste who was educated as an attorney in England. He first practiced law in South Africa where the British had imported Indians to serve as laborers and shopkeepers. The Indians in South Africa were subjected to harsh and oppressive laws by the government, although they were not treated as poorly as the Africans. Gandhi developed non-violent mass action as a tactic to overturn the harshest laws against Indians.

Gandhian non-violence works on the minds of the oppressors to make them realize that continued oppression debases their own moral values. Through boycotts and other forms of direct action, the protesters also assert economic pressure on those in power.

In 1915 Gandhi returned to India and became active in religious and political affairs. He was a leader of the Indian National Congress, a broad-based political organization which sought independence from Britain. While Gandhi wanted India to be independent of British rule, he would not demean himself by hurting anyone. (“There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for.”) His leadership of non-violent resistance to British rule led the authorities to put Gandhi in prison several times. Each imprisonment made him more popular. Eventually, in 1947, India gained its independence from the British Empire without an armed struggle.

Gandhi was not always able to convince the Indian people to do what he wanted, but he had tremendous power. For example, in 1947 there were terrible sectarian riots in Bombay and several other parts of India. Hindus were killing Muslims and Muslims were killing Hindus. People were being massacred by the thousands, including women and children. Gandhi implored the populace to stop and when they wouldn’t, he went on a fast to the death or until they did stop. After several days, the leaders of the riots came to his bedside and swore that the violence would end, if only Gandhi would eat and not die. He sent them away and told them to come back when the violence had stopped. Only then would he eat. The riots stopped, the cities were quiet, and Gandhi ate again. See Mahatma Gandhi, Apostle of Nonviolence by John Dear, S.J.

Gandhi’s reforms were rejected by Hindu fundamentalists, one of whom assassinated Gandhi on January 30, 1948, a few months after India gained its independence.

Question #3: Name two American Presidents whose political leadership had far-reaching importance across the world and who could be said to be one of the most important political leaders of their century. Describe your reasons for chosing these men.

Gandhi dedicated his life to seeking Truth. His original formulation was “God is Truth”. He later modified it to “Truth is God.” He changed the world with his acts of non-violent protest, setting examples from which leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama, and countless others would gain inspiration.

Here are some statements by Gandhi that bear repeating:

I offer you peace. I offer you love. I offer you friendship. I see your beauty. I hear your need. I feel your feelings. My wisdom flows from the Highest Source. I salute that Source in you. Let us work together for unity and love.

When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall – think of it, always.

What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?

God is Truth . . . [many years later] . . . Truth is God.

I cannot teach you violence, as I do not myself believe in it. I can only teach you not to bow your heads before any one even at the cost of your life.

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary.

I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.



Many parts of India are still very tradition-bound. Many widows’ ashrams, similar to the one shown in the movie, still exist. Many widows are still forced into prostitution to get enough to eat. The movie struck home in India. Hindu fundamentalists felt so threatened by the message of “Water” that the first time an attempt was made to film the movie they rioted, threw the sets into the Ganges, and shut down the production. Death threats were made against the director. The production was suspended and nothing happened for about five years. Then the movie was recast with new actors and filmed under another name in Sri Lanka, a primarily Buddhist country.

Literary Analysis


Themes in the movie include: (A) What happens when faith and conscience are in conflict? (B) damage to individuals and society caused by the weight of tradition; (C) oppression and abuse of women in a patriarchal society; (D) whether someone forced to live in corruption like Kalyani can retain her integrity?



The plot of the movie consists of three interlocking stories, each of which can stand on its own. One is the tale of Chuyia, a child widow, who is sent away from home to an ashram where she is sexually abused. Second, is the Kalyani/Narayan romance. The third is the story of Shakuntala’s crisis of faith. Kalyani’s death triggers the abuse of Chuyia. The tragedies of both young women are motivating forces in Shakuntala’s story, sparking her rebellion against the customs of traditional Indian society.

The character of Chuyia is used throughout the movie as an agent of explication and change. It is Chuyia who introduces us first to Madhumati, then to Shakuntala, then to Kalyani, and finally to Narayan. Except at the very beginning and the very end of the movie, Chuyia advances the plot and explicate’s theme in ways that do not directly relate to her story. For example, Chuyia introduces Narayan to Kalyani, she brings Kalyani Narayan’s note, Chuyia tells Madhumati about Kalyani’s plans to marry, she kills Mitthu, Chuyia tells Shakuntala that she looks old, and asks “Where is the house of the men widows?”. While the focus of the plot starts with Chuyia, it soon shifts to the Kalyani/Narayan love story, and then to the story of Shakuntala’s crisis of faith. Only at the end of the film does Chuyia’s story start up again.



Water: Indian and many Western traditions equate water with purity, life, and rebirth. This is an archetype common to many cultures because water is the first and most basic cleaning solution and because all life depends on water. Water is necessary for the fields to bloom each year.

In this film, many types of water are shown. One is the Ganges River, the holy river of India in which people wash away their sins, clean their bodies, and launder their clothing. Kalyani purifies herself in the water several times and finally engages in what is for her the ultimate purification of suicide; going to the place of the gods to find peace. We also see the river during funerals and in the wedding ceremony.

In myth and literature, rivers are often boundaries between different states of being and different cultures. (In Greek mythology, the River Styx is the boundary between the living and the dead.) In “Water,” the Ganges serves as the line between the life of the city and the ashram and the corruption of the gentry in their large houses on the other shore.

Rain also plays an important role in the film. Rainy days serve as a time of play and rest for the characters – a time spent inside, away from the eyes of the world and the burdens of widowhood. Rain is a metaphor for the relationship between Kalyani and Narayan. Narayan first discovers where Kalyani lives when she wrings out a garment and drops water on him. He is then caught, quite happily, in a downpour. The rain clouds in the distance, dark and foreboding, foreshadow trouble to come. The messenger status of the clouds is made explicit when Narayan recites a poem about a cloud-messenger.

Bars on the windows of the ashram: These symbolize the prison of customs and attitudes in which the widows are confined.

Each of the characters in the film symbolize something.

Chuyia embodies youth and innocence — which is eventually despoiled.

Kalyani is “an angel” — Chuyia’s reaction when she first sees her — even though she is a prostitute. The word kalyani means “she who causes auspicious things.” The death of Kalyani deepens Shakuntala’s crisis of faith which in turn leads her to save Chuyia by putting her on the train. Kalyani is also a desperately lost young girl. When Chuyia first meets Narayan and realizes that she (Chuyia) is lost, she says something odd. She says that Kalyani is lost. Narayan says, “We should find her.” And they do, in more ways than one.

Narayan as Vishnu/Krishna — the soul/future of India Narayan is a Sanskrit name for Vishnu, the Supreme Being or Ultimate Reality. Narayan is also a common name in India. Krishna is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu. Krishna is the “the Supreme Person and the highest God,” the lord of the world. Vishnu is also called the preserver god. Narayan plays the flute which is the instrument of Lord Krishna. (Get a picture of Krishna playing the flute and show it to the class.) Definitions are from articles in Wikipedia.

The association of Narayan with Krishna and Vishnu is explicit in the script. Shortly after she first meets him, Chuyia asks Narayan if he is “Lord Vishnu’s Narayan.” Kalyani, after she meets Narayan, on her way to be prostituted to Rabindra’s father, asks Gulabi if “Lord Krishna takes on human form.” When Narayan and Kalyani are talking about the future, and he wonders who will decide which traditions should be retained and which should be thrown away, Kalyani tells him that he will. In traditional Hindu marriages, the husband is the god for the wife. The husband tells the wife what to do and what to believe. It is Narayan who puts himself in the hands of Gandhi, who really was the soul of India and its future. Traditionally, widows give reverence to Krishna and ask him to deliver them from their circumstances. This is what Kalyani was asking Narayan to do.

Madhumati: Madhumati is fat in an ashram where people are supposed to have one meal a day and not indulge in the pleasures of the senses. She smokes a drug (opium?), which is also not allowed in an ashram. Mirrors are not found in ashrams but Madhumati has a mirror in her room and is concerned about her looks, despite the fact that she is old and fat. Nor are beds allowed in the ashram, but Madhumati has one. Finally, she acts as a madam, sending Kalyani and Chuyia to their assignations. As Kalyani said, an ashram is not (or rather should not be) a brothel. Madhumati is the symbol of all that is corrupt about the system. She prays to Shiva, the destroyer god.



There are a number of ironic situations and comments in the film. See Assignment #5.

Chuyia takes Mitthu out of his cage and crushes him. This foreshadows both the breaking of Chuyia by the child abuse and the death of Kalyani when she tries to leave the cage of the Ashram. The views of the dark rain clouds shown as the romance between Kalyani and Narayan begins is also foreshadowing.



Enrichment Worksheets are a TWM innovation containing text and questions designed to get students thinking. Questions are focused on comprehension, application, analysis, syntheses or evaluation. Questions can be answered in class or as homework, as quick writes, journal entries, formal essays, or research papers. The worksheet for Water contains background information which will help students appreciate the film.

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After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.


1. Shakuntala asks, “What happens when our conscience conflicts with our faith?” What is the conflict and how does she resolve it at the end of the movie?

Suggested Response:

Shakuntala’s faith tells her to follow the ancient texts that prohibit widow remarriage and require that even child widows must live a life of deprivation and isolation. Shakuntala’s conscience says that Chuyia should have a better future and should be allowed to remarry. Shakuntala’s conscience prevails in the end when she sends Chuyia away on Gandhi’s train.


2. Narayan’s name, which is a Sanskrit name for Vishnu, The Supreme Being, is common in India. The film’s director deepens the connection between Narayan and the god by showing the young man playing the flute, which is the instrument of Lord Krishna, another Hindu god. In what ways does Narayan play a god-like role in the film?

Suggested Response:

In his open-mindedness to Kalyani and his conversations with others, Narayan shows advanced character. When Kalyani tells Narayan that he will be the one to who will decide which traditions should be retained and which should be thrown away, she is seeing the man as a spiritual leader. Finally, the fact that he saves Chuyia and rides the train into the future with Gandhi further suggests the connection.


3. An archetype which pervades all human cultures is that of the close relationship of children to innocence, the devine and truth-telling (“out of the mouths of babes”). Chuyia, when she first sees Kalyani, calls her an angel. There is symbol, irony and metaphor in this scene. What are they?

Suggested Response:

Kalyani and what happens to her is a symbol of what the corruption of Indian society does to widows and to the concept of purity. The irony is that the prostitute is one of the purest souls in the ashram. The metaphor is that a prostitute is equated with being something very dissimilar to the role of prostitute, an angel. This equation fills out the description of Kalyani’s character in important ways.


4. All cultures have social rules that regulate gender roles as well as relationships between women and men and many of these cultures are struggling with the changes that come with modernization. What kinds of changes do you see in your own culture as patriarchy fades and women gain increased independence? Where do you see resistance?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary: Students may mention ideas on a wide range of topics, including dating, divorce, single parenting, abortion, women in positions of authority, etc. All honest responses are acceptable.


5. Remember Shakuntala’s long look at the end of the movie? What does that look mean?

Suggested Response:

Here are a few of the possible responses: (1) she is turning to face her life, a life in which she had given up Chuyia, the one person that she had come to love; (2) her faith was gone and the years of a life of privation without the assistance of her faith stretched out before her; (3) Shakuntala is thinking of the terrible things that were done to young girls for the benefit of the ashram; (4) she is thinking of Kalyani and how she had hoped that Kalyani would be going away with Narayan; (5) she could not go back to the ashram after having taken away a necessary source of income (prostituting Chuyia) and she is thinking of the very difficult life that she now faced; (6) she is looking at us, the audience, to share the despair at her situation, the horror of what she has just seen, or for help; (7) she is just reflecting after having made a leap of conscience and faith to give Chuyia to Gandhi; or (8) she was still in shock about what happened to Chuyia and that she has had to send Chuyia away.


6. There was one other character in the film, other than Shakuntala, who had to decide between the traditional faith and prejudices of society and the demands of conscience. Who was it and what was the decision?

Suggested Response:

The character was Narayan. Most Indian men would not marry a widow and almost every man of his time would insist that his bride be a virgin. These traditional beliefs, however, collided with Narayan’s understanding of Kalyani’s situation and his love for her. Kalyani had not been a willing prostitute. It was against Narayan’s conscience that she should suffer for something she had been forced to do. (Some might suggest that another character torn between faith and tradition on one side and conscience on the other was Kalyani. She did have a dilemma. But her choice was between tradition/faith and love and hope for a better life. Kalyani’s dilemma did not involve her conscience.)


7. What would you do if you were convinced that the requirements of love and respect conflict with the rules that your religion has set down as proper conduct?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response to this question. A strong argument could be made that Gandhi’s solution is best, to strip faith down to its essence and throw away all the rules that conflict with the basic ideals. However, this can be a slippery slope leading to unethical conduct. The best example is Narayan’s father who allowed himself to believe that as an upper caste Brahman, he was conferring a blessing on Kalyani by sleeping with her. He picked the wrong element of his religion to stress (the caste system) and threw away the important ones (caring for others; not hurting others, respect for others). Obviously, this was a contention motivated by self-interest.


8. The priest tells Shakuntala, that whatever happens, she should not lose her faith. Was this good advice? Did she lose her faith?

Suggested Response:

It all depends upon what he meant by faith. If her faith was that the way of action should be determined by love and respect (and the rules of conduct derived from them, see for examples the The Six Pillars of Character), then he gave her good advice. If he meant the belief in god of whatever form she adhered to, then the advice was good. If he meant the specific rules of conduct set down in ancient texts, such as the rules prohibiting widows from remarrying, then this was not good advice.


(B) The Weight of Tradition

9. Why didn’t Kalyani just leave the ashram or fight harder for her love and her life?

Suggested Response:

Where was she going to fight from? She lived in a society bound by tradition. She was uneducated and didn’t know about Gandhi and the changes he was promoting. She had no money. She had no friends. She had no place to live. She didn’t know anyone who would help her. She was certainly justified in believing that Narayan wouldn’t help her after she had served as a prostitute for his father. Most men at that time wouldn’t even consider marrying a woman who wasn’t a virgin, and this was worse.


10. In this film, Shakuntala and Kalyani faced similar crises. What were they and how did they resolve them?

Suggested Response:

The crises were the challenges to their faith and the traditions of their society. At the beginning of the movie, both women accepted the restrictions placed on widows by what they believed were the requirements of their religion and by their traditions. At the beginning of the movie, both of them accepted the fact that young widows would serve as prostitutes so that the ashram could survive. During the movie both of them rejected these concepts. Another way to say it is that widows were not supposed to find love. Both of them, however, did. Kalyani came to love Narayan and Shakuntala came to care for Chuyia as if Chuyia were her daughter.


11. Why didn’t Shakuntala get on the train with Chuyia?

Suggested Response:

We aren’t told the reason and it is left ambiguous. But whatever it was, she wasn’t ready to make the complete break with her faith, with tradition and with her life as a widow. Unlike Chuyia, she was not going to be prostituted if she returned to the ashram. Chuyia, being a mere child, had more to live for than a woman who had been a widow and lived in the ashram for many years.


(C) The Oppression and Abuse of Women in a Patriarchal Society

12. In a patriarchal society in which women do not have rights, what happens to women who are not under the protection of a man?

Suggested Response:

They are often taken advantage of.


13. What is the most subversive line in the film? Chuyia says it. How do the adults around her react?

Suggested Response:

The line is: “Where are the houses for the men widows?” The widows around her react with horror that anyone could think of visiting such a terrible fate on their men. This is extremely ironic because their men have no compunction about making the widows’ lives miserable.


14. What of the male spiritual counselor’s statement that, “We only follow the laws that benefit us”? Certainly, following the law would have benefitted widows. Who was the “us” he was referring to?

Suggested Response:

The laws were made by the British occupiers. The Indians didn’t participate in making the laws and felt that they had no obligation to obey them. Apparently, the men in India didn’t object to the treatment of widows. According to Narayan and many other commentators, the motivation was economic. When a widow was sent away, not only was there one less mouth to feed, one less Sari to buy, and more room in the hut, but also businesses were often family affairs and if the widow was sent away and had no rights, the brothers got the share that would have gone to the widow. The “us” meant “Indian men”.


(D) Can Someone Forced to Live in Corruption Like Kalyani Retain her Integrity?

15. Kalyani quotes a saying attributed to Krishna: “Learn to live like a lotus untouched by the filthy water it grows in.” What does this mean, why does she need to believe this, and what role does this saying play in the organization of her personality?

Suggested Response:

This means that even if she is forced to be a prostitute she can still be a good person. This piece of religious faith allows her to compartmentalize the prostitution from the rest of her life and retain her sense of self-worth. The metaphor of the lotus is central to the organization of Kalyani’s personality. However, when she discovers that one of her “clients” had been Narayan’s father, she comes to believe that the outside world will no longer allow her to maintain this compartmentalization and that the taint of her prostitution will destroy her one chance for happiness. This is too much for her and she commits suicide. She underestimates the power of Narayan’s love for her.


16. What do you think about the lotus verse? Can a person live among corruption and not be tainted?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question. Certainly, it takes a very extraordinary person to pull this off and for most of us it is impossible. The message of the movie is equivocal. Ultimately, Kalyani decided that after having loved Narayan it was impossible for her to maintain her integrity if she allowed herself to be prostituted again. She underestimated the strength of Narayan’s love and didn’t think he would come back for her.



17. This movie is the story of three great loves. What are they?

Suggested Response:

The first two are easy. Kalyani’s love for Narayan and his love for her. The third is Shakuntala’s love for Chuyia as a daughter.


18. This plot consists of several stories that are linked together. What are they?

Suggested Response:

One is the tale of Chuyia, a child widow, who is sent away from home to a widows’ ashram where she is sexually abused. Second, is the Kalyani/Narayan romance. The third is the story of Shakuntala’s crisis of faith.


19. Narayan and his friend talk about Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet”. What element of the plot in the movie is similar to a plot element in “Romeo and Juliet”?

Suggested Response:

The similar plot element is that the timing of the lovers is just a bit off and that little bit causes people to die. Narayan comes to the ashram to get Kalyani but he’s too late. She has already committed suicide. In “Romeo and Juliet”, it’s just the opposite. If Romeo had come just a little later, Juliet would have revived and they would not have committed suicide. Another good response is that the similarity is that one of the lovers commits suicide.


20. What is the role of Chuyia in telling the story of this film?

Suggested Response:

Chuyia is used throughout the movie as an agent of explication and change. It is through the character of Chuyia that the audience is first introduced to Madhumati, then to Shakuntala, then to Kalyani, and finally to Narayan. After the first few scenes at the ashram, until the end of the story, Chuyia advances the plot in ways that are not central to her story. For example, it is Chuyia who tells Madhumati about Kalyani’s plans to marry, Chuyia who kills Mitthu, Chuyia who tells Shakuntala that she looks old, and Chuyia who asks the question about the location of the houses of the men widows. Finally, it is Chuyia who sparks Shakuntala’s motherly instincts, the instincts that fuel much of the older woman’s rebellion of conscience against the customs of traditional Indian society. While the focus of the plot starts with Chuyia, it soon shifts to the Kalyani/Narayan love story, and then to the story of Shakuntala’s crisis of faith. Only at the very end of the film does Chuyia again become a major participant in the plot.



21. Three living beings are broken in the course of the movie. What are the circumstances of each?

Suggested Response:

Out of anger at Madhumati, Chuyia kills Mitthu by breaking its back. The bird falls to the floor. Chuyia herself then gets broken when she is sent out by Madhumati for a sexual assignment with Narayan’s father. In a sense Kalyani is broken, but not physically, and dies like Mitthu when she leaves the cage of tradition.


22. Early in the movie we see dark rain clouds. What do they foretell?

Suggested Response:

Doom, a tragic ending.



Questions 2 & 3 in the Learning Guide refer to symbols in the film.

23. The character of Madhumati, the fat widow, is a symbol. What is she a symbol of? Is there anything sympathetic about this woman?

Suggested Response:

Madhumati is a symbol of the corruption of the system. She is fat, but widows are supposed to eat only one meal a day and to be deprived of pleasures of the flesh, including eating. Widows are supposed to sleep on mats on the floor. Madhumati has a bed. Widows are not supposed to take drugs. Madhumati gets a drug from Gulabi and smokes it. Ashrams are not supposed to be brothels but Madhumati acts as a madam. But she is not simply a one-dimensional villain. Her corruption in prostituting Kalyani and Chuyia is the corruption of all of the widows in the ashram, since they all benefit. As the leader of the ashram, Madhumati must make sure it can pay the rent. The income from begging and saying prayers is not enough to do that. Someone must arrange for “servicing” the local gentry.


24. Water is a symbol. What does it symbolize?

Suggested Response:

See Symbols


25. The character of Narayan is a symbol. What does he symbolize?

Suggested Response:

See Symbols


26. Why does Narayan quote a poem about a cloud messenger?

Suggested Response:

The clouds shown by the movie are dark and foreboding, foretelling a tragic outcome.



27. Cite three examples of irony in this movie.

Suggested Response:

See Literary Devices section on Irony.



28. Which character changed the most through the course of the movie? Describe the pressures that caused that character to change.

Suggested Response:

There are two possible good answers: Kalyani and Shakuntala. Kalyani had accepted her life as a widow/prostitute until she met Narayan and she began to seek a full life as a woman in a loving marriage. After she loved Narayan she could no longer stand to be a prostitute. It was the pressure of her love for Narayan that caused her to change. Shakuntala was not happy with her life, but she was comfortable in her beliefs before the Narayan-Kalyani romance and the prostituting of Chuyia. Shakuntala began to question her beliefs and understood that her conscience could not tolerate what was happening to the widows, especially Kalyani and Chuyia. It was her sense of justice and her outrage that caused her to change. At the end of the film, she gave Chuyia to Narayan but was unable to join Gandhi herself and completely reject the traditional notions about widowhood.


29. Who is the most enigmatic character in the film?

Suggested Response:

The male spiritual counselor of the ashram. He bemoans India’s ignorance but counsels the women to keep their faith.



30. Describe Chuyia’s character and personality during the time she is at the ashram.

Suggested Response:

She is feisty, strong and resilient. Chuyia kills Mitthu and screams at Madhumati, tramples on the old woman’s back, and bites her. Chuyia can also be kind, thoughtful and forgiving. She gives food to the dog and brings back a sweet for the old widow.


31. Put yourself in Chuyia’s shoes. Eight years old; sent by her family to the ashram and abandoned there with no idea how to get home; living with these strange old women in deprived circumstances. And then the old widow dies, Kalyani dies, and Chuyia herself is sexually abused. Shakuntala, the only widow left who has shown her any affection, shoves her onto a train. What could be going on in Chuyia’s mind?

Suggested Response:

She has been abandoned and betrayed many times. The wound must be very deep. She would have clung very hard to Narayan.



32. Before Chuyia came what did Shakuntala, as a widow, miss in her life? Gandhi told us.

Suggested Response:

There was no one to love her or for her to love.


33. What was Shakuntala’s situation when she was listening to Gandhi at the train station?

Suggested Response:

She had to make a decision about what to do with Chuyia. Shakuntala had come to love Chuyia as a daughter. If she took Chuyia back to the ashram, the child would be prostituted again by Madhumati and Gulabi. However, there was no other place for them to go. If they left the ashram they would starve. The only solution was to give the child up to the care of Gandhi. She was left, again, with no one to love or to love her.


34. Who did Shakuntala love and what happened to that love?

Suggested Response:

She loved Chuyia and she gave Chuyia up because she knew that the best thing for Chuyia was to leave the ashram and grow up in Gandhi’s care.


35. What was the significance of the scene in which Shakuntala asks Chuyia what she looks like and the girl responds that Shakuntala looks old?

Suggested Response:

Shakuntala comes to realize that life has passed her by without ever offering her the opportunity to love and be loved.



36. Kalyani and Mitthu, the bird of Madhumati, are symbolically linked. Describe those links.

Suggested Response:

They are both pretty and in a cage. They are both creatures who do the bidding of Madhumati or are under her control. They are both crushed when they are taken out of the cage.


37. The first thing that Kalyani asks Narayan is whether he is gentry. Why does she do this and what does this say about her?

Suggested Response:

She has been prostituted to the gentry and if he were gentry she might have been with his father. This would make her much less acceptable to him. It tells us that while she is uneducated and innocent, she has some understanding about her situation.


38. What was the importance of the scene in which Kalyani insists that Narayan turn the boat around and take her back to the city?

Suggested Response:

She realizes that his house was one of the houses in which she had been prostituted. The client was his father. She didn’t think that she would be acceptable to Narayan or his family because of this. She came to realize that her dream of marriage to Narayan could not happen.


39. After Kalyani came back to the ashram from the boat ride with Narayan, believing that her future was hopeless, what opportunity did Madhumati offer her?

Suggested Response:

More prostitution. Madhumati told Kalyani to wait outside the ashram for Gulabi.


40. Why didn’t Kalyani wait outside the ashram for Gulabi rather than go to the river to commit suicide?

Suggested Response:

It’s one thing to be a prostitute if you’ve never known love, but to be a prostitute after you have known love must be intolerable. The only way that someone could do that would be to provide for children who would otherwise starve.


See also Standard Questions Suitable for Any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


41. It was the hope of the widows that they would be reborn a man. Why?

Suggested Response:

Men led easier lives. Men were ranked higher than women in the order of being. They were considered closer to reaching enlightenment. (Centuries ago there was a similar concept in Western thought called the Great Chain of Being.)


42. This movie shows people such as the widows and Chuyia’s father as helpless in the face of religious tradition. Was there really no alternative?

Suggested Response:

There is no one answer to the question. Think about Shakuntala at the end of the movie. She understands that widows are mistreated for economic reasons and she must be questioning her faith. But there is no place for her to go except back to the ashram, unless she jumps on the train, which she doesn’t do. If she had tried to live on her own, people would have shunned her. She probably would have starved to death.


43. Do you agree with Gandhi that “Truth is God” and that the pursuit of truth is invaluable?

Suggested Response:

This is a deeply religious question and there is no one correct answer. Which “truth” are we talking about? Gandhi considered himself to the a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew. He was talking about the fundamental truths of each of those religions.


44. Do you agree that the religious restrictions on widows are about money and not really a matter of religion?

Suggested Response:

The director of the movie certainly believes this. She subscribes to Gandhi’s belief that the restrictions on widows and women in general are a misinterpretation of the Vedas that serve the interests of a patriarchal society.


45. Put yourself in Madhumati’s shoes. She is responsible for the ashram. Begging doesn’t bring in enough money. The only other way to get money is prostitution. What do you do? (Note that the director of the movie reported that: rarely can people who run ashrams keep their desire for personal gain in check.)

Suggested Response:

This is not an easy question but the answer is to use your head, perhaps break a tradition or two, and try to make money some other way. Weave rugs at the ashram? But Madhumati was corrupted by her position, using it to obtain a bed, a mirror, drugs, and enough food to make her fat. The director meant that usually operators of the widows’ ashrams succumb to their greed and take money away from the widows.


46. In “Water”, what is being done in the name of religion that is corrupt?

Suggested Response:

(1) prostitution and (2) Madhumati lives in the ashram but doesn’t have to comply with the rules. She has plenty of food (how else was she so fat?), buys drugs, has a bed and has a mirror in her room.


47. Did you see any similarities between Hindu religious practices shown in this movie and Western religious practices?

Suggested Response:

Christians and Hindus use prayer beads. They both have strict regime religious communities. There is some corruption in both. There are patriarchal elements in both, but in the last hundred years they have become less prominent in most Western religions.


48. Critics of religions have said that many times faith is used to induce people to accept their repression. How does that statement apply to the situation shown by this movie?

Suggested Response:

Faith is used to get the widows to accept their own oppression.


49. How does Narayan’s father justify his actions? Is he a hypocrite?

Suggested Response:

He tells his son that since he is a Brahman the widows are blessed for having slept with him. But he is a “liberal thinker” and should know better. His son sees him as a selfish, abusive, hypocrite.


50. One of the characters says of Kalyani, “God willing she’ll be reborn a man.” What did she mean by this?

Suggested Response:

In patriarchal societies men have it easier than women. In India this is especially true for widows. In addition, being born a male is believed to be a higher birth, closer to heaven, closer to escape from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. 51. The priest says that “it is ignorance that is our misfortune.” How does that play out in this movie? Suggested Response: It is the widows’ ignorance that allows them to accept their miserable lives. It is Kalyani’s ignorance of the possibilities of her life, possibilities that Narayan sees, that leads her to feel she has no way out and to commit suicide.

For Gandhi “Truth is God.” That truth leads him to the basic moral imperatives of his religion, which are love and respect for others. (Indeed these are the basic moral imperatives of every religion. All other ethical precepts flow from love and respect.) For Gandhi, there was no conflict between religion and conscience because he always took religion down to basic ethical principles. Gandhi was willing to ignore less important religious traditions if they interfered with fundamental truths. The fundamental truth that applied to widows was that no one should be forced to live a life without love. The fundamental truth relating to widows forced into prostitution or sexually abused, like Kalyani and Chuyia was that they should be respected. (These are also the thoughts that power Shakuntala’s crisis of conscience.) When traditions caused a violation of basic moral precepts such as love and respect, Gandhi was willing to jettison traditions even when those traditions were based on holy texts that had been honored for thousands of years. Eventually, Shakuntala came to the same conclusion and put Chuyia on the train.


52. Do you fault Kalyani for becoming a prostitute?

Suggested Response:

She had little choice and was probably first prostituted when she was a very young child, like Chuyia.


53. The basic colors in the film are muted greens and blues. Why is that?

Suggested Response:

These are the colors of water. The colors are also a commentary on the drab and deprived lives of the widows and their lack of hope. The one holiday shown is one that celebrates color.


Comparison with the United States

Note: Can it be said that citizens in the U.S. have benefitted from Gandhi’s teachings and moral example? The answer is, yes! Through Martin Luther King, James Lawson, and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement African-Americans sought equal rights by reawakening the ethical impulses of the white majority and by putting economic pressure on white businesses so that eventually it was whites along with the protesters who demanded an end to segregation. (See Learning Guide to “A Force More Powerful”.) The alternative was violent racial strife. As for other minorities in America, the African-American Civil Rights Movement paved the way for demands of equal rights and fair treatment. While American society is not perfect in the way that it treats minorities, the gains of most minority populations, particularly Hispanics and Native Americans, can be traced to the gains made by black Americans, which were secured in large part through the use of Gandhian techniques of non-violent mass action.
The following three questions should be asked together.


1. This film describes a serious problem in traditional Indian society. Has the U.S. had any similar problems in the past? Have these problems been fully corrected?

Suggested Response:

Here are a few examples: slavery; the refusal to grant women equal rights; failure to ensure that all children are well cared for; intolerance of the religions of others; and racism (directed against African-Americans, Asians, Native Americans, Jews, Filipinos, Hispanics etc.). Slavery has been abolished. Religious intolerance is very low and limited to the fringes. The situation with the other problems are tremendously improved, but they still exist in varying degrees.


2. This movie describes a serious problem in traditional Indian society. Does the U.S. have any similar problems today? If so, do you know of someone personally who is trying to correct these problems?

Suggested Response:

Here are a few examples: first there are the problems listed in the answer to the preceding question that have not been completely eradicated. We could add the following: indifference to the plight of the homeless; lack of medical care for poor children; the way AIDS patients have been ostracized; rampant consumerism; and the abandonment of traditional ethical values. Animal rights activists point out that the way animals are treated in factory farms is cruel and inhumane. As Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Isaac Bashevis Singer, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature said that for the animals it’s an eternal holocaust and that for them we are the Nazis.


3. Can you think of any American leader who has done as much for his country and for the world as Mahatma Gandhi?

Suggested Response:

There are four possibilities and there is an interesting thread of American history that runs between them.

(a) George Washington was the father of the U.S. (as Gandhi was the father of an independent India). Washington was so loved by the American people that he probably could have been the first king of the U.S. Washington’s commitment to democracy was an example to his nation. Washington has also had a profound effect on political leaders throughout the world. Washington was the first leader of his time (and perhaps the first leader of a large country) to voluntarily relinquish power. He retired from public life twice. The first time was after the Revolution when he resigned from command of the Continental Army and went home to farm at Mount Vernon. The second was after he had been called back from retirement to serve as president. Washington refused to run for a third term and retired again. Up to that time, no other leader of a major country had voluntarily walked away from power. Washington’s actions acknowledged the primacy of the democratic political process over the ambitions of one man. These were important actions which established a pattern for leaders to voluntarily relinquish power in favor of the democratic process. However, Washington had some problems; first among them was that he and the other Founding Fathers were part of the bargain between North and South that allowed slavery to persist. (One of the reasons the Southern colonies wanted independence from Great Britain was that they saw that Britain was about to abolish slavery. They would not join the Revolution unless slavery was protected in the new country.) In addition, Washington himself owned slaves.

(b) Abraham Lincoln is another possibility. He led the U.S. during the Civil War which can be described as the convulsive rejection of the bargain with the great evil of slavery that had permitted unity at the time of the Revolution. Some historians believe Lincoln presided over a second founding of the country. When Lincoln was elected president, he was willing to adhere to the bargain with great evil. He believed that slavery should be permitted in those states in which it then existed. However, he was not willing to extend slavery to new states and territories. He held this position through most of the Civil War when the U.S. needed the allegiance of the border states. But after black soldiers distinguished themselves on the battlefield and became an important asset to the Union cause (see Learning Guide to “Glory”), after Lincoln had met Frederick Douglass, and after Lincoln sought a rationale to justify the incredibly high casualty rates among soldiers in the Civil War, he realized that slavery had to be abolished. (Note that long before the Civil War, slavery had been recognized as immoral and was prohibited by the nations of Western Europe. But then again, European nations didn’t have an entire section that depended on slave labor to grow its most important crop.) By proving that the leading democracy in the world could keep from splintering apart and could abolish a great evil that had penetrated to its very core, Lincoln demonstrated the viability and immense moral capacity of democracy.

(c) The third possible leader of the U.S. to do for his country something similar to what Gandhi did for India, is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A hundred years after the Civil War, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement began to confront the last vestiges of the bargain with great evil, first struck at the Constitutional Convention back in 1787. Dr. King led a campaign which relied on Gandhian principles of non-violent civil disobedience and non-violent mass action. The U.S. Civil Rights Movement allowed blacks to gain rights and self-respect. It also spurred whites to rid themselves of an inconsistency between their beliefs and their actions. (This was very much like what Gandhi tried to do in relation to the Untouchables of India.) Dr. King’s leadership had worldwide implications, because it demonstrated that Gandhian principles of non-violent mass action worked in situations other than the independence of India. (The U.S. has still not achieved full racial equality, but it has made great strides. The four great leaders mentioned in this answer (Gandhi, Washington, Lincoln and King), and the millions who worked with them, have given Americans everything they need to remove all vestiges of the bargain with the great evil that helped give birth to the U.S. and which set the modern world on the path toward democracy. It’s up to the people to finish that work.)

(d) A fourth possibility is Franklin Delano Roosevelt because of his role in helping America weather the Great Depression and leading the Allies to victory in World War. Another candidate is Thomas Jefferson.


Other Discussion Questions for a History Class

4. When Narayan tells his mother that he has found a wife on his own, the first thing that Narayan’s mother asks him is whether she is dark or fair skinned. What was that about?

Suggested Response:

Especially during the British Raj, Indians with lighter skin were thought to be superior to Indians with darker skin. The director tells us in the movie voiceover that this prejudice has now been pretty much erased in India. However, there are vast parts of the world where this prejudice still holds sway.


5. In this movie do you see a swastika? Where was it? What does it signify?

Suggested Response:

There are swastikas on the doorposts of the widows’ ashram. It is a right facing version. The Nazi swastika was left facing. The swastika, both right and left facing versions, are ancient religious symbols of Hinduism and several other religions. In Hindu versions, there is often a dot within each quadrant. It is considered an auspicious sign and adorns many temples. It is also used on jewelry and in books. The Nazis took the left facing version of the swastika for the symbol of their political party. The Hindu swastika has nothing to do with the Nazis.

See also questions under Human Rights in the Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions below and the discussion questions on Religion, above.



1. Why is he treatment of widows in India a human rights issue?

Suggested Response:

Because it is class-based discrimination that causes suffering.



2. Kalyani felt that she had nowhere to go and committed suicide. Was this feeling reasonable?

Suggested Response:

It may have been reasonable for her to believe this in her situation, especially since she must have been very upset. But if she had gone to the tree at the temple and waited for Narayan, as she did the first time she left the ashram, he would have found her there and she would have lived.


3. What does this film tell us about the great flaw of suicide?

Suggested Response:

Suicide is committed by people who feel that they have no way out. This decision is usually made in times of great stress and, in fact, is often simply wrong. The problem with suicide is that if you’re successful and later on other facts come out that show that there was a way out, it’s too late. In addition, there is always a way out, a way to redeem yourself, a way to get relief from suffering. People who commit suicide are simply too upset or too limited to find them.



4. Three people are shown in this film who try to break out from the life that society expects them to lead. Who are they and what is their act of breaking out?

Suggested Response:

Kalyani, who tries to remarry; Shakuntala, who saves Chuyia; and Narayan, who becomes a follower of Gandhi and tries to marry a widow and former prostitute.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)


1. What is wrong with the way that Madhumati treats Kalyani?

Suggested Response:

She doesn’t respect Kalyani as a person. She treats her like a farm animal that is to be rented out to others. After all, would Madhumati have wanted to be prostituted out when she was younger? Maybe that’s what happened to her and that’s part of the problem.



(Play by the rules; Take turns and share; Be open-minded; listen to others; Don’t take advantage of others; Don’t blame others carelessly)


2. What parts of this Pillar of Character conflict in this story?

Suggested Response:

Society is playing by the rules. Even the widows accept these rules. But the rules allow society to take advantage of the widows and prevent the widows from self-realization in this life.



(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)


3. People on the street would often give money to the widows and think that they were being caring. Were they?

Suggested Response:

Certainly, the act of helping the widows out was a caring thing to do but more needed to be done. The point of the movie is that society needs to readjust itself so that the widows have a better life. It is the same way with the homeless in the U.S. If you give them a few dollars, it may make you feel better, but, as a society, we need to make adjustments so that there are places for these people to live. If they are ill, mentally or physically, there need to be treatment programs for them.


Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:


1. Select one of the following quotes attributed to Mahatma Gandhi and write an informal essay in which you explain the quote and show how its meaning could help solve both personal and social problems with which you are familiar.

  • When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won.
  • There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall – think of it– always.
  • What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?
  • God is Truth . . . [many years later] . . . Truth is God.
  • I cannot teach you violence, as I do not myself believe in it. I can only teach you not to bow your heads before any one even at the cost of your life.
  • An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
  • Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary.
  • I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.


2. Write an opinion essay on what you think about one of the following topics presented in the film. Use direct reference to characters, dialogue or events in the film to support your opinion.

  • What happens when traditional beliefs that are held to be basic tenets of faith conflict with conscience?
  • Can oppression and abuse of women in a patriarchal society continue in modern times?
  • Can someone forced to live in corruption, like Kalyani, retain her integrity? Note that Kalyani didn’t think so, which is why she committed suicide.
  • What attributes of character enable an individual to rebel against oppression, as did Shakuntala in handing off Chuyia to Gandhi train at the film’s end?


3. The plot of the movie consists of three stories: The first is the tale of Chuyia, the child widow; the second is the Kalyani/Narayan romance, and the third is the story of Shakuntala’s crisis of faith. Write an analytical essay in which you show that the combination of these three stories illuminate important themes, morals or ideas that are found by looking carefully at conflict and resolution in each separate story.


4. Research and write an expository essay about water as a symbol in the world’s cultures, religions, myths and literature. Apply your insights to this film and illuminate the symbolic value water holds in terms of the characters and how they change in the story.


5. There are a number of ironic situations and comments in the film. Select three from the following list and write an essay in which you explain how the particular irony leads to an important lesson in itself. Be persuasive in your responses as if you may would need to defend challenges to your ideas.

(1) Ironies surround the character of Kalyani. She is innocent, angelic, and a prostitute. She is shunned by the other widows in the ashram because her presence would pollute their food, but it is the income she earns for the ashram which buys their food and pays their rent.

(2) The ashram is supposed to be a place of religious purity where the occupants can be closer to god, yet it prostitutes its young girls. Although expected to devote their lives to prayer, widows are often driven to prostitution because of society’s neglect.

(3) When Kalyani gives her savings (obviously tips from her clients) for the cremation of the old widow, Madhumati comments: “What a Goddess!”

(4) When Chuyia asks where the houses for the widowed men are, the widows react in horror, asking god to preserve their men from such a terrible fate. The irony is that the widows should be reacting to their own fate with the same horror, but they do not.

(5) Narayan’s mother wanted him to marry early and to have a daughter Chuyia’s age by the time he meets Kalyani. At the end of the movie, a few days later, Narayan has Chuyia to take care of as a daughter.

(6) Narayan and his friend Rabindra are talking about Romeo and Juliet, with its famous balcony scene, as Kalyani is being taken up the steps to a sort of balcony for a sexual encounter with Rabindra’s father.

(7) Madhumati, the leader of the ashram, who should be an example of faith and goodness to the other widows, is fat, takes drugs, has a bed and a mirror, and functions as a madam.

(8) The character of Gulabi, the instrument of corruption, is the one who introduces the audience to Gandhi’s positions of ethics and purity.

For additional assignments, click here.

6. Change the ending so that Kalyani did wait for Narayan under the tree near the temple. What happened when he came to find her?


7. Change the ending so that Kalyani went with Gulabi as instructed by Madhumati. What happened when Narayan came to find her?


8. Write an essay comparing the treatment of widows in sub-Saharan Africa with the treatment of widows in India.


9. Write an essay on the current state of widows in India.


10. Apply the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the treatment of widows in India and the Declaration of the Rights of the Child.


See Additional Assignments for use with any Film that is a Work of Fiction.



Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.


Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening:

Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.


Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.


A novel of the same name based on the script for the film was written by Bapsi Sidhwa. See also Mohandas Gandhi: Power of the Spirit by Victoria Sherrow.



The websites which are linked in the Guide.

This Learning Guide was written by James Frieden, Mary RedClay and Deborah W. Elliott.

It was last revised on September 23, 2012.

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TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.


Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.


Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.


nationalist, non-violent mass action, civil disobedience, passive resistance, Congress (as in the Indian National Congress), ashram, swastika, reincarnation, Vedas, Mahatma, Bapu, Untouchable, Harijan, Brahman, ascetic, British Raj.

The director of this movie, Deepa Mehta, asserts that the claims of Hindu fundamentalists that the Hindu scriptures (the “Vedas”) require the caste system, male domination, subjugation of women, and mistreatment of widows are misinterpretations of the ancient Hindu texts. In this, she follows the teachings of Gandhi. Unfortunately, hundreds of millions in India have not yet absorbed Gandhi’s message.

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