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SUBJECTS — World/India; Religions/Hinduism; ELA: symbol and irony
               (foreshadowing, character dev.,subplot & foils in
               supplemental materials);
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.

Description: 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.

Rationale for Using the Movie: 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.

Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide:

    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.

Possible Problems: 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.



Rationale and Objectives
Possible Problems
Parenting Points

Using the Movie in Class:
      Before Showing the Film
      Discussion Questions



Pre-Viewing Enrichment worksheet
     India - Geography
     Hindu Religion and Indian Culture
     Mahatma Gandhi
     Widows in India Today

     Notes on Literary Elements
     History Curriculum Standards


ELA Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions - Hinudism in this film

History Discussion Questions
     Comparison to the United States
     Other Questions

Other Discussion Questions
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Additional Assignments

Other Sections:
      Bridges To Reading
      Links to the Internet
      CCSS Anchor Standards
      Selected Awards & Cast

MOVIE WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students' minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film. 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.


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 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.


Discussion Questions:

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.

For more than 50 additional discussion questions relating to theme, literary devices and the historical context of this movie, click here.


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.


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Parenting Points: 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.

Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.

Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.

Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

A great question for history classes:

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

Click here for this and three other history discussion questions.

Discussion questions on character development,subplot and foils are contained in the Supplemental Materials.

BUILDING VOCABULARY: 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.

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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