It's from Canada, but the setting is India and the language is Hindi. In 1938 an old man dies. His 8-year-old bride Chuiya, who was married young enough that she doesn't even remember it, is left a widow. In accordance with a particularly brutal, cruel Hindu custom, she is then consigned to spend the rest of her life as a prisoner in an ashram with other widows of various ages, required to wear only white, keep a shaved head, keep a vow of chastity, and live a life of seclusion.
The ashram is a not particularly pleasant convent/prison, where the widows live in deprivation and poverty. A couple of the widows take Chuiya under their wing. One is Shakuntala, a middle-aged woman who looks after Chuiya while trying to help her adapt to her harsh new life in the ashram. The other is Kalyani, a younger, attractive widow who is the only woman in the ashram allowed to wear her hair long. Why is she allowed to wear her hair long? Because Madhumati, the older woman who has assumed leadership of the ashram, is sending Kalyani out as a prostitute.
Kalyani meets Narayan, a handsome, serious-minded upper-class student, and a supporter of the Indian independence movement and Mahatma Gandhi. Despite the social gulf between them and the religious prohibition against widows getting remarried, they get engaged. But Narayan doesn't know that his father was one of Kalyani's Johns.
- Belief Makes You Stupid: The women of the ashram, while hating their miserable lives, hardly question the religious doctrine that forces them there. When a perceptive Chuyia wonders why male widows aren't forced to live the rest of their lives in confinement, the other women hoot her down. Towards the end Narayan tells a despairing Shakuntala the truth, that the real reason widows are shut up in ashrams is to save their in-laws the money required to support them.Narayan: One less mouth to feed. Four saris saved, one bed, and a corner is saved in the family home. There is no other reason you are here. Disguised as religion, it's just about money.
- Bittersweet Ending: Kalyani kills herself. Chuyia is raped. Shakuntala's fate is completely up in the air. But at least Chuyia escapes a lifetime of confinement in the ashram, and within a decade, India will win its independence.
- Defector from Decadence: Naryani's father suggests that he marry a fellow Brahmin (the ruling class) and keep Kalyani as a mistress. He justifies his use of prostitutes by saying that Brahmin men can sleep with any woman they want and the women they have sex with are "blessed". After Kalyani drowns herself Narayan decides that he's had enough. Narayan tells his father that he's disgusting, then leaves the family mansion to join Gandhi's party, boarding the train that takes Gandhi away at the end.
- Dramatic Drop: Chuyia is sent off to fetch holy water from the Ganges as elderly Auntie is dying. She comes back with her golden bowl only to find that she is too late and Auntie has died. She dramatically drops her bowl to the floor.
- End of an Age: Narayan tells Kalyani that "all the old traditions are dying out." This is a theme of the movie, which shows India slowly and painfully entering the modern era, struggling for independence while people struggle against old traditions like the immersion of widows.
- Establishing Character Moment: Madhumati in her first appearance says that Chuyia needs to be gagged and calls Kunti a whore. She's firmly established as mean.
- The Faceless: The rich man who rapes 8-year-old Chuiya is seen only briefly, completely in shadow, smoking a cigarette in a holder.
- Fat Bastard: Madhumati, the evil leader of the women in the ashram who exploits the others for her own gain, is morbidly obese. This is an overt signal of her evil as it is established that while the women of the ashram aren't exactly starving, there isn't a whole bunch of food; meals are meager and occasionally they have to fast. In one scene Madhumati's servant Kunti is shown wolfing down several handfuls of food off of Madhumati's dinner plate before bringing said dinner to her mistress.
- Foreign Culture Fetish: Narayan's cheerful friend Rabinder really likes the British. He thinks they're good rulers of India, he enjoys their poetry and sometimes rattles off Shakespeare and Byron, he sprinkles his conversation with Gratuitous English, and he dislikes Gandhi and the independence movement.Narayan: You really are a brown Englishman.
- Insignia Ripoff Ritual: In the first scene Chuiya's bracelets, which unbeknownst to her were a symbol of her marriage, are broken and removed.
- Karma Houdini: Nothing happens to Madhumati for being generally cruel and vicious, for prostituting Kalyani, and worst of all sending off an 8-year-old girl to be raped. Of course, she is still trapped in an ashram.
- Meet Cute: Kalyani and Narayan meet when she wrings out a towel over a balcony, and splatters Narayan who is walking below.
- Mystical 108: Kalyani tells Chuiya to pray to Krishna 108 times to leave the ashram. When Chuiya admits she can't count past ten, Kalyani gives her a rosary with 108 beads on it.
- Old Man Marrying a Child: Chuiya was so young when she was married to an old man that she doesn't even remember it.
- One-Word Title: As a part of Idiosyncratic Episode Naming in Classical Element style of other movies, Fire, and Earth1998, but presumably because Kalyani drowns, and there's a Dramatic Drop of water collection, where Chuyia is sent off to fetch holy water from the Ganges as elderly Auntie is dying. She comes back with her golden bowl only to find that she is too late and Auntie has died. She dramatically drops her bowl to the floor.
- Out with a Bang: Madhumati claims that she is a widow because her husband met his death while on top of her.
- Shout-Out to Shakespeare: When Rabinder sees Madhumati's eunuch on a balcony, waiting for a prostitute (Kalyani) to finish servicing Rabinder's father, he sarcastically quotes "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?"
- Suicide by Sea: After realizing that Narayan's father was one of her clients and that this is an insurmountable obstacle to their being together, Kalyani drowns herself in the Ganges.
- Taking the Veil: The Indian equivalent of shutting a woman up in a monastery. Widows are required to live with other widows in ashrams, never to remarry, never even to leave.
- Train-Station Goodbye: After Chuiya is raped, Shakuntala rescues her. She goes to the train station where Gandhi gives a speech. As the train is pulling away she and Narayan spot each other, and Shakuntala, now trotting, hands over Chuiya to Narayan. She then watches as the train pulls away and the film ends.
- Traumatic Haircut: Multiple:
- Chuiya has all her hair shaved off before entering the ashram. It may not quite be traumatic as she doesn't know what's in store for her, but she doesn't like it.
- A more overt example with Kalyani. Kalyani is allowed to wear her hair long because she is basically a Sex Slave in Madhumati's employ and the long hair makes her a more attractive prostitute. When Kalyani says that she is leaving the ashram to marry Narayan, an enraged Madhumati hacks off most of Kalyani's hair with shears before locking her in her room.
- Virgin in a White Dress: Variation. All widows confined to the ashram are required to wear only white as a symbol of their chastity. When Kalyani leaves the ashram with Narayan he asks her what color she will wear first: she chooses blue.