Dusyanta, a king in northern India, is racing along in his chariot, preparing to shoot a deer. Suddenly, a forest-dwelling ascetic warns him not to shoot, since the deer belongs to the nearby hermitage of Kanva, a great sage. The ascetic invites King Dusyanta to visit the hermitage, which is under his royal protection. He explains that Kanva isn’t home, but the sage’s daughter, Shakuntala, is receiving guests.
When the King enters the hermitage, he notices Shakuntala and her two friends, Anasuya and Priyamvada, watering the sacred trees. He hides in the shadows to observe them, instantly drawn to Shakuntala’s beauty. When Dusyanta reveals his presence, a flustered Shakuntala is immediately attracted to him, too. Though Shakuntala is modest and shy, the King questions Shakuntala’s friends about her and offers her his signet ring.
Before the King has to concoct a reason to linger near the hermitage, he’s asked to protect the ascetics from evil spirits in Kanva’s absence. He quickly dispels the demons, then overhears Shakuntala, who’s desperately lovesick, confiding her feelings for him to her friends. When Shakuntala recites a love poem she’s composed for him, he emerges from hiding and openly declares his love for her. Their mutual declarations effectively constitute a secret marriage. Before long, Shakuntala is pregnant.
After Dusyanta is forced to return to his capital, Shakuntala is so distracted that she unintentionally offends Durvasas, a short-tempered sage, when he visits the hermitage. Durvasas puts a curse on her that will cause Dusyanta to forget Shakuntala, but when Priyamvada intercedes, he grants that the sight of a memento—the signet ring—will lift the curse. After Kanva returns, he celebrates Shakuntala’s good fortune and sends her to join her husband, escorted by seers.
In the capital, when Dusyanta receives word that a party from Kanva’s hermitage is on its way, he is surprised and uneasy. To Shakuntala’s grief, the baffled and defensive King denies having any connection with her. When she tries to show him the signet ring as a reminder, she discovers it’s missing from her finger. Dusyanta relents and agrees to house Shakuntala until she gives birth, but before he can do so, Shakuntala is spirited away to the celestial realm by nymphs.
A poor fisherman discovers the King’s signet ring in the belly of a fish and is threatened with execution, but he is let go with a reward after the King, seeing the ring and remembering everything, corroborates his story. Soon thereafter, Sanumati, a nymph and friend of Shakuntala’s mother, spies at the palace to find out why the spring festival has been canceled. She learns that the King, overwhelmed by depression and remorse over Shakuntala, has forbidden the celebration. Dusyanta continues to obsess over the situation until Matali, the god Indra’s charioteer, appears at the palace and takes him away on an urgent mission to fight demons.
Six years pass. King Dusyanta has successfully vanquished the demons and been duly honored by Indra. When Matali and the King tour the earth in a flying chariot, they descend to visit Marica’s hermitage, a celestial realm of the demigods. Here the King is astonished to meet a little boy who greatly resembles him. When he picks up the boy’s protective amulet—able to be touched only by the boy and his parents—he confirms that the boy, Sarvadamana, is indeed his child, the prophesied world ruler. Then Shakuntala enters, and, though it takes her a moment to recognize the King, they are soon tearfully reunited. The three of them talk with Marica the sage, and he explains Durvasas’s curse, telling the couple not to blame themselves or one another. Marica confirms Sarvadamana’s destiny and blesses the family, sending them home to live in Dusyanta’s court.