The film is set in a small village in Rajasthan, India. It tells the story of a woman named Shanichari, who was abandoned by her mother shortly after her father's death. Bad fortune follows her throughout her life.
The title is a reference to a custom in certain areas of Rajasthan where women of a lower caste are hired as professional mourners upon the death of upper-caste males. These women are referred to as a "rudaali" (roo-dah-lee), literally translated as "female weeper" or "weeping woman". Their job is to publicly express grief of family members who are not permitted to display emotion due to social status.
As the narrative begins, the dying zamindar/ Thakur (translation: landlord) (Amjad Khan) of the desert village of Barna has been shifted from his mansion to an outbuilding and is performing the rite of godaan or gifting a cow to a brahman. Anticipating his imminent death, and realizing that none of his close relatives are likely to mourn him, he summons a rudaali named Bhikni (Rakhee) from a nearby town. While waiting for her client to die, Bhikni temporarily lodges in the modest home of Shanichari (Dimple Kapadia), a widow whose life has been plagued by misfortune. Born on a Saturday (a bad-luck day ruled by the malefic planet Shanichar or Saturn), the ill-omened girl child was blamed by villagers for the untimely death of her father, and then for her own abandonment by her mother, Peewli, who ran off to join a nautanki folk theatre troupe. The tale of Shanichari’s life, told to the sympathetic Bhikni, unfolds in a series of flashbacks.
Shanichari’s early marriage to a drunkard named Ganju ends abruptly when her husband succumbs to an outbreak of plague at a village fair. She is left with a son, Budhua (played as an adult by Raghuveer Yadav), whom she adores, though she realizes that he has inherited her mother’s penchant for irresponsible wandering. Her poverty is relieved somewhat by employment at the zamindar’s haveli (mansion) after the master’s son, Lakshman Singh (Raj Babbar) takes a fancy to her. She attends on his spoiled but strictly secluded wife, and periodically converses with her benefactor, who lectures her on social equality and urges her to “look up” into his eyes when speaking to him. This romance leads to the master’s gift to Shanichari, one night after a singing performance, of her own house and two acres of land—a gesture that offers her a modicum of financial security within the village.
One day, Budhua brings home a pregnant young prostitute, Mungri (Sushmita Mukherjee) as his wife. Their marriage is brief, as the quarrelsome Mungri aborts their child, Shanichari’s hoped-for grandson. Budhua then runs away from home.
Shanichari’s painful reminiscences of these trials—throughout which, she says, she has never been able to shed a tear—alternate with scenes in the present, depicting her growing bond with Bhikni.
On the very night of the old zamindar’s long-awaited death, Bhikni is called over to meet Bhimdata from the neighbouring village. As Shanichari bids adieu to Lakshman Singh, who plans to leave the village after his father's death, a messenger comes from Bhimdata. The messenger tells her of Bhikni's untimely death due to the plague, and of how in her dying breath she had asked Shanichari to be informed of how she was actually Peewli, her mother. This unleashes Shanichari’s pent-up emotions and transforms her, too, into a rudaali.Dimple Kapadia as Shanichari
Amjad Khan as Ram Avtar, the zamindaar
Raj Babbar as Lakshman Singh, Ram Avtar's son
Rakhee as Bhikni, a rudaali
Raghuveer Yadav as an adult Budhua
Sushmita Mukherjee as Mungri, Budhua's wife
Dimple Kapadia won a National Film Award for her role of Shanichari in the film. Khan died before the film's release, and the film is dedicated to him in the beginning credits. Samir Chanda won National Film Award for Best Art Direction. Simple Kapadia won the National Film Award for Best Costume Design.
The film has music by folk musician Bhupen Hazarika.
All lyrics written by Gulzar; all music composed by Bhupen Hazarika.