By mithun shetty(21 Aug 2009)
The film opens with an arrogant subedar(Naseruddin shah) (local tax collector in colonial India) and his soldiers rampaging through a village. The subedar has an eye for women and soon spots Sonbai (Smita patil) on the riverbank. Sonbai is an intelligent, beautiful and strong woman. Her confidence intrigues the subedar.
The film moves deeper into the village. The subedar holds ultimate authority over the village. Subservient to him is the mukhi (Suresh oberoi) and all the villagers. The villagers do their best to scratch out a living, of which the subedar invariably exacts a heavy tax. We learn also that the villagers are mostly illiterate and ignorant of the outside world. The subedar and his men routinely attack the village and raid the food, livestock and supplies.
The subedar is a haughty and cruel man. He exploits his power in every possible way. The villagers are compelled to keep him satisfied; they regularly set up parties for him and his men, often at great expense to their meager means. They also arrange a steady supply of women for his pleasure.
The mukhi means well but is generally weak and powerless before the subedar. His principal goals are to negotiate concessions to the tax and to keep the subedar happy. The safety and security of the village are mostly dependent on the moods of the subedar, and so he tacitly arranges to keep the subedar sated and out of his way. The mukhi also represents the prevailing male attitude in the village: women are mostly confined to their homes and have no education. The other character in village life is the school master. He is a Gandhian and a reformer, and hopes the village may someday be liberated from the shackles of the likes of the subedar.
Things take a turn when Sonbai's husband gets a job in the city. Inspite of Sonbai's demands to stay, he leaves for the city in search of a better future for his family. Around this time, the subedar comes across Sonbai a few more times. On one such occasion he boldly asks her to yield to his desires. Equally bold, she slaps him straight across his face. She flees immediately with the soldiers in hot pursuit. She takes refuge in a masala karkhana (factory where red chillies are ground into powder). Abu Mian (Om puri), the wizened old guard of the factory admits Sonbai and slams the factory doors shut in the nick of time.
The soldiers try to coax and cajole Abu Mian into opening the door. When this fails, they try to trick (he sees through the trick) and then threaten his life. Abu Mian stands his ground and refuses to open the door. The subedar tries to get the factory owner to reason with Abu Mian. This turns out to be fruitless. Abu Mian refuses to compromise on his job of providing security to the factory employees.
The matter is escalated. The mukhi convenes the village panchayat. The villagers are quick to condemn Sonbai and decide that she must turn herself over to the subdedar. The schoolmaster (benajmin gilani) opposes this view; once they give in for one woman, he says, there will be nothing to stop the subedar from demanding others, even perhaps the mukhi's own wife. (He is immediately thrashed for this.) The panchayat is dissolved and the mukhi reports back to the subedar. They will hand over Sonbai on the condition the subedar will not make further demands of this nature. The subedar laughs off this condition and has the schoolmaster thrashed soundly again. He asks the mukhi to reason with Sonbai; her obstinacy is liable to bring trouble to the entire village.
The mukhi brings pressure on Sonbai but she stands firm. Within the factory, the women who once supported Sonbai now turn upon her. They fear that if she does not yield then the subedar may send his men to indiscriminately molest the womenfolk. Sonbai nearly relents, but is stopped by Abu Mian. She resolves to stand firm. Abu Mian chides the mukhi and the villagers: they may lord over their wives at home, but are not man enough to face the subedar, leaving Abu Mian himself as the only man in the village who has the courage to back his convictions.
The subedar orders his soldiers to charge the factory. They smash down the door. Abu Mian manages to shoot one of the soldiers, but he is shot dead immediately after. The subedar enters the factory and tries to grab Sonbai. The women of the factory mount a sudden and surprising defense. They attack the subedar with fistfuls of mirch masala (fresh ground red chilli powder). The film ends with the subedar on his knees, screaming in pain as the masala burns his face and eyes.