The film's prologue takes place in a field of flowers. Radha (Karishma Jhalani
), a young girl, relaxes with her mother (Ramanjeet Kaur
) and her father (Dilip Mehta
). Radha's mother tells a story of a group of people living in mountains who'd never seen the sea. They were sad, and then an old woman told them they had to see without looking. Radha's mother asks her if she understands. Radha says no.
In the present, Sita (Nandita Das
) stands with a bunch of visitors in front of a tour guide, looking at the Taj Mahal. The tour guide explains how Shah Jahan's wife made him promise to build this monument as a symbol of their love. Sita's husband Jatin (Javed Jaffrey
) joins the group. He and Sita are in an arranged marriage and they don't get along. Sita asks Jatin, "Don't you like me?" He responds that they've only been married for three days.
In her home, the now adult Radha (Shabana Azmi
) cares for her mother-in-law, Biji (Kushal Rekhi
), who's suffered a stroke, cannot talk and barely moves around. Radha powders her back, clothes her, and gives her a bell, which she uses to communicate with. Radha lives here with Biji and her husband Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda
), and the family operates a restaurant downstairs with a video store next to it.
Jatin and Sita arrive at the house. Jatin and Ashok are brothers. The family talks. Jatin leaves for an appointment. Radha takes Sita to her room, explaining that when Biji rings her bell, she needs something. In her room, Sita puts on a pair of jeans and dances to music. Radha opens Sita's door, taking her by surprise. The two women go into the main room where Biji is. Biji rings her bell, disturbed by the sight of Sita in the jeans. Sita goes back to her room to change clothes.
Meanwhile, Jatin paints his Chinese-Indian girlfriend Julie's (Alice Poon
) toenails. He tells her that he cannot live without her.
Ashok sits with a group of followers of his religious leader/swami, Swamiji (Ram Gopal Bajaj
), who talks to them. Ashok says one should test oneself against temptation until desire leaves the body.
Ashok and Radha work at the restaurant with Sita helping. Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry
), the family's manservant, carries Biji, who likes watching them work, upstairs. Ashok tells Sita that when she has a baby, caring for it will become her full-time job. Sita wonders why this subject matter came up. Radha explains to her that she cannot have a baby.
Upstairs, Mundu jerks off in front of the reposed Biji to a porno movie. Biji moans in disturbance. Mundu tells her to shut up. Sita comes in and Mundu manages to compose himself, not getting caught. Sita sees that Biji's disturbed. Mundu talks about the program he has on the TV, wherein the goddess Sita's purity is being tested.
Jatin tells Ashok that he felt he had no choice in marrying Sita, due to his nagging. Jatin accuses Ashok of doing everything he does for Swamiji. Ashok hits Jatin. A few moments later, Ashok tells Radha to forgive him, saying to her, "My choices have made life difficult for you." Radha responds, "What is there to forgive?"
That night, Jatin and Sita have sex for the first time - a loveless, mechanical act. Jatin lies back and goes to sleep. Sita cleans her blood off of the bed's sheet.
The next day or so, Jatin and Sita talk. He suggests that she find something to do. They argue. Sita tells him he should not leave his picture of Julie laying around.
The family is about to clean up downstairs. Ashok gives Radha and Jatin some money. Jatin asks how long Ashok will support Swamiji. Ashok says Swamiji doesn't ask for money; he gives to Swamiji willingly.
That night, Ashok lies in a bed next to Radha, testing himself to see if he will be tempted by her sexuality. She gets up and asks him if she could have children, would he need her? He says, probably not. Ashok tells Radha that by helping him with his tests, she's doing her duty as his wife.
Sita and Radha meet on the roof of the building that Ashok's family lives in. Sita says Jatin has gone to meet his girlfriend. In the street below, a marriage ceremony takes place.
Later, Radha finds Sita crying in her room. Sita says she wants to go home. Radha comforts Sita. Sita kisses her on the mouth and Radha leaves.
In the field from the prologue, Radha's mom cries. She tells young Radha to look at the fields and what they've become. Radha says they look the same. Radha's mom says, "Close your eyes." Young Radha answers, "I still can't see."
That night, Radha gets up and looks at the sleeping Ashok in his separate bed. Elsewhere, Jatin and Julie talk for awhile, then they kiss passionately.
Radha and Sita have tea together and talk. Sita says that someone can push a button on her back marked tradition, and she will respond.
Radha and Sita fast together. Radha tells a story of a king, a queen and a maidservant to Sita and Mundu that ends with the queen fasting in order to win back her husband's love. Radha explains that the women fast to prove how much they love their husbands. Sita says the queen was a wimp and the king was a jerk. Radha summarizes that the queen didn't have many choices.
Radha and Sita finish the ceremony on the roof of the building they live in. Biji sleeps in her bed. A bit later, Sita gets up, goes to Radha's bedroom and wakes her up. Sita kisses Radha and the two make love. The next morning, Sita asks, "Did we do anything wrong?" Radha answers "no." Sita exits Radha's bedroom under Biji's watchful eye.
The next day, Radha and Sita bestow jewelry upon each other while Mundu looks at them. Later, the two couples sit outside, having eaten some food. Sita massages Radha's foot while Ashok watches, thinking nothing of it.
In the family's house, Jatin prepares to go out, amid his relatives. Ashok tells him that he's not going. Sita tells Ashok to let him go. Radha asks Ashok if he's going to Swamiji's and he says after Biji finishes dinner, he will. Biji rings her bell at length and Ashok assumes that she doesn't want him to leave.
That night, before a crowd in public, some men act out a part of the Ramayana wherein Lord Ram tests the goddess Sita's purity by having her go into a fire. Ashok and Swamiji watch them.
Radha and Sita kiss outside, on the roof of the building. Ashok calls Radha and after awhile, she comes to him. He asks her, "Why didn't you come?" She says that Sita says the concept of duty is overrated. Ashok tells Radha to prepare for him to test himself with her, and she says not tonight.
In their bedroom, Jatin starts to mount Sita, but she doesn't want to have sex, so he lays off.
The next day, Radha and Sita dance together in front of Biji to jubilant Indian music. Biji looks on disapprovingly as the two women sink to the floor together. Mundu watches in the next room.
Later in the video store, Jatin convinces some young boys to buy a porno movie from him. Mundu takes one of the porno movies upstairs to jerk off to while Biji watches in horror. Radha walks in and catches him. She slaps him, asking him where he got the movie. He says that Jatin rents them to special customers. She tells him to get out, and he says that the "hanky panky" between her and Sita isn't good for the family name.
Radha asks Ashok to get rid of Mundu, but Ashok insists that he stays. On the roof, she and Sita meet and talk. Sita says that even if Mundu mentions what he's seen, no one will believe him. Radha admits she is not so different than Mundu in his selfishness.
Jatin recites some of Swamiji's words to Sita in their room. He tells her that he cannot stop seeing Julie, mentioning some of her good traits. He says Sita can leave him, but then says life can be difficult for a divorced woman. The other option, he says, is for Sita to have a baby with him. She calls him a "pompous fool." They slap each other. He says he likes her new feistiness and kisses her on the mouth. She looks at him in displeasure, so he knocks her down and leaves.
On the roof, Radha sees a bruise on Sita's face and asks her if it hurts. Sita says she's treated "like a household pet," and "that's what hurts." The women hug each other.
In the restaurant later, Ashok carries Biji upstairs, leaving Radha with a singing Mundu. Radha's gaze is contemptuous. Jatin announces to everyone that he won't be back tonight and leaves. Mundu sits down and stares at a photo of Biji, Jatin, Radha and Sita, with everyone crossed out except for Radha, who has a heart drawn around her head.
Alone together, Radha tells Sita that a long time ago, Ashok took a vow of celibacy. She explains what he does with her to prove he's beyond temptation and therefore closer to God. Radha tells her that he's done this for 13 years. Radha and Sita hug each other. Mundu listens at the door outside. Sita says they're not going to stay there any longer.
Mundu pulls Ashok away from his time with Swamiji, but then says nothing. Later, the two men go upstairs to the house. Ashok tells Mundu to pack his bags and get out of the house before he calls the police.
Inside the house, Ashok listens at the door outside the room where Radha and Sita make love. He slams open the door, startling them and catching them in the act. He walks away, then exits the house.
The women decide to leave, with Sita saying there's no word in their language for what they are. Radha says she has to talk to Ashok one last time, to tell him that her leaving is about her. She tells Sita that she should leave and they will meet later tonight. Sita packs her belongings to leave. In the main room, Biji rings her bell as Sita leaves. Radha steps close to Biji, who sits up and then spits in her face. Downstairs, Ashok freaks out, thinking about his wife in intimacy with Sita.
Ashok goes to Radha in the kitchen and tells her to come to the bedroom, so he can test himself again. She refuses, saying that she's going to leave him. Ashok says that what he saw in their bedroom is a sin in the eyes of God and man. She openly repudiates his thinking that desire is wrong. Ashok snaps, throwing himself upon her. She rejects his touch. He says, "Touch my feet," then pushes her aside. Her sari catches fire on the stove.
Ashok stares at Radha for a moment, then picks up Biji and heads for the door.
Back at the field from the prologue, young Radha closes her eyes and then says she can see the ocean.
At the agreed-upon meeting place, Sita stands in the rain. She sees Radha shuffle over to her, looking shaken. Radha leans against a wall for support. Sita goes over to her and comforts her.