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.
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 as she marries an alcoholic, who leaves her with little hope of a brighter future for herself and her mentally retarded son.
Throughout Shanichari's lifetime of misfortune she has never cried. This creates great difficulty once she is called to become a rudaali until Bhinkni, an experienced mourner, enters her life. Shanichari and the local landlord's son fall in love with each other, but Shanichari is reluctant to ask the rich lover for money as she does not want to lower her love even for the sake of getting out of poverty and misery.