In colonial India, subedars (tax collectors) went from village to village with soldiers, often demanding more than taxes. A subedar commands Sonbai, a beautiful and confident woman whose husband is away in the city, to sleep with him. She slaps him and flees for safety to a spice factory where women grind chillies into fine powder. The aged factory guard, Abu Mian, locks the door behind her, refusing to open it to the soldiers, to the cowardly village men led by the mayor, and to the subedar himself. The town's teacher, who follows Gandhi, and a few women, led by the mayor's wife, protest ineffectually against this village-approved rape. The stage is set for a final confrontation.