This intriguing drama is set in post-colonial India during the 1950s. Lily Macintosh (Greta Scacchi), wife of John (James Wilby), a BBC correspondent, gives premature birth to their second child. When she is unable to provide milk for the ailing child, Cotton Mary (Madhur Jaffrey), an Anglo-Indian nurse at the hospital, comes up with a solution. She secretly takes the infant to her sister Blossom (Neena Gupta), a wheelchair-bound wet nurse.

The tightly focused screenplay by Alexandra Viets examines the plight of the mixed-race Anglo-Indian community at a time when many Indians were coming into their own. Thankful for the health of her new child, Lily hires Mary as a nanny. Feeling the need to assert herself, Mary manages to get Joseph (Virendra Saxena), a loyal family retainer, fired. She sees him as nothing more than a "dirty" Indian. However, her bid for control of the household is undercut by her niece Rosie's (Sakina Jaffrey) affair with John Macintosh. In the end, Mary is forced to come to terms with her lowly place in the new India.

Ismail Merchant directs Cotton Mary with a sure hand, vividly orchestrating its portrait of the dehumanizing effects of class warfare. Madhur Jaffrey gives a riveting performance as the snobbish Cotton Mary, a woman whose refusal to see herself for who she really is results in a terrible fall.