Pushpa and Chandni are two orphans living in a slum in Mumbai. Though Pushpa is illiterate and unemployed, she gathers and sells rubbish to send Chandni to school. One day, the sprightly young Pushpa is watching a puppet show when she spots the puppeteer behind the scenes, dangling the puppets by strings. Fascinated by him, she sings and dances along the street, mimicking the actions of the puppets, soon gathering a crowd of admirers. The puppeteer Shivraj joins them as well, and follows Pushpa home to express his admiration. Though she rebuffs him at first, they strike up a conversation over some shared chana. Pushpa tells him that she really enjoyed his tamasha, and suggests that he take it to wealthier audiences so he can earn more money from his talents.
Wilful and impulsive, she takes him immediately to a theatre, where she explains her idea for a show to the theatre manager: while Shivraj will make his puppets dance on one side of the stage, the other will have girls dancing to mimic their actions. Manohar, the manager, is not very impressed, even when Pushpa enthusiastically demonstrates the dance for him. However, the head of the theatre company has been watching from the shadows. Impressed by Pushpa’s natural gift for song and dance, he offers her a position in the theatre. She explains that she was only trying to get work for Shivraj, and rejects his offer.
Pushpa and Shivraj are engaged in a sweet back-and-forth when he is hit by a car while crossing the street. With a damaged hand and leg, Shivraj is laid up in bed for days and Pushpa decides to take up the offer to join the theatre company. The head, Loknath, immediately accepts her when she returns to the theatre, and tells her that he will launch her on stage as a solo artist. He grooms her for months, rigorously training her in diction, music, and dance. Loknath and Pushpa begin to care for and respect each other.
On the first day of the show, Pushpa panics and nearly flees. After Loknath faces the flak from the audience and encourages her to return to stage, however, the show is a huge success. Soon, Pushpa becomes a star and is moved to a much larger flat in a better locality.
Gradually, we find out more about Loknath. Involved in theatre for over 20 years, Loknath has mentored many artists over the years. His wife, an actress and dancer, was among them, but she passed away, leaving behind their only child, Bula. Bula, however, is a sickly child, and Loknath dotes upon him, constantly worried he might lose him. He keeps his pain to himself initially, but Pushpa hears about Bula’s sickness. Having gently prodded him to share his pain with her, she meets Bula. Starved for a mother’s care, Bula becomes very attached to Pushpa, and she begins to care for the child.
In the meantime, Pushpa and Shivraj are married, and they come to visit Loknath. When Pushpa goes in to speak to Bula, Shivraj leaves, clearly uncomfortable with staying in the house of Pushpa’s benefactor. He later tells Pushpa that he feels inadequate, being unable to provide for her while her work in the theatre provides a steady flow of income. Devoted to her husband, Pushpa reassures him, telling him she will withdraw from theatre if he wants her to.
While performing on stage one evening, Pushpa faints on stage. Shivraj’s anxieties come to a head, and he berates Loknath, blaming him for overworking Pushpa. He works himself up into a rage and implies that Loknath used his sick son as leverage to keep Pushpa under his thumb, finally striking Loknath. Shivraj is wrong, however; Pushpa is merely pregnant, and needs to rest.
Exhausted after years of weathering the ups and downs of a life in theatre, this last incident pushes Loknath to withdraw from theatre entirely. Meanwhile, Pushpa has a daughter, but he stays away from the family. Shivraj, who has started sculpting wooden dolls, hears of a job in Patna, and travels to Delhi for a trial period.
When Bula falls ill again, he starts asking for Pushpa. Manohar comes to Pushpa and tells her of what transpired between Loknath and Shivraj, making her hasten to Loknath. She comforts the worried Loknath and tells Bula she will visit him every day. But Bula does not recover from this bout of sickness, and he dies, leaving Loknath a broken man. The loss nearly drives him insane, and he withdraws further into himself. Pushpa pushes him into working again, finding him a new protégée to launch. When she withdraws from the show a few hours before the curtain is set to rise, Pushpa takes her place. Shivraj returns from Delhi, and he is outraged that Pushpa has returned to the stage. He takes their infant daughter and leaves Pushpa.
Loknath leaps in to help her, and finds out where Shivraj has gone. But when Pushpa goes to him, he rebukes her harshly and keeps her from her child. Finally, Pushpa stands up to him, reminding him of the circumstances in which they met, and the labour she put in to support the family. Loknath also pleads with Shivraj on her behalf, but when he implies an affair between Loknath and Pushpa, Loknath reproaches him severely and leaves with Pushpa’s child.
Pushpa takes to the stage one last time, in a heart-breaking rendition of the first puppet dance she thought of with Shivraj. She collapses at the end of her performance, but by then, a repentant Shivraj has come to the theatre to apologize to them. As Loknath watches over them, the two embrace tearfully and reconcile.