The Dabbawallas and The Lunchbox

The Lunchbox, Dabbawallas, Dabbah Wallahs, Bombay, Mumbai, India, film

The city of Mumbai stars in charming new film

MUMBAI IS ONE of the world’s great cities, celebrated in movies, books and myth. There is so much lore associated with the city, especially if you are a long-time Indophile who longed for years to see the iconic sites like Gateway of India, the Queen’s Necklace, Elephanta Island, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the Dhobi Ghats and the Dabbah Wallahs.

On my first trip to Mumbai (Bombay), I stayed with a friend in Bandra and it was a few days before I ventured into the city by myself. I took the train — itself an icon of the city — from Bandra Station to the final terminus for the western line, Churchgate Station. Leaving the station I was amply rewarded for my bravery by coming across a score of Dabbah Wallahs sorting their tiffin containers (otherwise known as lunch boxes) for delivery.

Dabbawalla, Dabbah Wallah, Mumbai, Bombay, India, food, tiffin

Dabbawalla at work in Mumbai

The Dabbah Wallahs are one of Mumbai’s institutions, a simple yet elaborate system of lunch delivery, from housewives in the suburbs to their husbands working in the city centre offices. Clad in white uniforms and peaked caps, these men are often illiterate. Yet the Dabbah Wallahs are famous for their unique system of signs and symbols and unerring accuracy. They have even been studied by Harvard Business School and awarded an ISO certification for accuracy.

It was fascinating to watch the men quickly re-assemble the tiffin containers on metal racks, which they carry on carts, strapped to bicycles or even on their heads. There is something charming about all that robust energy being carried on every day in a jam-packed city that pulsate with life — all so that husbands can eat home-cooked food for lunch.

Dabbawalla, Dabbah Wallah, Mumbai, Bombay, India, food, tiffin

Dabbawallas of Mumbai

I took as many photos as I dared, without being too intrusive and annoying, and walked behind them some ways down the street. I was fascinated by this glimpse of Mumbai’s culture and felt lucky to have chanced upon them.

It is against this backdrop of the daily tiffin delivery that The Lunchbox is set. It’s a film about the one lunch box in a million that Harvard University says goes astray.

The Lunchbox is a film that works on every level. It is sweet without being cloying, sentimental yet realistic. The acting is superb, especially by Irfan Khan, who plays Saajan, a lonely widower nearing a joyless retirement when the errant lunch box lands on his desk.

Much to his surprise, instead of the usual lacklustre meal he gets delivered from a local restaurant, he opens the lunchbox to a rich and fragrant feast, cooked with hope and longing by Ila (Nimrat Kaur).

Dabbawalla, Dabbah Wallah, Mumbai, Bombay, India, food, tiffin

Dabbawallas of Mumbai

Ila is a middle-class housewife who is trying to entice her husband with food cooked each day with the help of an unseen “aunty” upstairs. Spices, chilies and good advice are dispensed from above while Ila tries to awaken her husband’s interest in her once more.

Sometimes, the wrong train can take you to the right station.

A relationship develops as Ila and Saajan send each other notes tucked into the tiffin container. But this is no mere romance film, there is much more to it as the characters reveal their vulnerabilities and try to find meaning in a frenetic, modern and increasingly alienating city. Profound themes such as fate, existential angst and making difficult choices that go against societal expectations are examined.

Dabbawalla, Dabbah Wallah, Mumbai, Bombay, India, food, tiffin

Dabbawalla in Mumbai

The city of Mumbai itself is also put under the spotlight. Like Tokyo in Lost in Translation, Mumbai is a major character in The Lunchbox. The crowded trains, the hard-working dabbah-wallahs, the monsoon rains that drench the city streets — Mumbai is portrayed as an ever-present reality against which its residents hopes and dreams are realized, or not.

Like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Slumdog Millionaire, The Lunchbox is a co-production set in India — and about India — that will appeal to westerners. If you can’t get to Mumbai, watch The Lunchbox and soak up some of the atmosphere and culture of the city.

Dabbawalla, Dabbah Wallah, Mumbai, Bombay, India, food, tiffin

Dabbawallas outside Churchgate Train Station, Mumbai

Kudos to director / writer Ritesh Batra for making such a wonderful film — and for his dedication to getting it made, which required that he seek funding and support from outside the Indian film industry. As one Indian online commenter said, “Direction of Ritesh Batra is just too much perfect.”

Watch the trailer for The Lunchbox

More posts about Mumbai on Breathedreamgo

Meeting Maximum Mumbai

Photo Essay: Mumbai Local

Best Bets for a Weekend in Mumbai

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12 Responses to The Dabbawallas and The Lunchbox

  1. Nick May 12, 2014 at 9:31 pm #

    I was just in Mumbai a few weeks ago and was amazed by this system. They have an incredibly low mistake rate as well.
    Thanks for sharing this, i’m looking forward to seeing the movie.
    Nick recently posted..Walking with jaguars.My Profile

  2. Destination Infinity May 13, 2014 at 7:47 am #

    I am yet to see this movie – will see it soon. After Chak De India and maybe Kahaani, this was another movie that was rated very high by fellow bloggers (movie reviews).
    Destination Infinity recently posted..Madras High Court Heritage WalkMy Profile

  3. Betina May 13, 2014 at 8:36 am #

    Fantastic article! I can’t wait to see the movie 😉

  4. The Tales of a Traveler May 13, 2014 at 11:03 am #

    Its a beautiful movie 🙂
    The Tales of a Traveler recently posted..Top 10 Places To Travel In TurkeyMy Profile

  5. Renuka May 13, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

    I’m thrilled to read this post! Mariellen, you are such a wonderful writer and you understand India so well! 🙂 You have intrigued me to watch ‘Lunch-box’. Although I have spend around four months in Mumbai and have traveled by local trains, I never came across these Dabbah wallahs. I have heard about them and I have seen life on a local train like how hawkers hop on trains to sell their stuff, but didn’t get a chance to notice these iconic ‘dabbah wallah’.
    Renuka recently posted..Who’s My Favourite Travel CompanionMy Profile

  6. Rachel of Hippie in Heels May 13, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

    I love watching the dabba wallahs unpack. it’s incredible how rarely they make a mistake. The trailor for this movie looks great!

  7. Shalu Sharma May 14, 2014 at 6:44 pm #

    The system of Dabah walas are quite something, they work! No one would get their lunch without them. The Irfan Khan movie was good.
    Shalu Sharma recently posted..Goa in picturesMy Profile

  8. Amy May 25, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    I’ve already heard about this and find it really amazing. Maybe even a bit magical. 😉 Definately looking forward to see the movie. I hope I wi

  9. Selma May 26, 2014 at 4:57 am #

    Thanks for writing up this film … I’ll have to seek it out at the indie movie theatre near my house!
    Selma recently posted..Top Tourist Attractions In NewtownabbeyMy Profile

  10. vijay June 27, 2014 at 9:04 am #

    Awesome article Admin
    I have read this article 1 month ago and after that i decided to watch this movie
    really fantastic movie

  11. Sourav July 21, 2014 at 6:31 pm #

    Nicely & candidly covered! I watched the movie The Lunchbox & found the story of relationship over food straight to the deep of my heart. Mumbai is also famous for its street food. Hope, you will like my coverage of Mumbai streetfood culture http://blog.indianeagle.com/2014/07/05/best-of-mumbai-street-foods/
    Sourav recently posted..Monsoon beauty of India on the silver screenMy Profile

  12. tiffin services in mumbai March 11, 2016 at 6:32 am #

    Yeh, it is really nice movie thanks for sharing the informative post.

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