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Improbable Efficiency – A Dabba Love Story

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Dabba or tiffin

Dabba or tiffin (Photo: Carissa Hickling)

I recently saw a new film “The Lunchbox” or “Dabba” by Ritesh Batra starring Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur. It was a private preview screening for cast, crew, family and friends before the official world premier in Cannes this weekend. My interest was a chance to see my partner on-screen – playing the role of Irrfan’s boss. Irrfan’s character Saajan Fernandez is a taciturn claims officer in a public insurance company, about to retire after 35 years of service. Nimrat plays Ila, a young middle class housewife and mother.

The premise of the story is that Saajan and Ila’s husband’s lunch dabbas are mistakenly switched when delivered by Mumbai’s dabba wallas. Saajan, a widower, has a neighbourhood restaurant send him lunch in office. Whereas Ila carefully prepares her husband’s lunch, hoping to re-capture his drifting regard through the quality and inventiveness of her culinary creations. She is amazed one day when the dabba is returned home with the food so relished that the container was uncharacteristically licked clean!

Small lunch dabba

Small lunch dabba (Food & Photo: Carissa Hickling)

Saajan not only appreciates the lunches far more than the dabba’s rightful recipient, but, when Ila initiates an exchange enquiring about the apparent mix-up, a correspondence is struck. Through the exchange of notes sent with the food, the two gently fall in love. They share dreams and angst – Saajan’s solitude after his wife’s death and Ila’s disquiet on discovery of her husband’s infidelity. It is a touching, sweet film that will hopefully appeal to international audiences with its glimpse into modest middle class Mumbai, evoking Babette’s Feast, Chocolate and other films where food and love co-mingle in unlikely ways.

The irony is that its very premise is improbable – the chances of such a delivery error happening is, well, nearly nill. In the film, when Ila tries to track down where her dabba is being sent in an effort to meet Saajan, her dabba walla declares that such a mistake is impossible! Affronted, he argues that even Prince Charles and Harvard have praised them for faultless delivery.

Dabba wallas on a Mumbai train

Dabba wallas loading a Mumbai train (Photo: Wikipedia)

For those unfamiliar with the extraordinary efforts of Mumbai’s dabba wallas, their precision and efficiency is well documented – including a Harvard Business Review Case Study “Dabbawallah’s of Mumbai.” It is the very contradiction that captures awe and attention – a supply chain of service excellence for on-time and accurate delivery at a six sigma level perfected by largely illiterate bearers who use the overtaxed train system and bicycles in rain or shine to deliver tastes of home to office in time for lunch.

What struck me is that the story illustrates how India remains a country where multiple realities co-exist. In this case, an example of exceptional accuracy by proud tiffin bearers contrasted with the stereotypical crippling inefficiency of the Indian bureaucracy. It is also a story that could happen only in Mumbai – such a system of sending lunch is unheard of in Canada or elsewhere.

Lunch of roti, sabzi (vegetable), dal (lentil) and yoghurt

Lunch of roti, sabzi (vegetable), dal (lentil) and yoghurt (Photo: Carissa Hickling)

The film is also a reminder of an earlier era, where a tender affection can emerge from hand-written, highly personal and revealing letters. Digital media has replaced such a communication mode with carefully constructed public personas, mass social connects and updates via FaceBook, abbreviated text msgs – LOLS.

While the system of dabba delivery began in 1880, it has evolved and is today arranged via SMS.  There is also a remarkable ‘share my dabba’ initiative where left over food is shared with street children (see a short video or FB page). The pragmatic approach they support is a humbling reminder of many who do not have proper meals in a city of stunning wealth.

And while the way to a man (or woman’s) heart may be through the stomach, the mode of delivery apparently can also play a role!

Do you have any stories of improbable efficiency or an unlikely love tale to share?



  1. Lunchbox/Dabba just won the Rail d’Or at the Cannes International Critics Week and was picked up by Sony for distribution in the US. Pas mal!!

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