Meet the real people behind the hit-film The Lunchbox


If I have to name one film produced in India that everyone should watch, I would definitely recommend to see the 2013 Bollywood-hit ‘The Lunchbox. This epic feelgood-movie is a must-see for everyone who is interested to learn a little more about this immense country. After living and working in India for more than 2,5 years now, I’m slowly starting to understand the deeper layers of films. A mixture of well-known facts and untold stories about India are woven into a modern love story. The very fundamental essence of this film is the love of homecooked food. It doesn’t matter who you would ask here; all across India, people will prefer homecooked food over restaurant food.

 Dabbawallas: the proud distributers of lunchboxes. Centrered in the story the story are the famous dabbawallas. This widely researched and acclaimed system of men who collect homecooked food in tiffins – metal boxes with various compartments, filled with Indian food, know as the Indian lunchbox –  from the homes in the suburbs of Mumbai and transport them to various downtown offices. The system is very famous. Many articles have been written about the unique distribution system. Even The Harvard Business School had published a study about this, highlighting the very high level of accuracy. With a little less than 200.000 distributed lunchboxes, the error rate is unprecedented: it was reported that only one in 8 million of the deliveries of a tiffin actually would get lost. Read this again: one in 8 million! And the beauty of this: they are not using any software. The tiffin boxes are marked with a code to display the collection point and also a code for the delivery point. As some tiffins are packed in smaller tiffin-bags and most of the tiffins are decorated with paintings, every tiffin is unique. The most fundamental element of the success of this service are the dabbawallas themselves, the proud distributers of the lunchboxes. I was once told that the job itself is being seen as an honourable assignment and the average monthly pay of a dabbawalla is somewhere between 8500 and 9000 INR (around 115 euro).

A widower and a unhappily married woman start sending each other messages . The thin but compelling story of The Lunchbox is about the odd situation where a lunchbox is delivered to the wrong person. Saajan Fernandes, played by actor Irrfan Khan, is a widower who works as an accountant at a nondescript Mumbai firm. Ila is a young wife with marital problems. She wants to fire up the relation with her husband and decides to start cooking variants of delicious food for her husband, who also works far from home. Unfortunately, Ila’s tiffin was not delivered to her husband. Instead, it was delivered to Saajan by mistake, who immediately fell in love with the taste of her cooking. The two started sending each other messages through the tiffin’s, which attracted both of their attention. I will not reveal what happens next, but you can most probably guess.

Real life situations, without the rougher elements of the Indian society. The deeper layers of the film are stunning and some of the scenes would tell you more about India than the hours spent watching the best National Geographic documentaries. Saajan’s old-fashioned office space, without computers, a lot of stamps and other props from the bureaucratic era are so real. Walk into a random government office and this is what you would see. The director of the film has left out some of the rougher elements of the Indian society. You won’t see any scene’s with street children, there is little saddening poverty and no any prostitution. However, the living conditions of both the characters are modest and they haven’t finetuned many things. The film actually paints a true picture of this amazing country.

Mumbai is a city poverty and inequality, but I love it. Some of Mumbai’s neighbourhoods are disreputable, filled with rats and piled up dirt. As a result, some places are so dirty that one could smell the open sewer system. However, even within the dirtiest streets there are chai wallahs, streetfood or people selling fruits. A chai wallah is a small one-man operated stall which serves the masala chai, the Indian Red Bull (spicy tea). Operations and maintenance of these are not always seen as a top priority in India but one could see some pretty stunning examples in Mumbai.

One of my favourite things in Mumbai are the countless heritage buildings. It is painful and funny at the same time, because these buildings are not well-treated with the commitment and respect they deserve. The heritage buildings are so badly kept, that trees are growing out of many of the windows. Given all the dirt, with more than 20 million people in the largest slums of Asia and all the other elements that make this city a dump from time to time. However, I really adore this. Mumbai has its own charm and I love it.

It’s very easy to come across daily life while one starts exploring the city of Mumbai, because a lot of things are actually happening in front you, right on the streets. Coming back to the love story of The Lunchbox. The distribution system almost feels like a street-theatre, because a lot of this happens just in front of you. Many of the dabbawallas are dressed up in white, with a Gandhi cap as a finisher. Like many other things in India, one could easily come and experience the work of these men. Especially interesting is the last part of the tiffin box journey, and it is easy to observe. Go to one of the most busy railway stations near some office buildings. The dabbawallas will unload large carts filled with tiffins. They will then bring them to the street, just outside the railway station. The tiffins will then be loaded onto a large cart with wooden wheels. The fit men will now start working on the last part of the distribution chain: the actual delivery. If you’re in India and visiting Mumbai, I would definitely advise you to spend time to watch the dabbawallas. It’s a unique system and you’ll get a lot of likes on Instagram. Almost every dabbawallas looks appealing on camera.

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