How "The Lunchbox" Created a Love Story Around a Dabbawala Error
When I flew home a few months back, my mother welcomed me at the airport with dinner in a tiffin carrier, a multi-tiered stainless steel lunch box used across India, but most famously in the city of Mumbai. She insisted that after all these years, a tiffin carrier is still the best way to transport food: each item stays hot and partitioned until the meal is delivered and ready to be eaten. My mother is not one to serve up lukewarm, soggy roasted potatoes, and the Indian diaspora would bobble its head in agreement.
The tiffin carrier is at the center of writer-director Ritesh Batra's recent film, The Lunchbox, the entire premise of which is based on an unlikely error at the hands of Mumbai's white-capped delivery boys. The dabbawalas, as they're called, pick up tiffin carriers from mothers and wives stocked with freshly cooked rice, lentils, and curries and distribute them to the offices of their sons and husbands exactly at lunchtime. Some 4,000 such men manage to cart 175,000 lunches across the city daily, without missing a step: the margin of error is thought to be 1 in over a million, despite their use of a rudimentary coding system that dates back over 100 years.
The system is so efficient, in fact, that Harvard Business School professor Stefan Thomke conducted an entire case study on it, and the research is referenced in The Lunchbox by an obstinate dabbawala who refuses to accept that his brethren have made a mistake. The movie's love story unfolds when two tiffin carriers in identical garb are swapped, sending a wife's aphrodisiac-infused meals to the wrong man. There's an inherent suspension of disbelief, though not in the love-drenched way we've come to expect of Indian films; rather, we're expected to believe that the lunchbox is delivered incorrectly not once, but repeatedly, so much so that the protagonists carry on a snail mail-borne romance via carrier dabbawala.
What's perhaps most impressive is that many of the delivery men are only semi-literate, which explains why they continue to label the tiffin carriers by colors and numbers. A single tin can change hands more than four times as it makes its way from a bike handle to the train station, and then from the special dabbawala car to its final destination. It's this dichotomy—that unskilled workers can produce impeccable results when faced with a complex task—that makes the dabbawala model so compelling from a business perspective.
Turns out it makes for a beautiful film, as well. You'd think that, being based in Mumbai, India's booming film industry might have looked to its dabbawalas earlier to tell a story that—with the exception of the catalyzing gaffe—is rooted in reality. Each day, the leading lady calls out to the nosy aunty next door for cooking tips and missing ingredients, while the man she inadvertently romances is shown riding the city's oppressively crowded buses with his colleague, who spends the ride home chopping vegetables on his briefcase. In yet another frame, you might see the dabbawalas riding in their train car with empty tiffin boxes, singing together after a day spent filling stomachs.