29 April 2020

Dabba ("The Lunchbox") - updated

This was the best movie I've watched in a long time.  Decidedly not a Hollywood-style movie (no killing, no sex, no explosions), The Lunchbox reminded me very much of You've Got Mail.   Some of you will recognize Irrfan Khan from his role in Life of Pi.  The acting is superb, and the movie is filmed with a sensitivity that allows moments of quiet to be extended and savored.
Tiffin carriers or dabbas are a kind of lunch box used widely in South Asia for tiffin meals. From South Asia, they spread to and now are widely used in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore as well.  They are known as rantang in Indonesian and mangkuk tingkat (leveled bowls) in Malay. In Arab countries they are called Safartas Arabic سفرطاس meaning travel bowls. They are also used extensively in Hungary, primarily to transport restaurant cheap workday midday meals for consumption at home. The Hungarian word for a tiffin box is éthordó (food carrier). A very similar device is called Henkelmann in Germany. It usually is round or in an oval shape similar to military campaign dishes. The Henkelmann was very popular until the 1960s, but is very rarely used by Germans today.

Normally they come in two or three tiers, although more elaborate versions can have four. The bottom-most tier, being the largest, is the one usually used for rice. Tiffin carriers are opened by unlocking a small catch on either side of the handle. The Hungarian version will typically contain a soup, main course and piece of cake.

In the Indian city of Mumbai, there is a complex and efficient delivery system that regularly delivers hot lunches packed in dabbas to city office workers from their suburban homes or from a caterer. It uses delivery workers known as dabbawalas.
The movie was released three years ago, so I was able to get it from our library with almost no waiting time.  It's also available from Netflix.  I highly recommend it to you.

Addendum January 2017:   An extensive article at the BBC praises the system -
Despite relying on an unskilled workforce, a two-tier management system and nothing more high-tech than Mumbai’s train network, this 5,000-strong cooperative is recognised as one of the world’s most efficient logistics systems. They make a tidy side-line hosting executives from delivery giants like FedEx and Amazon. Even Richard Branson has spent a day learning their secrets...

Most dabbawalas are quick to dismiss their new digital rivals. “There's no competition. They won’t be able to keep up with the service we provide,” says Gavande. “There's only one Mumbai dabbawala.”..

It’s hard to argue. The organisation runs its low-cost service at a very high level of performance. A 2010 study by the Harvard Business School graded it “Six Sigma”, which means the dabbawalas make fewer than 3.4 mistakes per million transactions. With deliveries to and from roughly 200,000 customers each day that translates to little more than 400 delayed or missing dabbas in a year.
Reposted from 2016 to commemorate the death of Irrfan Khan.  Those of you who know him only from his best-known movies should check out The Lunchbox - and also The Puzzle:

I highly recommend both of them


  1. probably more than you care to know about dabbawala:

    https://hbr.org/2012/11/mumbais-models-of-service-excellence Mumbai’s Models of Service Excellence

    http://www.slideshare.net/avinashmaurya/tiffin-bit-the-magic-of-dabbawala-mumbai Tiffin Bit - The Magic of Dabbawala (Mumbai)

    http://www.slideshare.net/sandeeppatel544/case-study-of-mumbai-dabbawala-systemon-time-delivery-every-tiime Case Study of Mumbai Dabbawala system-On time delivery Every Time

    personally, i like their stackable food containers.


  2. Yes, me too, one of the very best I've seen as far back i can remember but may be you have to be matured in age to really appreciate it. An old man's dream he knows cannot come true in real life.

    The carrier, I think we have one piece somewhere from times before the war, of white lacquered plate.

    Fine blog this of your's! Hannu

    1. "An old man's dream he knows cannot come true in real life."

      Perhaps, but... the DVD I got from the library included a "director's cut" with overdubbed comments from the two principal actors and the director. They made specific note of the fact that in the closing scenes Saajan is conversing with the wallahs who collect and distribute the dabbas, and he is depicted riding on the train with them, presumably back to where they came from. And she is shown looking out her window. All three felt that the closure was done with an optimistic sense re a happy future union of Saajan and Ila.

      The ending is clearly ambiguous (which to my mind is a refreshing improvement over the Hollywood always-happy-ending of lovers falling into one another's arms at the end).

      And thank you for your kind words re the blog.


  3. This morning, I was told of a man's death. It wasn't unexpected, but it was noteworthy to many people, apparently. Not me; I'd never heard of him.
    But from what I've read and for the power of two film previews, I can now appreciate why many in the world are mourning. Irrfan Kahn, you'll be missed.

  4. Two of my favorite movies. Irrfan Khan had true movie star presence in a way you rarely see anymore. A great actor.

  5. As a logistician in lockdown, I'm definitely going to check this out!
    It's always been my experience that cutting edge technology is no substitute for a well designed supply chain.

  6. As of now, it is no longer on Netflix (US), but is available to rent from Amazon, Fandango Now or Vudu for 2.99. According to JustWatch: https://www.justwatch.com/us/search?q=the%20lunchbox

    1. And remember to check your local library, where the DVD may be free to borrow.


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