Dabbawallahs who deliver lunch in Mumbai collect home cooked and food service-prepared food and carry many different kinds of packages–mostly tall, cylindrical tiffins with four layers to hold courses for the lunch meal of office workers.
It is a system that seems to come from a different era. Saajat Hernandes is an accountant whose meal comes from a lunch service. His desk is piled high with papers. Where are the computers? Why is he not using excel? Where are the buzzing cell phones? Again, it feels like another era.
Ila, a lonely housewife, communicates with her upstairs neighbor by shouting up and the unseen woman, known simply as “auntie,” never appears in person. She sends a basket down with ropes. Inside the basket are fragrant spices to assist in the preparation of Ila’s meal for her husband who does have a cell phone and uses it to talk to someone more dear to him than his wife.
Why Ila’s husband just doesn’t carry his lunchbox but must have it delivered must have something to do with the heat and potential for spoilage. To have a freshly cooked meal arrive on your desk is a given. Everything in the movie depends on that. Poorer workers just buy a banana on the street, but Saajat is a senior worker with 35 years in the insurance company where he handles claims. We learn later that in those 35 years, he has never once made a mistake.
With so many individual lunches being delivered from so many sources to so many desks, it is easy to see why one might be delivered to the wrong person.
When Ila’s lunch lands on Saajat’s desk, he is surprised at the unusually delicious food. Then Ila’s tins arrive empty back at her house, and she thinks that her husband is appreciating her again. Even though she is soon disillusioned (he complains of the cauliflower giving him gas — what cauliflower she might think, but keeps it to herself), she continues to make food for the person who does appreciate her efforts.
The arc of the story is driven by food and correspondence. The tiffins soon carry notes back and forth to Ila and Saajat. The very deliberate pace and gentle nature of these leading characters contribute to the charm of the picture as we get to know them very well.
Children,– both the daughter of Ila,– and the kids in Saajat’s neighborhood –also give the story an added depth of feeling to what is not sentimental but could be if the tone weren’t just right. And it is. There are many sensual pleasures in the movie, having to do mostly with food, the smells and sights and tastes and tactile feelings of it. There is also the aura that we are living in our own crowded, overworked time yet out of time before computers, electronic gadgets, etc.
What I loved about it most was the feeling of everyday life and its meanings. Even though the main narrative concerns the correspondence in the tiffins, other things happen: there is a wedding, and a death. A young man finds his career.
Repeating scenes, such as when Saajat looks out his balacony after dinner to the family across the street, six or seven people of all ages, seated around the table enjoying their food and each other are full of longing.
It is possible that this movie is timeless.