After wooing the business classes with its exemplary meal delivery system, Mumbai's ubiquitous dabbawallahs are now providing food for thought to the Indian film industry. The over 125-year-old industry, often featured as a case study in business schools across the globe, is the theme of Mumbai-born Ritesh Batra's first feature film, The Lunchbox.
After a world premiere at Cannes in May earlier this year, the film was given the thumbs up by critics and viewers alike at the 38th Toronto International Film Festival, which ends today.
Bracketed in the same gala screening section as the Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts-starrer August: Osage County, the Nelson Mandela biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Academy award-winning British actor Colin Firth's World War II drama The Railway Man, the movie has been described as "endearing", "charming" and "funny" at Toronto.
For an auteur who went to a business school in neighbouring New York instead of one of its several film academies, Batra's entry into Toronto's Oscar buzz-generating film festival itself was breezy. The love story piggybacks on the fact that the dabbawallahs never go wrong - with efficiency of the six sigma standard, they make less than one mistake in every 1.6 million deliveries. Now, that's efficiency; however, the film's plot revolves around that minuscule portion that is not. The Lunchbox is about a meal wrongly delivered by a dabba system that is known for functioning with clockwork precision.
The film is also about relationships that are waiting to stumble or spring up. Irrfan Khan plays the role of a widowed insurance official counting his days of early retirement, who is surprised one day by an unexpectedly refreshing meal delivered by the dabbawallah. He puts an appreciation note in the lunchbox for its maker (played by Nimrat Kaur), a woman who was expecting praise from her husband, charting a new course of life for both.
"It is a charming story and a great look into that side of the culture of lunchbox couriers in the big city of Mumbai," said Karen McDonald, who owns a cinema for promoting independent films in Canada's capital city of Ottawa. Jennifer Weiss, a producer with the Toronto-based The Film Farm, a production house for feature films, described the movie as "very realistic and romantic".
"My friends and I are rooting for the film," beamed Ian Harnarine, an independent filmmaker who shares the same alma mater, the New York University, with Batra. "The Lunchbox is one of the most romantic films I have seen all year," said Toronto festival's artistic director Cameron Bailey. "By drawing one failure of Mumbai's treasured dabbawallahs, Ritesh Batra has returned some old fashioned mystery to a beautiful love story," added Bailey, who had chosen Mumbai last year for the Toronto festival's City to City series, which showcases every year one international hot spot breaking new ground in cinema.
Batra, who earlier experimented with the creative medium by making several short films, wrote the story and the script of The Lunchbox after abandoning a plan to make a documentary on the dabbawallahs. "The dabbawallahs are said to make a wrong delivery only one in every 1.6 million and I wanted to make a film precisely on that one mistake," he explained.
For a system based on barefoot men, public trains and simple, reusable containers in a city of some 18 million-plus people, being widely regarded as one of the top performance chains in the world is remarkable, to say the least.
With a September 20 release set for the film in India, The Lunchbox, an India-France-Germany-US co-production, is eligible for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the next year's Oscar awards, which has a September 30 deadline for home release. The Toronto gala screening, along with a host of appearances at major international film festivals, will make a strong case for the Film Federation of India to choose the film as India's official Oscar entry. The clamour surrounding the country's laughable annual ritual has already begun. For the mandarins of India's film industry, who promise a potentially winning Oscar entry every year, it will be a tall order to match the delivery skills of the dabbawallahs. But who knows, they can also make a "one-in-a-million'' mistake!
Faizal Khan is a freelancer
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