A dabba is a lunchbox (in Hindi), and dabbawallahs are Mumbai's highly efficient delivery men, who pick up hot meals prepared by wives in the late morning, deliver them by bicycle to husbands' offices, then collect and return the empties home in late afternoon. For 120 years, the illiterate wallahs -- using a complex "ZIP code" of colors and symbols -- have prided themselves on perfect punctuality and error-free delivery.
Starring: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur.
Rating: PG for thematic material and smoking..
In short, they put Mr. McFeely to shame. Only one box in a million ends up at the wrong place -- and that's the one director-screenwriter Ritesh Batra is interested in.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a much-neglected young housewife and mother who decides the way to her inattentive hubby's heart might be through his stomach. Accordingly, with the advice of an unseen "auntie" upstairs, she hones her culinary skills and raises his lunch fare from pedestrian to gourmet level.
Saajan (Irrfan Khan) is a lonely widower, about to retire from his boring accountant's job after 35 years. One of the precious few joys in his (and everybody's) employment drudgery is the anticipation and noontime opening of their identical tin cylindrical containers -- savoring the aroma and discovering what's inside. Men without wives use restaurant caterers, whose quality varies and whose TLC is nonexistent. Some days Saajan gets lucky. All of a sudden, he starts getting lucky on a daily basis.
Ila, for her part, can't understand why her husband is coming home even grumpier than usual and -- when she fishes for compliments about lunch -- says something about too much cauliflower. She doesn't use cauliflower in her fab new recipes.
The delivery mix-up prompts an exchange of lunchbox notes, which evolve into a confessional colloquy about longing and loneliness -- and a romantic fantasy that may or may not evolve into a relationship.
Mr. Batra's auspicious debut film brooks no Bollywood bombast, even as it captures the incredibly overcrowded nature and noise of contemporary India. (Today's factoids: The ongoing Indian elections involve 814 million voters -- a voting pool larger than the population of the U.S. and Western Europe combined -- at 930,000 polling stations. Vote counting takes a month.)
But more important than capturing the ambiance, Mr. Batra captures his characters and with refreshing subtlety. The acting, like the story, is more implied than explicit. Viewer advisory: Things move at an un-rushed pace. Take your time watching. It's about human behavior, not melodrama, and wry Indian sensibilities.
"When my wife died, she got a horizontal burial spot," Saajan muses. "I tried to buy a burial spot for myself the other day, and what they offered me was a vertical one. I've spent my whole life standing up in crowded trains and buses. Now I'll even have to stand when I'm dead."
In that crucial role, Mr. Khan -- India's best known international actor, thanks to "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Life of Pi" -- is excellent, as fussy and fastidious about lunch as about accounting and everything else. Ms. Kaur is a savvy, naturalistic, "new Indian school" actress, more Western-looking and behaving than traditional performers. The pivotal character Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), Saajan's obsequious trainee-replacement, is a gem. The hilarious disembodied Auntie's voice upstairs dispenses cultural information as well as advice ("I was just changing Uncle's diaper ....").
The dialogue is about 50-50 Hindi and English, reflecting India's fascinating bilinguality, especially in the workplace. Trouble is, the translations appear in hard to read white-on-white subtitles, in a tiny font -- for which the foreign distributor should be slapped upside the head.
That quibble aside, this intimately realistic tale of "ordinary people" is very much in the classic style of India's greatest filmmaker Satyajit Ray, told with restraint and delicacy, without any deus ex machina. This "virtual" romance is unrelated to social media. Will they or won't they meet?
The end may or may not satisfy you -- like real life. Shaikh quotes his mother's favorite saying: "Sometimes the wrong train will take you to the right station."
So (sometimes but not always) will the wrong lunchbox.
Opens today at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill.
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: email@example.com.