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A Box of Food and Imagination: Reading Food for Thought in Stanley ka Dabba


   In this essay, Saundarya writes about the symbolism of the tiffin box and the power of imagination at the face of deprivation, unwinding life of a child in the margins. She further explores and contextualises the importance of lunch breaks at school in building commensality among children.

   The ubiquity of food might allow the meanings attached to it to go unnoticed but food never exists in vacuum. It is a culmination of complex connotations which makes the study of food cultures a significant venture. According to Andrievskikh’s study, “Symbolic meanings of culinary practices simultaneously shape and are shaped by the larger socio-political hierarchy…”(150). Being tied to the socio-cultural and economic networks of (re)production and distribution, the presence and the present absence of food can never be innocent. Food interacts through various processes, forming a network of communication. It is “a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behaviour” (Barthes 24). In the world of children, food holds a special place. It not only evokes various feelings of joy, nostalgia, and temptation, but also facilitates different relationships in their adult-bound lives. Be it in terms of hunger or gluttony, food manifests its presence (and absence) in a child's life in several ways. One of the key elements through which food comes to life is imagination. Similarly, it is also the absence of food that often feeds the imagination of a child. Keeling and Pollard in their study of food in children’s literature note, “If food is fundamental to life and a substance upon which civilisations and cultures have built themselves, then food is also fundamental to the imagination and the imaginary arts” (16). Reading food in the children’s world gives an insight into their individual thought processes as well as the larger social issues that bind them to the adult world. It provides a lens to understand how children navigate this world.


Imagination in the face of deprivation is an important trope in Amole Gupte’s Stanley ka Dabba. Released in 2011, Gupte’s movie explores various issues in a child’s life who lives at the margins of society and simultaneously acquires an almost central space in school. In the movie, there is food and then there is a lack of it. These elements work as a plot device, taking the narrative forward. In an attempt to keep his two very different lives at bay, Stanley (Partho Gupte) uses his imagination to conceal what could have been revealed via the absence of a dabba (lunch box). The dabba, a cultural object, works as a signifier of privilege, a privilege of having a home, a mother, and food. It is the absence of this object that leads to Stanley’s dismissal from the school premises by his Hindi teacher and nemesis, Mr. Verma (Amole Gupte). 

In culinary discourse, objects like cutlery are endowed with meanings of mannerism, presentation, and civilisation. What Lévi-Strauss explains in the context of cooking, is how the use of cultural objects like pots and pans are seen as markers of civilisation, and can also be applied to the mannerisms of eating and presenting. Throughout various genres, one can find the presence of symbols of food either in the foreground or in the background. These symbols tend to bring forth the cognisance of “deepest human desires and anxieties, as well as ways of conceptualization of self and others” (Andrievskikh, 150). Similarly, in the movie, the cultural object, that is the dabba, represents the desires and anxieties of Stanley; the desire for the dabba and through that for home, and the anxiety of not being able to procure it. The dabba stands as a symbol of the deciding force which will either include Stanley or exclude him from the institutional structure controlled by the representatives of society. The shape, size, and colour of the dabba further add layers to what it represents. The shiny four-tiered dabba of Aman Mehra is sought after by Mr. Verma. It has a visual appeal on the outside as well. Thus, the lunch box ends up being an object heavily endowed with connotations that move towards and beyond its functionality of containing food.

Food holds a multiplicity of meanings and processes, from identity formation to disciplinary actions. These meanings often exhibit themselves in the institutions that follow a system guided by hierarchies. One such exhibit can be witnessed in the institutional structure of schools. The hierarchy of society where the adult holds a significant amount of power over a child is transported in the environment of school and manifested through the teacher-student hierarchy. Schools are important infrastructures that not only provide education, but also groom a child according to the norms of a society. It plays a significant role in disciplining and moulding the child. In this space, where children stay for the longest period of time, they learn the aspects of community, friendship, and belongingness and food helps in facilitating these networks. The concept of lunch break is not only a time for satiating one’s hunger, but it also opens up a space for engaging with each other without the direct looming presence of an authority. It helps in forming a community of children, free from the adult world. The time of the lunch break is a salient motif in the movie. It is in this duration that all the major elements surrounding Stanley’s life as well as the movie come together. It is mostly during the lunch break that the actions of eating, sharing, playful deception, and imaginative creations take place. The lunch break is a crucial time for Mr. Verma and for Stanley. For Verma, it is a time to fully unravel his gluttonous behaviour, whereas for Stanley, it is a time of hiding his background and forming friendships.

Children’s cinema, according to Ian Wojcik-Andrews, “offers a metacommentary on film and society” (20). Stanley ka Dabba, through the theme of absence and lack, in a larger context, addresses the condition of marginalised children and highlights the cruel prevalence of child abuse, hunger, and bullying. It also brings in the dynamic of various relations that take shape in Stanley’s life. Such an intersection of cinema, food, and children in their complex relations, helps in understanding the various nuances that are often left unexplored, especially in the mainstream. Stanley is an orphan who is exploited and physically abused by his uncle. While at school, Stanley shines at the centre, enjoying his popularity among friends and his English teacher due to his storytelling and performing skills. At his uncle’s restaurant, he enters the dark side of his life. In her study of this film, Mehra notes, “the school is the primary site of conflict, negotiation, and eventual resolution; school lunches are the battleground; and the central conflict is between Stanley and his Hindi teacher, Mr. Verma” (339). Living at the fringe of society, school becomes a source of happiness in Stanley’s life. It turns out to be the site of negotiation for Stanley where he can participate. Here, he has the support of his friends in finding solutions and settling conflicts.

Stanley does not share his truth with either his friends or his favourite teacher. To shield his identity and self from the world, Stanley takes refuge in lies. Lying has been condemned as morally corrupt or wrong, but this approach fails to recognise the situation in which lying occurs. Children are taught from a very young age that telling lies is an act of moral corruption, however, for many adults as well as children, lying often becomes an act of survival, a necessity to keep the self and its dignity intact. In “Lies of Necessity”, Kerry Mallan argues, “in order to avoid being the subject of violence or marginalisation one often resorts to not telling the truth” (43). Plus, Stanley’s lying in this scenario does not have any negative impact on the people he is lying to. It is an act of self-defence. What should be stressed upon is not the lies told by Stanley but his creative and brilliant imagination. Stanley’s creativity emanates from the stories that he constructs on the spot and the artful performance that he incorporates along with the stylistic narration.

Food and love have always been used interchangeably in depiction of one’s emotion for the other. The amount of preparation that goes into making a particular meal is also equated with the amount of love that one has for the other. But this equation which has become a norm, often designs itself as a compulsion and imposition in various relationships. One such is that of the mother and child. What Anne Allison theorises in the context of Japanese obentō (lunch box), where through this particular cultural apparatus both mother and her child “are being watched, judged, and constructed” (154), can also be applied in the Indian scenario of the dabbas. The presentation of/inside of the lunchbox works at an ideological terrain. Society often equates the ingredients in a dabba with the amount of love that a mother has for her child. In Gupte’s movie, a song plays in the background when a montage sequence of the mothers preparing different meals for their children are shown, which highlight this normalised notion of food and love. The lyrics goes like this: “The lunchbox is being prepared. Its aroma is spreading everywhere. It looks mesmerising. It’s not just about the dal or rice or the curry…It’s all about a mother’s love.” 

In the movie, the absence of Stanley’s dabba from the frame ultimately leads to an unsaid question about his mother. Stanley lies about going home to eat hot and fresh food during the lunch hour. But he wanders outside the school and drinks plenty of water to satiate his hunger. When his friends confront him regarding the lie, Stanley immediately spins a story out of thin air. He goes on to narrate a story about his mother’s absence due to his father’s work. Stanley keeps his life concealed behind these tales that he weave around the absence of food, his bruised eye, and his imaginary family. This strong presence of the absent element (the lunch) works at multiple levels, while it enlightens the audience with the representation of marginalised children's condition, the absence also gives an outlet to his imagination, allowing him to build a community, a sense of belonging. These stories create a barrier between the audience, the classmates, and Stanley's world, while at the same time giving an insight into his imagined world.

In the genre of food studies, there is an ever present distinction between food as necessity and food as luxury. There is a need versus want dynamic, the taste of necessity versus the taste of luxury, as proposed by Pierre Bourdieu in his study on the judgement of taste. This distinction is also clearly visible in Stanley ka Dabba, where food is presented as luxury for Aman who brings lunch for the entire class during the football match, but for Stanley food is a necessity, for survival and also for inclusion. But the heartfelt moments of friendship among Stanley and his classmates tend to dissolve all these forced boundaries. It is an important theme as it captures the nuances of children’s psyche and emotions. Stanley’s friends do not mind him eating from their lunch boxes. But with their Hindi teacher, the children feel frustrated by the act of him eating out of their lunch. In this scenario, the adult is seen as the one consuming the food of the child and in the process, he is consuming the child as well. Verma consumes the lunch of Stanley’s friends, simultaneously consuming their time and share. This act of consumption on Verma’s part especially affects Stanley because Verma ends up humiliating Stanley to such an extent that Stanley is forced to repress his desire for food. The process involved here is not simply of eating, that is, eating as a means of sustenance, rather, it is a process of consumption, of partaking in a culture. 

In contrast with Stanley’s character stands the character of Mr. Verma. While the absence of Stanley’s lunch box helps in building his relationships, the same absence works in a very different light in Verma’s case. His character portrays an entirely opposite dynamic of food and the relations that it destroys. This opposition emerges from the difference in perspective and treatment of the two characters towards the overarching element of lack. Here, inequality stands tall where the embodiment of deprivation faces the embodiment of excess in the same room. To avoid Verma’s gluttonous behaviour and make Stanley eat with them, Stanley’s friends devise a perfect plan of duping Verma by constantly changing their eating place. This brilliant and playful sequence of tricking Verma resonates with what Carolyn Daniel proposes in the context of food narratives, that is, “Food narratives in children’s stories are often “grounded in playfulness” and transgressive of adult food rules” (12). These tricks and transgressions make the atmosphere amusing for the children in the movie and also for the audience watching it. 

Food is, “paradoxically, compulsively consumed and obsessively consuming” (Daniel 1). Food consumes us and in its absence hunger consumes us. Verma’s gluttony took over his emotions to such an extent that he started competing with Stanley and somehow felt that Stanley was the reason why he did not get to eat the children’s tiffin. This further leads to Stanley’s dismissal from the school premises by Verma. Because Stanley did not bring the dabba, the symbolic object of Verma’s desire, he is excluded from the societal site gripped with adult-child hierarchy. Later on, it is this very dabba that excludes Verma from the school space. When Stanley brings his own dabba towards the end of the movie, Verma’s authority is questioned by the guilty conscience that the innocence of a child brings out in him. Verma realises the cruel consequences of his gluttony and promises to never return, leaving Stanley in peace. 

The hunger for food could also translate as the hunger for love, affection, and home. Food is an important element in every child’s life. It is, according to Flanagan, “a vital component of our understanding of the essential meaning of home.” Even though Stanley works at a restaurant and is surrounded by food, he is hungry for food and through food, for love and for home. An interesting aspect about the movie is that it does not go about solving the larger social issues. The movie focuses on the immediate problem in the life of a child and situates this within the larger context of marginalisation. This focus allows Stanley the space to have an agency of his own in finding a solution to his immediate problem of procuring a lunch box. The space of the restaurant where he works slightly benefits him, with the help of his co-worker Akram played by Jitendra Rai, by giving him access to food which he then packs in his dabba and takes to his school. Towards the end, Stanley does not reveal his secret, rather, he finds a way of filling the dabba-shaped gap, of fitting into the expected structure, again with the help of his creative imagination. Stanley’s imagination becomes his solace, his defence mechanism, and survival technique in the cruel adult world. 



          1. In “The Culinary Triangle” Lévi-Strauss quotes M.J. Barrau and writes, “…The use of a pot and the consumption of boiled tubers             are looked upon with pride…as a proof of…civilization.”

         2. Translation taken from the subtitles in the movie provided by the OTT platform Disney + Hotstar.

         3. Ref. Bourdieu, Pierre. “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.” Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole                     Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, Routledge, 2013, pp. 31-39.

        4. Ref. Flanagan, Michael. “Cowpie, Gruel and Midnight Feasts: Food in Popular Children's Literature.” The Irish Times, The Irish                  Times, 10 Nov. 2017,                   literature-1.2885193.


Works Cited



Allison, Anne. “Japanese Mothers and Obento-s: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus.” Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, Routledge, 2013, pp. 154-172.

Andrievskikh, Natalia. “Food Symbolism, Sexuality, and Gender Identity in Fairy Tales and Modern Women’s Bestsellers.” Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 37, no. 1, 2014, pp. 137–53. JSTOR, 

Barthes, Roland. “Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption.” Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, Routledge, 2013, pp. 21-30.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.” Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, Routledge, 2013, pp. 31-39.

Daniel, Carolyn. “Introduction.” Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom in Children’s Literature, edited by Carolyn Daniel, Routledge, pp. 1–12.

Flanagan, Michael. “Cowpie, Gruel and Midnight Feasts: Food in Popular Children's Literature.” The Irish Times, 10 Nov. 2017,

Keeling, Kara K., and Scott T. Pollard. “Introduction: Food in Children's Literature.” Critical Approaches to Food in Children's Literature, Routledge, 2009, pp. 14–28.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “The Culinary Triangle.” Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, Third ed., Routledge, 2013, pp. 40–47.

Mallan, Kerry. “Lies of Necessity.” Secrets, Lies and Children’s Fiction, edited by Kerry Mallan, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 42–64.

Mehra, Devika. “Re/Presenting Marginalized Children in Contemporary Children’s Cinema in India: A Study of Gattu and Stanley Ka Dabba.” The Palgrave Handbook of Children’s Film and Television, edited by Casie Hermansson and Janet Zepernick, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, pp. 329–344.

Wartenberg, Thomas E. “Miss Nelson Is Missing!: Is It Okay for Adults to Deceive Kids?” A Sneetch Is a Sneetch and Other Philosophical Discoveries: Finding Wisdom in Children's Literature, edited by Thomas E. Wartenberg, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, pp. 81–89.

Wojcik-Andrews, Ian. “Introduction: What Is Children's Film?” Children’s Films: History, Ideology, Pedagogy, Theory, edited by Ian Wojcik-Andrews, Garland Publishing, 2000, pp. 1–22. 

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Saundarya is pursuing an M.Phil. degree in English from the University of Delhi, India. Saundarya researches Dalit literature and culture, and explores the politics of marginal literature and its representation. Her area of interest also includes food studies. Saundarya has received an M.A. in English from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. 

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