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The Tyranny Of Release Dates, Part II: 'The Lunchbox'

Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) is a widower whose correspondence comes in an unlikely package — a lunchbox.
Ritesh Batra
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) is a widower whose correspondence comes in an unlikely package — a lunchbox.

The romantic comedy-drama is not dead; it's just being platformed.

I saw The Lunchbox, the first feature from director Ritesh Batra, at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of last year. Starring Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur, it takes as its jumping-off point the dabbawalas of Mumbai, guys on bikes who run a lunchbox-delivery system that brings hot, delicious lunches to people working in offices. (Spoiler alert: you will envy this system by film's end.)

In many families, the dabbawalas deliver lunches made at home by wives to husbands who are at work, and the story revolves around a rare dabbawala mistake in which young wife Ila (Kaur) makes a delicious lunch for her unappreciative husband and it winds up accidentally going to Saajan (Khan), a single man in middle age. They begin to exchange letters.

There's much more to the story than this, but it's an exceptionally warm and sweet movie with undercurrents of melancholy and loneliness, and it's also a visually sumptuous presentation of both a broad-stroke place (Mumbai) and a close-up thing (food). Both the busy but efficient landscape and the sensory experience of eating are thick with texture as they're shot.

Before today (Friday), you could see The Lunchbox in New York, L.A., San Francisco, D.C. and Chicago (and surrounding areas). As of today, they're scheduled to add Denver, Boston, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Dallas and Houston. A week later, a bunch more places — Scottsdale, Portland, Austin, Seattle, and others. And then more. And then more. You can look up the list.

At some point later, there will be a DVD release. And on demand for money. And pay cable. And maybe basic cable at some point.

So here's the question: what's the right time to talk about this movie? Last October, I wrote about "release date myopia," and the obsession with newness and timing. But here is a live example — a perfect example.

When I ask people, many of them agree that the right time for a review is not when you see the movie at a festival, or at the very least that it's not the right time for the last attention you pay to a film. After all, people can't see it yet.

But honestly, if you live in, say, Nevada or Ohio or Maine, there's not a huge difference between a movie opening at a film festival in Toronto and a movie opening at a handful of theaters in New York and Los Angeles. To you, in these cases, those same New York theaters are basically running an eternal film festival in which the majority of the movies they're showing don't necessarily have a whole lot to do with what you have a chance to see. For a lot of people, access to so-called art-house films has more to do with Netflix/DVD/VOD release dates than it does with theatrical release dates.

If you wait for VOD release dates, though, you may hurt the film. One of the biggest benefits of a bottlenecked theatrical release — perfected for the last two Wes Anderson movies, which opened in four theaters each despite being of obvious broad interest — is to release them so narrowly that pent-up demand creates huge per-screen averages and a sense of excitement. If you don't talk up a great movie with a very narrow release strategy, do you risk interrupting that excitement and robbing the movie of a way to sell itself to theaters in New Hampshire or North Dakota in the first place?

One of the nice things about cultural conversations surrounding television — especially broadcast television — is that it happens at a definable moment, at least in the United States, and while staggered arrival dates can happen as a result of people deciding to hold off, they don't happen because there's built-in preferential treatment for some cities over others, let alone two cities over everybody else.

While this raises issues around geography and parochialism, it also raises issues about cultural journalism, in which the three fundamental questions that writers have to ask — (1) How can I be of value? (2) How can I be of use? (3) How can I compete? — sometimes suggest different outcomes.

If I may briefly be even more ponderous, I wonder whether this is a case where nonlinear (meaning non-blog-like) presentations of cultural writing, where a publication date takes a back seat to presence in something like an app, will one day dominate. Rather than saying, "Read this because it's the new content," perhaps we'll wind up saying, "Read this as you answer whatever question you're asking, whether it's about film scholarship, consumer guides, or simple information about what's playing."

In the meantime, see The Lunchbox. Maybe now. Maybe later.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.