Dinner at the Movies

Food is an integral part of the movie-going experience in India. Kamakshi Ayyar traces the evolution of food at the cinemas.

The Bombay High Court is one of the busiest courts in the country, and every day the newspapers are filled with details of various cases. Many of these are of significance to the public — some more than others — and one recently caught my eye. The court was hearing a public interest litigation filed by one Jainendra Baxi who challenged the rule that prohibits cinema-goers from bringing outside food into movie halls. Baxi argued that since there was no statutory prohibition on the matter, theatres couldn’t stop patrons from bringing their own eatables.

The case got me thinking about what I usually eat at the movies. Most of my food memories in theatres revolve around caramel popcorn and Coke, but there is one that stands out. I was 10 years old and watching Hera Pheri at Gaiety-Galaxy, one of Mumbai’s most famous cinemas. For some reason, my super-sized Gujarati family had decided to carry food into the theatre, including homemade chutney sandwiches and a box of chaklis that my nani had made. This was before guests were frisked and bags were checked, so it wasn’t too difficult to sneak the food in. Between chugging Thums-Up from giant 1-litre bottles, and stuffing chaklis into chutney sandwiches to make a delicious (though some might say dubious) combination, I laughed through what is still one of my favourite movies.

Theatre food has changed a lot since the year 2000. You’ve still got the popcorn-samosa-sandwich-soda quartet, but today, most multiplex chains serve pizza slices and pasta bowls, and dim sum platters and gourmet cookies. The options are mind-boggling. It feels like ‘dinner and a movie’ has transformed into ‘dinner at the movies’.

Food writer Vikram Doctor recalls the chicken rolls at Sterling Theatre in Mumbai. “They were great because they used real mayonnaise, and you could tell they were homemade, not mass-produced in some factory,” he said. For chef Vicky Ratnani, the samosas from A1-Gurukripa in Sion, a neighbourhood in central Mumbai, were to die for. “I remember there were only a few things to eat, and we’d have to run to beat the queue and make sure we got it before it was sold out,” he said. A1’s samosas are synonymous with the movie experience in Mumbai. The shop has been supplying the city’s cinema halls since the 1980s, and their potato-stuffed golden triangles can be found across concession stands, serving two in a white paper bag often stained translucent from the oil. Even today, despite the fancy fare available in chains like PVR and INOX, A1 samosas are standard in about 40 multiplexes and single screens like Chitra, Chandan and Gaiety-Galaxy.

In Madhurai, local snacks like murukku and mutta bonda or spicy hard-boiled egg fritters find takers; and sherbets, with colourful essences and flavours, were the drink of choice before sodas became popular. In Chennai, Sathyam Theatre’s popcorn flavours have been delighting cinema-goers for over 15 years now. Patrons can choose from seasonings like Mexican Cheese and Sour Cream Onion to sprinkle on the popcorn and create unique flavour combinations. There was a reason this innovative idea came about: Tamil Nadu theatres had a cap on ticket prices and owners needed to increase revenue through food. “Our food needed to stand out to bring audiences into the theatres... we couldn’t afford increasing salaries and costs, otherwise,” Bhavesh Shah, head of experiences at SPI Cinemas (Sathyam’s owners) told The Hindu.

The change in food has been gradual. It started with small stalls that sold steamed corn, Subway sandwich counters and kathi roll stands. It was only once the multiplexes sprouted that things really changed. Now in addition to regular chicken and chutney sandwiches, there was mushroom pesto sandwiches, bhel puri and French fries. During the interval, you didn't have to queue for more snacks because sales representatives would walk through the aisles with a menu, asking to take your order. In an attempt to integrate the dining element into the movie experience, ticketing apps and websites offered discounts on meal combos while buying tickets. Some theatres even installed touch-screen kiosks where guests could place their orders without the hassle of lines, and have the food delivered to their seats.

Samosa to popcorn, the evolution of food at the cinema in India

Once theatre owners realized that people were willing to pay more for better services, they rolled out high-end screens like PVR Gold, PVR Director’s Cut and INOX Insignia with new and improved menus across cities. The attention to food and beverages made sense given that it became a major revenue stream for them. These new screens promised plush, reclining seats and amenities like blankets, on-call butler service, and restaurant-style food.

PVR’s Gold and Director’s Cut cinemas were among the first to really revamp the food on offer under the PVR Luxury Collection banner. Items are generally divided into 'Finger' and 'Fork,' and includes mezze platters, shawarmas, rice bowls, freshly rolled pizzas and salads. You can wash it down with jaljeera, Darjeeling tea or an Oreo cookie shake. Rahul Singh, Chief Operating Officer, PVR, said, “Some of our sandwich breads are flown in from France, the pizzas are prepared in an imported make-line and one-of-its-kind oven.”

A few years ago, PVR teamed up with Yutaka Saito, the chef of Japanese restaurant Megu at The Leela Palace, Delhi, to introduce sushi and Japanese hot dogs on the menu. Choose from options like salmon sashimi, veggie California rolls and 'Japadogs' such as potato croquette and gari mayo, or spicy teriyaki onions, pineapple and garlic chips with a chicken frank or pork bratwurst. Even Masterchef Australia contestant Sarah Todd partered with PVR to offer fine dining dishes on their menu.

In late 2016, INOX unveiled Insignia, a glitzy theatre in Mumbai’s Nariman Point neighbourhood that offers similar amenities. Hoping to extend the upscale viewing experience to the food, INOX got Vicky Ratnani to develop a menu for their Insignia guests. “I tried to keep a few things in mind while putting the menu together,” he said, “The food should be easy to prepare, quick to serve, not too heavy on the palate, and easy to eat on a recliner sofa.” It also had to be an all-vegetarian menu keeping in mind the religious sentiments of the theatre’s owners. This led to a menu that includes popcorn flavours like habanero tabasco and cheesy gunpowder, a gourmet cheese platter, Mumbai toastie sandwiches, biryani and twice-baked khichdi. A recently-opened outlet of INOX Insignia in Worli, Mumbai, features open kitchens and live counters where you can order, among other things, freshly-tossed makhana.

While many enjoy the variety on offer in theatres now, there are those who would prefer it otherwise. Doctor isn’t a fan of all the options. “I’d rather they did something more exciting,” he said, “Gourmet popcorn doesn’t have that smell of fresh, hot buttered popcorn… for me that’s part of the experience of going to the movie.” I agree with him to an extent, but have to admit I am taken in by the cinema hall spread. Though I wouldn’t mind munching on a chakli-chutney sandwich at the movie now and then.

Kamakshi Ayyar is a freelance journalist based in Bombay. She tweets as @kamakshi138.