How prices of popcorn and cold drinks in cinema halls are spoiling the movie experience

Gautam Benegal
Gautam BenegalJul 01, 2018 | 14:21

How prices of popcorn and cold drinks in cinema halls are spoiling the movie experience

One remembers single-screen cinemas with a certain fondness because of the memories attached. They belonged to a world far removed from the complexities one has to work one's way around today, where one could casually take in a film in one's daily stride without having to worry over the monthly budget coming apart, without having to park in a multi-storeyed underground basement, standing in a security line to get patted down, arms outstretched, once at the entrance of the mall, and once again in front of the multiplex doors, and without the unease and niggling irritation of mobile phones flashing and ringing throughout the screening.


Growing up in Calcutta (now Kolkata) as a teenager during the 1980s, I saw cinema halls that ranged from the plush New Empire and Lighthouse with their red carpets, wood panelling, chandeliers and bars, to those like the moth eaten Tiger and Society which had seen better days.

One would, as a college student surviving on tuition fees and freelance assignments for ABP, not (as much as one hazily remembers prices) have to spend more than Rs 20 for a balcony ticket, five for a greasy packet of popcorn, another Rs 5 for a Coke, and at the end stroll over to a nearby food joint like Nizams for a beef roll that would cost Rs 4.

Cheap VHS knock offs were the first signs of the beginning of the end of the single screens. Films began to be pirated during the telecine process of converting film to video formats in seedy studios where prints would be smuggled in from editing rooms, and that was that.

As the great cinema halls crumbled and decayed, and technology empowered the upper class moviegoer, who progressed rapidly from VHS cassettes to CD's and DVD's and finally torrent sites, multiplexes came up with what they termed "movie experiences" that went far beyond simple movie watching over a shabby looking packet of chips and a beverage during the intermission into an engagement with multiple brands vying with each other for market share with glossy fliers of new offers and discount coupons, piggybacking on latest releases, reminding you that the screen was simply an extension of the mall which promised further pleasures.


Then came the 2000's and people started dressing up to go to movies once again like their earlier generations did many years ago on the magnificent red-carpeted staircases and foyers of the old cinema halls.

And what of that space that existed for those who shuffled ahead patiently in long queues for the front rows separated by cages from the more privileged, their tickets priced at Rs 1 or less? Not all of them have transitioned over these 30 years from that state to the gleaming PVR's and Inoxes, nor do they all have comps in their homes with broadband connections that allow them to download or stream.

Even as early as the late 1980s, when single-screen theatres upped their prices after introducing first Dolby, then surround sound, small shacks came up in slums all over India where a fellow would sit outside on a stool, handing out handwritten tickets at as low as Rs 2, and the same underclass that shuffled in those cages would be shuffling and jostling to get inside these.

Speaking for Mumbai, in slums like Dharavi, Sion, Sanjaynagar in Goregaon East, Kurar village in Malad, or Antop Hill, these still exist side by side with the soda pubs, gaming rooms, and country liquor bars. Inside, behind the grimy curtain that hides this little world from the traffic and din of the congested lanes, are plastic chairs facing a TV screen. Films are screened from the latest blockbusters to B-grade soft porn and Bhojpuri films. An entire demographic that had a common roof over its head with the balcony and dress circle class of viewers and the benefit of air conditioning has been downgraded to these environs in a modern day version of the earliest tent cinemas of the early twentieth century.


The films these days are not in VHS cassettes but DVDs burnt with films downloaded from the torrent sites.

There are no irate complaints about services in this threadbare world that provides only the essentials, but on the other end of the spectrum, discontent has been simmering for the last few years which has risen recently over the price of multiplex snacks.

Protesting against high prices of popcorn, beverages and other food items in cinema halls, the workers of Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in typical "MNS style" beat up a theatre manager in Pune on June 28. In a video that was widely circulated on the internet, MNS workers were seen slapping and abusing the manager. MNS workers said that popcorn worth Rs 5 was being sold at Rs 250 in movie theatres despite Bombay High Court saying that the price needs to be reduced.

Given their ad hoc style of functioning and choice of issues, what could have suddenly triggered this action on the part of the MNS in a state where farmers have committed suicide over a few hundred rupees - less than what it costs for a multiplex ticket and a tub of popcorn?

It is par for the course these days for social media to not only act as a self perpetuating machine of delivery but also to create incidents such as the recent lynchings following WhatsApp rumours of child traffickers have proved.

As one trawled the net over the last few days one noticed the following video clip doing the rounds of television actress, Garima Goel, on Facebook.

The upshot of her rant holding a large tub of popcorn in her hand is that the snacks and beverages in multiplexes are not only overpriced but also double the price of the ticket. Giving the example of UK, Goel said that the price of snacks were half the cost of tickets there. To which a wag on FB commented, "Ticket price needs to be raised to Rs 1,000, and popcorn should be raised to 400. That way we can maintain similar ratio as London."

But going by the growing rumble of irate customers, the exorbitant costs of food items and beverages in multiplexes is no joking matter, especially given that this is a captive situation for them. They have no choice but to buy whatever the house offers, as outside food is confiscated at the gate. This despite the Bombay High Court order of April 4.

"Either there should be total prohibition — no one should be allowed to carry or serve food inside theatres or multiplexes or the viewers should be also be allowed to carry their own food and water bottles," said the division bench of justice Shantanu Kemkar and justice Makrand Karnik.

"They cannot compel viewers to buy food articles at exorbitant prices."

How far can consumers force multiplex owners to scale down prices?

While certain snacks and beverages may fall under the Packaged Commodities Act (June 29, 2017), which states, "no person shall declare different MRPs (dual MRP) on an identical pre-packaged commodity, unless allowed under any law" it does not apply to unpackaged items like popcorn or sandwiches as they are free market commodities.

And talking of free market brings up an interesting conundrum.

Who is the appeal to scale down prices on multiplex snacks being made to? The government? If so, that would be ironical indeed. An overwhelming percentage of multiplex audiences and mall goers belong to the neoliberal creamy layer of society with disposable incomes and jobs in corporates, those who are vociferously in favour of a Laissez-faire free market economy and advocate the withdrawal of any kind of government regulation on private businesses.

Many of them hold "prestigious" positions in companies in marketing and sales departments and they are well aware that price determination is a well considered marketing exercise that involves qualitative and quantitative data analytics that decides a certain demographic can afford to pay these prices.

Are they appealing to the multiplex owners for self regulations? Doesn't the market "correct itself" through competitive pricing from what we have been told? At the moment the average price for a medium popcorn and coke is Rs 490 and there is hardly any sign of it coming down.

If there is one lesson that this popcorn protest has taught us it is that even among elitists, affordability is relative and grievance is a matter of privilege, and that we bartered away simplicity for too great a price.

Last updated: July 01, 2018 | 14:21
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