Mohua Das (THE TIMES OF INDIA; April 9, 2017)

Turns out, tortilla stuffed with spicy biryani and rajma picante pairs well with a romantic ghost story from colonial Punjab. And bites of a sugary banoffee waffle can heighten the cuteness of a suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying baby. Ask anyone who has watched Phillauri or The Boss Baby at Insignia, Inox's luxury lounge in Mumbai lately, where the multiplex has joined forces with celebrity chef Vicky Ratnani to transform ordinary movie bites into a gourmet affair.

Multiplex eatables first went beyond popcorn and nachos to pasta, pizza and dimsums with the advent of the 'Gold Class' theatre more than a decade ago. Now, the players - Inox, PVR, Cinepolis and SPI Cinemas - are upping their culinary game with chef-curated meals, priced between Rs 150 and Rs 1,800. If PVR's luxury arm - Director's Cut in Delhi's Vasant Kunj - has a menu with close to 150 food items featuring sushi and sashimi rolls, carpaccio, cheesecakes and the works, their premier sub-brands in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Pune serve grills and bakes spanning ciabatta to panini. Chennai's SPI Cinemas that operates 36 screens across the country runs a signature patisserie while Cinepolis, the Mexican theatre chain with over 292 screens across 40 Indian cities, is rustling up freshly made gourmet coffee and sandwiches at Coffee Tree, their in-house coffee shop.

The munchies too are decidedly upscale, featuring edamame and fox nut mixes to cheese platters and lavash with dips, but popcorn is still the hero with chefs devising ingenious ways to spruce it up. If Le Reve in Bandra has a DIY option of holding a tub of corns - specially imported from Nebraska - under a shower of three different seasonings, PVR in Delhi has a popcorn bar which serves a melange of popcorn ice-cream sundaes.

“Notoriously, the movie exhibition industry has been known for below average F&B,“ admits Renaud Palliere, CEO of PVR's luxury collection. “We're trying to change that.“ He brushes off complaints of “overpriced“ fare. “Everything comes at a price when you're trying to raise the bar by bringing on board talented kitchen staff and serving dishes made with fresh and superior-quality ingredients,“ says Palliere.

Seasoned chefs are being hired from the hospitality sector at annual salaries of Rs 40 to 60 lakh. If SPI Cinemas brought on board Mickaël Besse, a pastry chef from France who has worked in several Michelin-starred restaurants, as their culinary consultant, PVR Cinemas has Japanese chef Yutaka Saito, with stints in top restaurants in New York and New Delhi, helming the chain's Japanese fare. Each Inox multiplex has a sous chef now who supervises the menu and commis chefs dishing it out. The menu is refreshed every quarter like in a restaurant. “Bringing newness to an old concept has been fun,“ says Ratnani, a television food show host who in keeping with Inox's all-vegetarian policy is whetting appetites with exotic greens, Moroccan spices, Caribbean rice and pasta in multiple shapes.

Bhavesh Shah, head of F&B in SPI Cinemas, says that earlier when the food was outsourced, they struggled with quality and service. “For suppliers it was just about business minus any passion or vision. So we decided to bring in a chef and set up our own bakery. Mickaël visits twice a year and is the backbone of our entire menu,“ says Shah.

In-cinema dining is turning out to be serious business. “F&B contributes 20 to 27% of the total revenue that a cinema earns. That's how the business becomes sustainable,“ explains Devang Sampat, director of strategic initiatives for Cinepolis. “So even if a movie doesn't do too well at the box office, the cinemas still manage to do business and see a turnover bigger than many quick-service restaurants,“ adds Gautam Dutta, CEO of PVR Cinemas.

Crafting a menu for the arduous ritual of eating in a dark hall within elbow distance of the person sitting next to you is quite a challenge. “It can't be too pungent or noisy or of a texture that slides off the plate,“ explains PVR's executive chef Mayank Tiwari, that has its menu classified under 'fork, finger, nibble and feast.' While too much attention on the eats may distract from the basic agenda of watching a film, the idea of digging into a salmon steak in corn susimo sauce and washing that down with a frothy red velvet shake brought to the seat by a butler, taps into everyone's inner royal. “And for that feeling, a few bucks extra seems like a bargain,“ says Ashoke Menon, an advertising professional from Parel. Like Dutta points out, “People get the business-class-travel experience without having to go anywhere.“