Sunday, July 14, 2024

Light Theesko :Outside food in multiplexes- regulate prices at least

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The recent orders of a bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice PS Narasimha, that a cinema hall owner could prohibit moviegoers from carrying their own food and beverages inside cinema halls and the rider that all cinema halls must provide hygienic drinking water for all moviegoers free of cost leave much to be desired.

The argument that cinema halls, as private properties, could reserve admission rights by inter alia prohibiting moviegoers from carrying their own food articles and water inside the theatre is not tenable when all multiplexes charge a bomb for food and beverages sold on their premises.

Let us ponder on what Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud observed: “A cinema hall is a private property. What goes in is for the owner of the property to decide subject to statutory rules. So, saying that arms are not allowed or no discrimination on basis of caste or gender can be there is fine. But how can the High Court say that they can bring any food inside the cinema halls. Suppose someone starts getting jalebis.

The owner would not want anyone wiping their hands on the seats. It’s his right. He may not want tandoori chicken to be bought in. No one is forcing them to buy popcorn. But the owner has a right. For water, we can make a concession that free water be provided at movie theatres but at the same time you can’t say that suppose they sell nimbu paani for Rs 20/-, you can’t say I’ll go buy my nimbu from outside and squeeze it in a flask and make it inside theatre.”

The court noted that the fundamental aspect which needed to be considered was that trade and business of conducting cinema business was subject to regulations by the State. “The owner is entitled to set terms and conditions so long as such terms and conditions are not contrary to public interest, safety, and welfare. The owner is entitled to set terms for the sale of food and beverages”.

What is indefensible about multiplexes is that they allow their business partners to set astronomical prices for all items of food and beverages sold on their premises to enhance their own as well as their partners’ respective brand values, thereby making a mockery of MRP. People appreciate the pleasant ambience provided in multiplexes.

That does not mean they can be squeezed and made to pay through the nose for everything that may want during their three-hour stay on the premises, be it to assuage their thirst or hunger or simply yield to a whim. Moviegoers are a captive audience everywhere on the premises of multiplexes, not just when they are inside the auditorium watching the movie.

The saving grace is that the apex court wants cinema halls to permit “a reasonable amount of food when an infant or a child accompanies a parent”. Isn’t the infant’s or child’s presence in the theatre incidental to that of the parent? It is parents who patronize multiplexes.  

In June 2016, Vijay Gopal, a Hyderabad-based activist, was prevented from carrying his own water bottle inside a multiplex and charged Rs 50 for one. The MRP of the same water bottle was Rs 20. He approached the Hyderabad Consumer Forum.The Forum ruled in April 2017 that cinema halls cannot charge more than the MRP on water bottles and ordered the establishment to pay Rs 6,000 to Gopal. He then filed a query under the Right to Information (RTI) Act with the Hyderabad City Police asking, among other things, whether there was any law restricting consumers from bringing their own food and water into these establishments.

The City Police responded:”There is no such rule in the Cinema Regulation Act 1955 of Telangana State restricting moviegoers from carrying their own food or water bottles to the cinema hall. But on safety and security point of view, carry bags/boxes/luggage [and] outside food is not allowed.”

The Multiplex Association of India, reacting to the city police’s response to the RTI query, pointed out that many PILs (public interest litigation pleas) on this issue had been filed and dismissed by High Courts across the country. Citing the SC stay, it said “multiplexes are allowed to regulate the entry of goods and beverages inside their premises”.

Talking of private property and their rights to restrict admission in the context of business establishments, don’t we feel outraged about the preposterous conditions imposed by some five-star restaurants and uber-malls that people wearing dhoti or saree are not allowed?  In September 2021, a restaurant in New Delhi denied entry to a woman as she was wearing a saree. Following furore on social media platforms, the restaurant was shut perhaps on other grounds. In July 2017, a man was initially denied entry into a popular mall in Kolkata just because he was wearing a dhoti.

When he protested, ironically in English (thanks to colonial hangover), he was allowed entry! When the man and his wife later confronted the management team, they were told that for ‘security reasons’ they do not allow people wearing dhoti, lungi and such outfits.

So, connect the dots now! Like the super-elastic term ‘public order’ under which the law-enforcing authorities book people for offences that are somehow subsequently linked to draconian pieces of legislation these days, the proviso “safety and security point of view” provides multiplexes the safety valve they love to use when they ride roughshod over moviegoers’ rights to have eatables at reasonable rates. If explosives can be smuggled inside theatres in the garb of eatables, are the metal detectors and other frisking gadgets in theatres decorative pieces?

Multiplexes, having monopolized the sale of food and beverages, cannot thrust products on consumers at prices that are predatory.  It is high time every State and Union Territory passed specific and stringent laws to regulate businesses that suck up to brand values at the cost of their customers.

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