Big cinema chains like PVR and Inox are breathing sighs of relief after the Supreme Court order. A bench of Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud and Justice PS Narasimha noted on January 3, 2023, that cinema halls are private properties and the owners are entitled to set terms and conditions on the moviegoers as long as it is in public interest and safety. “A cinema hall is a private property. What goes in is for the owner of the property to decide subject to statutory rules,” the bench pointed out.
Giving real-life examples, the bench said that the owner of cinema halls may not want people wiping hands on the seats after eating jalebis brought from outside and therefore can forbid the same. “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,” the bench added. It said that concessions could be made for providing free water at movie theatres, but that doesn’t give moviegoers the right to bring lemons from outside and make lemon water inside the hall just because lime water is priced at Rs 20.
“The basic premise is that cinema has a right to reserve admission. The cinema owners have a right to sell their own food and beverages. The owner is entitled to set terms and conditions so long as such terms and conditions are not contrary to the public interest, safety, and welfare. The owner is entitled to set terms for the sale of food and beverages. Movie goer has the choice to not purchase the same,” the bench stated.
The bench also said that cinema hall owners could consider allowing parents of children to carry a certain amount of food inside the theatres. “It is also reiterated that when an infant accompanies a parent, cinema owners shall not object to reasonable food carried for the infant,” it directed.
Food at cinema halls has been a matter of controversy and litigation for many years, with moviegoers vehemently fighting for cinema halls to allow outside food citing high prices. The issue has led to various incidents one of which included a viral video depicting an MNS worker slapping a multiplex manager over high prices of food in June 2018.
In the same year, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court lifted the ban on moviegoers from carrying outside food in theatres. The ruling further led to the Multiplex Association of India and Jammu and Kashmir cinema hall owners filing a plea against the same in the Supreme Court. The latest ruling of the apex court overruled the High Court judgment, noting that the initial ruling would affect the legitimate rights of theatre owners.
Senior advocate KV Viswanathan contended that since cinema halls were private properties, the admission rights could be reserved. The counsel for the original petitioner submitted that the cinema ticket represents a contract between a movie goer and the movie hall, and since the prohibition is not printed on the ticket, outside food could not be prohibited. Viswanathan argued that there is no compulsion to buy food in the movie halls and that precincts of cinema halls are not public property. Advocate Sumeer Sodhi, appearing for the GS Malls Pvt. Ltd., argued that the receipts issued by theatre owners have a specific condition mentioned on them to the effect that no outside food is allowed.
The bench observed that the fundamental aspect which needs to be noted is that the trade and business of running a cinema theatre is subject to regulation by the state which has framed the Jammu and Kashmir Cinemas (Regulation) Rules, 1975. It said, admittedly, the rules contain no mandate compelling the owner of a cinema theatre to allow a movie goer to bring food or beverages within the precinct of the theatre.
The bench said it needed no emphasis that the rule making power of the state has to be exercised in a manner consistent with the fundamental right of the hall owners to carry on a legitimate trade and business within the meaning of Article 19 (1)(g) of the Constitution. “Viewers visit a cinema hall for the purpose of entertainment. We are clearly of the view that the High Court transgressed the limits in the exercise of its jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution by ordering and directing the state to ensure that there should be no prohibition on a movie goer bringing eatables and beverages from outside within the precinct of a cinema hall,” the bench concluded.
To put things in perspective, in 2022, multiplex chain Inox Leisure sold 863 tonnes of popcorn, over 5.1 lakhs sandwiches and 38.15 lakh litres of Coke to its customers.
—By Abhilash Singh and India Legal Bureau