The culinary swing towards mindful eating isn’t limited to cafes, bars and restaurants; cinemas are jumping on the bandwagon too — unhealthy snacks have been replaced by more diverse, wholesome and customised theatre foods. At INOX Insignia in Atria – The Millennium Mall, a thoughtfully curated and unconventional menu adds to the luxury movie-watching experience, and Zaral Shah samples the goods while chatting with the venue’s head chef, Vicky Ratnani and the COO of Inox Leisure, Daizy Lal.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MALLIKA CHANDRA
I can remember when being ‘food-conscious’ became a thing, when diet fads dominated eating habits and when everyone started reading nutrition labels with the same attention that they now watch Black Mirror episodes. I also remember a time when going for a movie almost always meant that it was going to be a cheat day — until less than a decade ago, a healthy meal at the movies was not really an option. Much like song and dance, films and food have gone hand in hand, and it would be close to impossible to not be tempted by the smells and sounds from the caramel popcorn machine or lured by the perfectly fried, golden-brown samosas calling out to you from behind the glass display case. Cinema in the entertainment capital has, for decades, been synonymous with these kinds of savoury and sweet guilty pleasures; and the advent of multiplexes in the early 2000s brought along nachos, French fries and other pop-up stalls. At these new venues, seeing the screenings move away from the standard 9 a.m., 12 p.m., 3 p.m., 6 p.m., 9 p.m. schedule brought audiences a whole new type of cinema viewing — parents could eat chaat while watching Mission Impossible in Screen 1, while their children munched on nachos and sang along to a Disney duet in Screen 2 next door! But, despite their nostalgic appeal or novelty factor, these foods are not satiating; they are rarely ever wholesome and often serve merely as fillers while restaurant reservations await.
Having been a cinema regular since the early 2000s, I am intrigued by how far the associated culinary scene has advanced. For anyone else who also grew up in Mumbai around the single screen theatres like Regal, New Excelsior or Metro, a trip to the movies will always stir up memories of the aforementioned A1 samosas, bubbly sodas and ice cream sticks. But times sure have changed.
Luxury, as a concept, has also greatly evolved. When I was younger, an extravagant cinematic experience in Mumbai meant reserving the mini preview theatre at Eros Cinema, with an exclusive movie screening for a private party and refreshments in the circular lobby outside. Today, we’re offered the option of customising our time in the theatre — from the movies we watch, to the formats we watch them in (2D, 3D, 4DX) — and the food we eat too. I myself have, over countless screenings, devoured the popcorn and nachos, fries and ice creams, and I justified it knowing that I was eating these foods for the lack of healthier options. But after the morning I recently spent at INOX Insignia at Atria-The Millennium Mall, I realised that it’s going to be harder to keep using that excuse.
I meet with Chef Vicky Ratnani, who has put together the theatre’s vegetarian-only menu, and Daizy Lal, COO, INOX Leisure. Strolling through the lobby and lounge area, both decorated with an assortment of movie memorabilia, I realise that it is rare for me to walk into a cinema and admire its interiors. While Ratnani whips up some foods from the menu, I delve deeper into the vision behind a seven-star model such as this one. “The Insignia at Atria Mall is one of our flagship properties. When we started developing it as a format, the only objective was to create a concept which is a convergence of superlative premium-ness, suave technology and personalised services,” shares Lal. And while the experience is largely shaped by tailor-made amenities — spacious recliners that you’ll want to take home for your Netflix binges, a butler-on-call and easy-to-use touch-screen control panels — the food has taken centre stage. Ratnani explains, “We have kept a lot of factors in mind while curating this menu. We took the demographics, tastes and diverse preferences, and the varied group sizes in mind during the process. We made sure that the menu is heterogeneous and offers something for everyone.”
On walking into the premises, before I can head towards any one of the screens, I’m greeted by an inviting food bar. What sets this theatre apart, is that unlike many cinemas I’ve been to in the past, here I have access to a striking blue menu that lists the available options — and the options are aplenty. An added feather in the venue’s cap is the Live Kitchen, where chefs rustle up food in front of guests, making it a more interactive and engaging experience. And when the dishes are then promptly brought to your recliner at optimum temperature — it gives new meaning to the whole ‘dinner and a movie’ thing. There are the chef’s-recommended light bites, keto bowls, tikkas and kebabs, along with other fresh market bowls, sandwiches, pizzas, pastas and more. The menu has something for my pre-movie munchies, intermission hunger pangs and eventual sweet cravings.
Talking about the conceptualisation, Ratnani elaborates, “Cinema viewing has come a long way in our country, and it continues to evolve. We are glad that we have been able to keep up the pace of ‘cinema food evolution’ with that of the ‘cinema technology evolution’. As Indians, we have grown up with this distinct moment called the ‘interval’, which is the time to grab some food. And from the days of eating packed popcorn, we are here today discussing kebabs, shakes and exotic foods.” A self-confessed movie buff, he has transformed some theatre staples into more glamorous and outlandish versions of themselves — the Popcorn Shake for instance, liquidates the iconic snack into a velvety drink with hints of banana and hazelnut, and is topped with crunchy salted popcorn! Ask him about what’s going to replace the exploding kernels, and he instantly says, “Makhanas (Lotus root seeds) are the popcorn of the future!”
While on the subject of food, I wonder if there are any external factors that influence orders. Ratnani believes that the selection of food and entertainment are absolutely distinct choices that are influenced by distinct conditions. “Food ordering habits do differ as per genre and show timings. A guest walking in during the afternoon or late evening would want a wholesome, complete meal. Similarly, someone coming during the early evening slot would want to order quick finger foods. And our menu is designed to cater to all such needs,” shares Lal. Additionally, you can walk in and grab something from the menu without having to buy a ticket. Tickets for morning shows are generally under five hundred rupees, and while weekday tickets for night shows stay close to a thousand, weekend night shows can amount to close to fifteen hundred rupees a head. Over at the food counter, the light bites and fresh market bowls are all under four hundred rupees, the ramen Buddha bowls, pizzas and other mains have been kept to under five-fifty.
Almost two years into the opening of this INOX Insignia, what keeps the patrons — old and new — coming is how efficiently the theatre keeps progressing. “Thanks to our personalised connect, we get genuine first-hand feedback from our guests, which forms a critical part of the evolution process,” emphasises Lal, whose fondest memory at this venue is of watching the movie Veere Di Wedding (2017), with her girl gang. Further, the team at Inox seems to have mastered the art of seamlessly delivering the food during a screening. “We have identified ways to ensure minimal viewing interference. Right at the blueprint stage, we understood that a centre aisle could create intrusion due to servers’ movements, and therefore the auditoriums have passages on both sides and none in the middle. And the uniforms of the servers are colour-coordinated to camouflage with the dark ambience,” explains Lal. With each of the five auditoriums having only about 30 seats — limiting a row to only a few — if you’re fond of the age-old practice of passing food down, it’s something you’re going to miss! Because thanks to their swift movements and the ample walking space in front of the recliners, the servers going to and from the seats do so without causing too much of an interruption.
Mention food favourites, and both Lal and Ratnani agree that the double-baked khichdi is an instant crowd pleaser. The kebab kulcha platter and masala coke are frontrunners on Lal’s list, and Ratnani’s winners are the tree of life keto bowl and the my Thai ramen Buddha bowl. Of all the dishes that I sampled, the flavours that I will savour most, probably for weeks to come, include the freshly tossed happy Greek salad; loaded potato wedges topped with guacamole, molten cheese and chunky salsa and the retro aloo tikki burger with chutney mayo and pickled onions. But with Ratnani at the helm, there’s always going to be something new to look forward to. “Making sure that we are evolving with the dynamic preferences of our patrons has always been a priority when it comes to our Insignia menus. We now have more global representation — with some local quirk, of course. And we are also taking care of our health-conscious patrons more than ever before,” he concludes.
IN CONVERSATION WITH AUTHOR, ACTOR AND CHEF, TARA DESHPANDE, ON HER INOX INSIGNIA EXPERIENCE…
The extensive menu Chef Vicky Ratnani has outdone himself. There’s something for everyone — health foods, as well as goodies and treats for when you want to indulge. There are options for both vegans and vegetarians!
On the next step in luxury cinema Massage seats, manicures and pedicures. I’m sure ladies would chip in and book all the seats for a party, or even a baby shower!
The role of food in a theatre People always eat at the movies, and it is generally very limited and often unhealthy food. Here you can have a full meal, a salad, a grain bowl, even food without onion and garlic. Rather than a snack, you can actually eat something nutritious and freshly made. The price point too is very good.
On eating in the dark This is the only drawback. I would suggest the servers shine a small light over the food when they serve it to you. Even a glimpse of it, and you would know what is on your plate and how to mix it or pick it up. On the other hand, I had fun guessing the flavours in the dark! Your taste buds work a bit harder when you can’t see what you’re eating.