This week my column isn’t a film review. Instead, I’m exploring a somewhat new and intriguing trend in Bollywood — the high concept movie. The term has been attributed to media moguls Barry Diller (ex-ABC) and Michael Eisner (ex-Disney). In Hollywood, high-concept signifies films that have simple premises that provide a unique hook. These aren’t films built on complexity, craft or character. Instead, they are designed to deliver a quick rush of adrenaline. Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws is iconic high-concept but these films rarely attain that level of artistry. You are more likely to see films like Speed about a bomb in a bus or, at its most reductive, a film so simplistic that the title alone can denote the story as in Snakes on a Plane.
Traditionally, Bollywood has not had many high concept films. Ittefaq, Yash Chopra’s 1969 songless film about one night during which an unhinged prisoner escapes and hides in a mansion of a murderous housewife, was perhaps an ancestor. Ram Gopal Varma has also made attempts, with films like Kaun (a one-night saga, which referenced Ittefaq), Darna Mana Hai (a horror film with six short stories) and its sequel Darna Zaroori Hai.
In Bollywood, high concept has often translated into a big star who can guarantee the critical opening weekend. So Salman Khan is, in himself, a high concept — what he does in movies like Ready and Bodyguard is pretty irrelevant. This, however, might be changing. Next week, the big release is John Abraham’s first production, Vicky Donor, which features a protagonist who becomes a sperm donor to make money. The tag line: Every Drop Counts. And in the past few weeks, trade magazines have carried a slew of ads for films that sound purposefully strange — Bloody Veer: Half Vampire; Fully Screwed; Kinky aur Pinky: Twisted tale of two sisters; Size Zero: Everyone’s losing it; and my favourite, Nangu aur Pangu, set in 2500 BC about a caveman who invented marriage.
These films are being produced by a company called iRock Films, which co-produced last year’s horror/sex movie Ragini MMS. iRock Films is also making one of India’s first zombie films, Rock the Shaadi. I have to admit that, I’m instantly seduced by the idea of a zombie item number.
I chatted with Siddhartha Jain, head of iRock Films about this very colourful slate of films. Jain said his company follows a Hollywood model — that is they have 15 full-time writers and just as many freelance writers. “We only produce what we develop. All our films are high concept, new genre, strong marketing hooks, with a compelling reason to watch it, irrespective of the presence of a big star.” Which means that some of the films that have been announced don’t have stars or even directors attached. Directors pitch to the company on how they would treat the script and are then finalised accordingly. As of now, of the 11 films announced, three have directors attached. Jain plans to announce four to five more directors in May. He said: “We are definitely leading the youth genre with edgy, young adult themes.”
Who will these films talk to? Mostly, I imagine, to the burgeoning population of young people. According to the Census of India, the population projection for 2011 for people in the age group of 15 to 34 is approximately 430 million. That’s a lot of movie tickets! Unlike Hollywood, Bollywood doesn’t have snazzy special effects or even enough great stories to enable filmmakers to do without the star crutch. Perhaps high concept will show the way.