Thank you Reflects on Life and MKP and Popka Superstar for encouraging me to write this post! It’s probably not exactly what you pictured (nothing ever is, life is a series of disappointments), but at least it’s kind of getting at it.
(I’m gonna start small, with one tiny bit of film criticism, and then expand that. The biggest points are bolded for you.)
“High Concept” and “Low Concept” are two terms that people tend to hear in context and start using without fully understanding what they mean. The first thing to understand is that every product has a “concept”. Some of them are High, some of them are Low, but the majority are just “regular”. “High Concept” and “Low Concept” aren’t universally useful tools of criticism because for a lot of products they simply do not apply.
If you are writing a story and you come up with characters, and how they know each other, and where the story is set, and the initial complication of the story, that is your “Concept”. And then the story builds from there, that is the engine that starts it going and it chugs along by itself after that. Sholay, the “two thieves arrive in a village” movie, that is a “concept” movie, just a regular one. There is an initial setting and complication that puts things in motion, it’s more than just characters hanging out, but that is only the beginning for the film. Think of the “concept” as your elevator speech description of the film. Or what is shown in most trailers. Or what a good reviewer will use in their review without spoiling the rest of the film.
What is “low concept”? Low concept is when the initial complication is very slight, and there is nothing particular striking or simple to explain about the characters or the setting. “Low concept” is a challenge, is unusual. If done well, you end up with a movie where plenty of things happen, but they happen so slowly and naturally that it is hard to describe the plot. Arth is low concept. Jab Harry Met Sejal is extremely low concept, which is part of what frustrated people about it, because it’s not about ANYTHING. It just is.
Now, what is “high concept”? High concept is when the initial idea for the film is the most unusual thing about it, not just the starting point but the whole point. Eega, that was very much a High Concept film. What’s the film about, why should you watch it, what makes it good? The hero is a fly. That’s it, that’s the whole everything about the film in one sentence. A concept can be character based as well, Ek Nai Paheli is High Concept too. No special effects, no science fiction, instead the idea of a woman falling in love with the son of the man her daughter is falling in love with. If done well, you find yourself describing the central idea of the plot and then saying “But, it’s so much better than it sounds!” If done poorly, you find yourself saying “but, it’s not as cool as it sounds.”
Most solid popular well-made films fall into the “concept” category. DDLJ, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Deewar, 3 Idiots even, they all have an initial plot idea that you can easily describe, but the film is also more than that. That’s the simplest way to write a good film, it’s reliable, you have your idea and you build. Even if an idea starts out “low” or “high” concept, there is a decent chance that in the process of creation it ends up averaging back to just “regular”. DDLJ for instance, the original idea was to cast Tom Cruise as the lead, make it a total crossover film. That would have been High Concept, having a Hollywood big name actor opposite an Indian actress in a Hindi movie would be the biggest part of the film. That idea never made it off the drawing board, it was just a jumping off point to writing the actual script which softened the concept and lead to a more character based film. On the other hand, we have Kuch Kuch Hota Hai versus Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Karan talks in interviews about how his father advised him on how to build a movie and he has been moving further and further away from that in every film. Compare KKHH with ADHM, and you can see how Karan is progressing ever further towards Low Concept as time goes on. But in his first films, his initial desire for a loose structure was brushed away and the sell-able “hooks” added on to the story.
The internal pressure of the creative process tends to wipe away all high and low concepts (just too hard to write well), but external pressure also plays a role. Audiences don’t like high or low concept products, they are hard to sell. High concept is new and weird and scary. Low concept is confusing and hard to grasp. Dil Chahta Hai is the great Low Concept classic of Hindi cinema. And it was a sleeper hit, and popular in urban areas and among young people, but it didn’t really blast off at the box office. You had to see the film to experience the film, there was nothing in the trailers to tell you why it was special. Lamhe is the classic High Concept flop. It was just too STRANGE. The audience couldn’t wrap their head around the idea of a man falling in love with the daughter of his lost love. If it had been watered down, changed to younger sister for instance, then they would have bought it. Of course, it would have been a far worse movie. Dil Chahta Hai too, if someone had said “can you make the heroes cops who are all involved in a shoot out and suspended and then go to Goa and fall in love?”, that wouldn’t have been as good a movie at all. Creatively, Lamhe and DCH were on point, their makes knew exactly what they wanted to do, but the audience wasn’t ready.
If we have a “concept” scale of 1 through 10, and DCH is 1 and Eega is 10, then I would say most Indian films fall around a 3 or 4. And most Hollywood films more like a 6 or 7. I still wouldn’t necessarily label them as “high” or “low” versus just “concept”, but there are leanings in one direction or the other, and Hollywood tends to lean high while India tends to lean low. In Hollywood, the films that are notable are the ones that land more at the 3 or 4 level. Think like one of the “mumblecore” comedies. The 40 Year Old Virgin has a concept, a guy is a 40 year old virgin and his friends try to help him. But it’s so much more than that, it turns into a lowkey improvised comedy between a half dozen characters who are all growing and changing as time passes. Basically any Cassavetes movie (the father, not the son) would also be “low concept”. You just throw these characters and actors together and see what happens. In India, it is the reverse. The movies that have a slightly higher concept are the notable ones, like Andhadhun.
Before moving on, there is one other thing to think about with “concept” in Indian film, and that is how the interval structure effects it. Often a film has two concepts, one for the first half and one for the second. Or the concept comes in two parts and only fully makes sense in the second half. Om Shanti Om, for instance, the first half had the concept of “behind the scenes look at the 1970s film industry”. But the second half is where we built on that to “behind the scenes look at the 1970s and 2000s industry with a reincarnation as a connecting tissue”. In Hindi film, even the initial “concept” usually doesn’t come until about 20 minutes into the film, after we have had a fun mini-intro scene while people are finding their seats and buying popcorn, and then the “concept” comes at that point. Chennai Express, for example, started with Shahrukh’s character’s backstory and introduction, and then hit the point of “southern gangster’s daughter on the run meets up with Bombay middle-aged player type” which is the “concept” for the film. Even a mid-concept film can feel “low concept” just based on the opening scenes, or even the way the concept takes a while to build.
Now, what I have found in watching southern films, is that the “concept” is handled very VERY differently based around the interval structure (feel free to correct me if I am wrong). In Tamil and Malayalam films especially, the “concept” of the film is often not introduced at all until the interval or close to it. We spend the first third or first half of the movie in a “low concept” world, just getting to know the characters and place. There is no single sentence description beyond “this is a village”. Any “concept” for the film comes much later. This is part of why Malayalam and Tamil films are a hard sell to outsiders, if you look at the plot description it is something like “photographer gets into fight and swears not to wear his shoes until he defeats his enemy”. And then you watch Maheshinte Prathikaaram and go through a whole tragic love story, father-son issues, village life comedy, and finally after an hour, the plot that the description promised shows up. That’s Tamil and Malayalam, in Telugu what I have gotten used to is instead there is a strong concept for the first half, and then a second almost entirely unrelated concept for the second half. Saaho for instance, the first half was cops and robbers in Bombay. The second half was gang war in the desert. Same characters and all of that, but with Saaho (as with most Telugu films) you can literally start at the interval and watch the second half as its own film. And that doesn’t matter if they are high or low or mid-concept. I would say Fidaa (for instance) is a low concept movie, and it still resets everything at the interval. Mirchi is a mid-concept movie, it also resets at the interval. That’s just how Telugu films work. None of this means you can’t compare mid-low-high concept across Indian industries, or between India and Hollywood, it just means you have to be aware of how the structure introduces the concept, and how what is “normal” varies industry to industry.
The important thing to realize when using the “high” versus “low” concept analysis is that it is not a quality judgement. Or a genre judgement. It’s merely a way of categorizing films. So, PK is a High Concept film, so is Laga Raho Munna Bhai, and 3 Idiots is more of a mid-concept film. But I would say that 3 Idiots is the best of the three of them because the other two lean more on the concept instead of working to make the rest of the film work. Dil Chahta Hai is Low Concept and so is Seethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu, but those are very different movies in very different genres (one is a coming of age movie, one is a family wedding movie).
Hollywood films tend to be more High Concept because of the structure (90 to 120 minutes doesn’t give you time to get much past the initial concept), and the audience (they are movie driven rather than star driven).
Indian films tend to be low concept because of the structure (160 to 180 minutes requires moving far past an initial concept), and the audience (the audience prefers familiar plots with small alterations, and is star driven).
And this brings me to film criticism. Doing a fully High or Low concept film (especially a low concept in Hollywood or a high concept in India) is a challenge for the filmmaker because it is not what their collaborators are used to. And it is immediately notable for the audience, because it is not what they are used to either. The question is, is it worth it? And this is where criticism tends to fall down. And where we hit a gender gap.
Gender, as all my nice educated liberal western readers know, is a concept. “Sex” is a biological reality, but “gender” just means two different ways of looking at the world, male and female. The “male” way of looking at the world tends to look for quantifiable rules and labels. When applied to film, that means a movie should be neatly categorized as “high concept” or “low concept”, within a particular genre, often under a particular director’s style as well. Once you have everything labeled and put in tidy boxes, you can pull out similar films and neatly and objectively decide if it is “good” or “bad”. Film criticism done this way gives a big advantage to films that are unique, because there isn’t anything to compare them to. Slumdog Millionaire in the West, for instance, got much better reviews than it would have in India because there was nothing to compare it to. Film criticism done like this is not kind to films that don’t fit into any easy category, films from first time directors or films that mix genres or films that aren’t in any genre at all. On the other hand, the “female” way of looking at the world just flows along, it is based on emotions and non-quantifiable elements. Female film criticism looks at a movie and considers how it makes you feel, what message it gives, if you “like” it.
Now, both kinds of film criticism have flaws. If I am criticizing in a purely “female” way, I may get bogged down by details or emotions and forget to look at the big picture, consider multiple aspects in an objective way. If I am criticizing in a purely “male” way, I miss the little picture. In a vacuum, I have no particular preference between either style. But we don’t live in a vacuum, we live in a world where the “male” way of looking at things dominates all discussion. And in popular media, that “discussion” also controls the end result of creation.
So, what is the end result? Specifically in terms of the recent rise of Indian film criticism? First, there is the general issue that Indian film critics seem to see their job as to tear down films instead of discuss them. Whether you use male or female arguments, insults are always welcome (see my “feminist film criticism” post and my “feminism in translation” post for more on the problems possible in the female perspective. Not that those problems are limited to feminism issues, but it is the one area where the female criticism style has power so it is seen most often there) But second, if anyone is going to risk praising a film, they will do it from the “male” perspective as the “female” perspective is no longer respected. If you say “I love Raabta because it made me happy, it made me feel things, and I related to the female character”, that is not a worthy reason to defend your liking for it. But if you say “I love Raabta because it uses innovative camera work”, that is a “male” reason and you are greeted with respect.
We see this all the time in individual new films being reviewed, but the sad thing is that it is also affecting how Indian film is viewed as a whole history and style and genre. All those “male” categories of film criticism were designed for Western films, not Indian. “Genre” and “Auteur Theory” are perhaps the most dangerous. Indian films don’t fit with the “genre” categories as designed by the west. And if there is an “auteur” in Indian film, it is as likely to be the star or producer as it is the director of the film. For example, saying “Deewar is an Action Genre film by the director Yash Chopra, and so it should be compared to Darr which is also an Action Genre film by the same director” is very bad. Deewar should be compared with other Amitabh movies, no matter the genre or the director. Or it should be compared with other Salim-Javed movies no matter the genre or the director. There’s an attempt to make film history of India fit neatly into genres, directors, and studios, just like in the West. It DOES NOT work!!!!! If you want to use “male” type thinking to address Indian film, you need to create new categories that fit Indian film.
Beyond the concepts that cannot translate, there are also the totally new concepts that are only within Indian film. It’s a valid discussion to talk about how a film is translated between industries, what changed and didn’t change in the journey north to south or south to north. That’s not really a thing that happens in other countries and requires such a specific analysis. My favorite is the way set narratives are shifted and a discussion of if it was done well or poorly or originally and what the purpose was. DDLJ versus Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani versus Jab Harry Met Sejal, all the same plot, but what changed and why? How did the films enter a conversation with each other?
What makes this really frustrating is that the work is in fact already done. The way fans and filmmakers discuss films from India follows a specific complex logical pattern that matches Indian film. Look at star eras instead of studios or directors. Forget genre, focus on style (Bahubali and Yamadonga were different genres, but both were in a fantasy/Puranic style). Invent totally new categories for films to match what is in front of you, “Parallel cinema” or “Malayalam New Generation”. But if I am a fan and I say “I like Shahrukh Khan movies”, I will now be informed that that is the “wrong” way to look at films. The same with saying “parallel” instead of “independent” or any number of other Indian specific film terminology.
And so we have reached the point where we are now. On this blog, and on the fan boards and in fan communities, people talk about movies in terms of how they feel about them, how they fit within Star’s body of work, how they play with the established narratives of film for a particular language group, and how they fit within certain style requirements. But in the “official” prestigious critical world of India, films are only addressed according to fixed Western labels and measures. If an Indian film successfully makes itself “western”, it is now good. So long as it resists the western categories and thinking, it remains “bad”.