Although its subtitle Ashes and Diamonds would appear a shameless evocation of Andrzej Wajda's brilliant 1958 movie about individuals in a time of social upheaval, Venu's Carbon is unrelated except perhaps in suggesting an interface of dreams / aspirations and reality. In Venu's film this interface is core to the film's identity.
Sibi (Fahadh Faasil in a part seemingly created for him) is in his mind, a big player, facilitating deals between those that want and those that have - from gemstones to elephants it doesn't matter what - Sibi is ready to make the connection and pocket his commission. But the truth is he hasn't much success, his gift of gab never able to overcome his lack of working capital to grease the wheels of fortune. But Sibi can never bring himself to accept defeat and enter the routine of "doing a job and settling down" his friends have gotten into. He can be liked - we see his pals going to great lengths to back him up - but he cannot be trusted. Early on the film gives glimpses of his anarchic daydreamer spirit: passing by a bank he fantasizes about robbing it. The aforementioned elephant deal has an amusing epilogue which resonates deep into the film. And Sibi is not given the conventional motivations of getting rich "to support the family". His relationship with them is more perfunctory than anything and a later scene with the father beautifully underscores his essential alienation. Kudos to Venu and Fahadh for taking a character with such unlikable traits and getting the audience to empathize with him without cheap sentimentality.
After trouble with a loan shark over borrowed money Sibi goes into hiding, taking on the assignment of developing a remote jungle property as a tourist destination. With no electricity, no mobile network and no people apart from caretaker Balan (Kochu Preman, a wonderful character actor) and the occasional local, Sibi is entirely out of his element, his inner hustler stifled in this removed, almost alien environment. His luck appears to change when he meets the spunky Sameera (Mamta Mohandas) a self-professed "jungle junkie". He also comes to hear of the legend of a treasure hidden in the forest hundreds of years ago. Sibi grows obsessed with the idea of finding this treasure, even when the locals warn him that no one that went after the it came back whole. More than the monetary value, it becomes a sort of Holy Grail, a justification of his inner spirit. With Sameera and a couple of locals he puts together a small expedition that both literally and figuratively goes deep into the wilderness. What happens in the course of this quest and whether Sibi fulfils his dream of finding the treasure and becoming the big wheel he always dreamed of being forms the rest of the film.
This part of the film evokes the classics of master film-maker Werner Herzog such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, being like them about obsessed men with who plod in the face of an alien impassive nature with the idea of claiming it for their own. The treatment is less raw and relentless than what Herzog would have gone for, the makers aiming to keep one foot on the commercial acceptability boat with mostly glamorous natural vistas and unnecessary lashings of background music supplementing the forest soundscape.* But you can see the intent, and even though the expedition segment and its unraveling impact on the protagonist should have been given more breathing time (it occupies less than a fourth of the total running time), it makes an impact; a hallucinatory experience late in the film is a marvel of character exploration. I also loved that Sibi and Sameera are not forced upon us as a romantic pair. She goes along on the expedition because she likes Sibi's zeal and hustle, but also realizes that he is hopelessly unprepared for the hazards of the jungle. Mamta exudes the required pragmatism and warmth of the character, and provides an able counterfoil to Sibi. Of course the film ultimately belongs to Faasil and he keeps the audience with him from beginning to end.
Without going into spoilers, I was initially put off by the end, which seemed to me a pat commercial compromise, but thinking back, who's to say it is not another example of the fluid traversal between dream and reality in Sibi's mind? Recommended as one of the most interesting Indian movies I've seen this year.
* There are also a few songs composed by Vishal Bharadwaj, which are decent but I was very distracted during the Rekha B. sung Dhoore dhoore on account of her horrible diction.