Cast: Fahadh Faasil, Mamta Mohandas, Soubin Shahir, Dileesh Pothan, Spadikam George
Venu’s Carbon begins with Hydrogen and Oxygen: water, in other words. The credits appear over big, fat drops of what seems like rain. But where are we? Inside a car, watching a downpour through the windshield? Inside a house, perhaps, near a window? This isn’t a film that hands out instant answers. The wait for the explanation behind this image, in fact, lasts almost 145 minutes, which is the duration of the movie. Only in the last few frames do we see whose eyes those opening minutes were seen through, and where.
Meanwhile, we slip into Sibi’s (Fahadh Faasil) home — but Sibi isn’t home. His phone is switched off. His worried father (Spadikam George) has summoned Sibi’s friends, and he tells them, “If he doesn’t come today, we will make a police complaint.” But the friends don’t think this is a good idea. Soon, we see why. Sibi is in the midst of a shady operation, trying to sell an emerald that he claims is from a temple. Such a scene can play out as farce (a botched deal), with suspense (say, a double-cross), or with desperation and despair (a failed transaction). This scene, like the film, plays out in all these flavours. “What is the film’s genre?” we usually ask. In Carbon, the question is, “What isn’t?”
For a while, we get a dramedy about Sibi’s many get-rich-quick schemes, and these beautifully edited (by Beena Paul) scenes flow around a wealth of logistical detail. Venu (who’s also the writer) clues us into how Sibi’s brain works, how he handles cross-questioning or curveballs from the other party. So when Sibi deals with a woman (Praveena) who wants to sell an elephant, or a politician (a hilarious Dileesh Pothan) interested in a scam about selling bicycles to tribal women, the conversations seem to unfold in real time, without being pruned for dramatic effect. We don’t get just the punchy highlights of deal-making but also the dry transactional detail that makes us see the wheels turning inside Sibi’s head.
We know Sibi does bad things and we know Sibi is a bad son — but Fahadh Faasil’s extraordinarily empathetic performance convinces us that Sibi isn’t a bad man
And this is how we come to know Sibi. In Venu’s previous film, the superb Munnariyippu, the protagonist was a cipher. His past was concealed from us, and we had to read his actions, in the present, to try and understand the man. It’s similar with Sibi — we make sense of him only through the here and now. We get a devastating scene between Sibi and his father that tells us how self-absorbed Sibi is — he does nothing even when he knows his actions are endangering his family. (A gangster threatens Sibi’s father about some money Sibi owes him.) So we know Sibi does bad things and we know Sibi is a bad son — but Fahadh Faasil’s extraordinarily empathetic performance convinces us that Sibi isn’t a bad man.
The first time we meet Sibi, he is instructing an auto driver to call him at specific times, as he goes in to make a deal. We see both his over-preparedness (repeatedly going over his instructions to the auto driver) and his under-preparedness (inside, when he faces an unexpected situation). Fahadh makes us see a man who thinks he’s smarter than he is — though he isn’t a total idiot, either. Sibi is one of those people so bogged down by abstract theories (all he knows is that he doesn’t want to be one of the poor and get exploited by the rich) that he has no use for concrete realities. His head is in the clouds. When a friend tells him his dreams aren’t realistic, he says, “Life is only interesting with a touch of fantasy.”
Carbon takes a cue from its protagonist and begins to blur the lines between the real and the unreal. A spine-tinglingly eerie encounter with a mahout (Soubin Shahir, whose scenes I watched slit-eyed, like in a horror film) turns out to be a dream… or is it? How, then, does a photograph of the man end up on Sibi’s phone? Is Sameera (Mamta Mohandas) a flesh-and-blood person, or an ethereal muse who communes with nature, singing Vishal Bhardwaj songs? (This is the composer’s second Malayalam outing, after Daya, which was also directed by Venu.) Is this one of those films where we are going to slap our foreheads at the climax and exclaim “It’s all a dream?”
Midway through the movie, the story moves to a forest (spectacularly captured by cinematographer KU Mohanan, with a mix of both awe and dread) — Sibi’s new scheme is to transform a dilapidated property into a high-end resort. The spotted deer (called Mareecha) seen strolling outside may be a symbol of covetousness, alluding to the myth of the golden deer from the Ramayana — but what does one make of the other animals (elephant, bison, bear)? Surely there’s more to this than just wildlife photography.
There is, and it’s allegorical. As proof, Sameera name-drops The Alchemist, which was an allegory wrapped around a man’s search for treasure. Sibi thinks there is, hidden in the forest, gold from Tipu Sultan’s time — and despite stories about evil spirits guarding the treasure, this easily scared man sets out into the mysterious unknown, with a party headed by Stalin (Manikandan Achari, who is wonderful as the rooted realist, in contrast to Sibi). The subtitle of the film is Ashes and Diamonds, and I wondered — early on — if this was a nod to the most famous film of the Polish director Andrzej Wajda. But as Sibi turns into a man possessed, obsessed by his seemingly foolhardy quest, we are reminded more of Werner Herzog’s madmen-heroes.
The year has just dawned and I can state, with confidence, that it’s unlikely we see a stranger film, so richly atmospheric, so lyrical and literal at once
As interesting as all this is conceptually (and had the IMDb message boards still been around, this would have been a great film to discuss), Carbon doesn’t really come together — in the sense that a lot of it seems to be locked up inside Venu’s head. As it goes on, the narrative turns increasingly diffuse. This is, at heart, a message movie about chasing dreams (there’s no such thing as a get-rich-quick scheme; it’s always about back-breaking work, and sometimes it gets real scary but you have to keep at it) — and while I was grateful the message wasn’t directly administered with a wagging finger (which is so often the case in Tamil cinema), I wished for more clarity in some parts.
For instance: Why does Sameera tie a scarf around a tree? Is it so that Sibi can find his way back? But in the midst of all this surrealism, is logic really important? And what is the point of the tribal boy’s (he’s part of the expedition) anger when Sameera laughs at his superstitious beliefs? Nothing seems to come of it — and yet, we see why the boy was needed. Like Stalin, he offers a counterpoint to Sibi. He has no greed. He only takes what he needs. I wish I knew why the ending needed to be so tangibly real, so fixated on result — but the feel of the film gets under your skin. The year has just dawned and I can state, with confidence, that it’s unlikely we see a stranger film, so richly atmospheric, so lyrical and literal at once.