There are only spoilers. I have no other intention.
Introducing the winner of this year’s Karshakasree Award, Maniyarile Ashokan. The film, starring Jacob Gregory, is about a man who is rejected by various women in his life, finds kink in a banana plant. It’s basically a kinky 90s Sreenivasan film.
Ashokan is a handsome young guy, of average (mallu)height, and brown skin – your run-of-the-mill mallu guy (generally most mallus).
He is employed, has understanding parents, and lives in a quaint village where men bathe in public. With everyone around him getting married, Ashokan is too keen to marry as well. Although it does look like he is too horny and seeks marriage as the license to get some action. He realizes that women can say NO to his proposals and that causes him a great deal of mental crisis. But things turn for the worst when his superstitions also work as a cockblocker. He loses the love of his life to another man after an astrologer states that his natal chart has issues that would lead to the death of his first wife. As a cure, the astrologer suggests the ridiculous idea of him marrying a banana plant first. This should have been the reality check for Ashokan that leads to his marvelous and revolutionary mission against superstitions…. but unfortunately we are not there yet.
Maniyarayile Ashokan has an interesting premise. It is not unusual in India for astrologers to suggest outlandish ideas to “cure” the “problems caused by stars and planets”. A world famous beautiful woman, for example, is rumored to have first “married” a banana plant before her actual marriage with a known movie star. But here, instead of using the premise to be critical about such practices, the movie uses the opportunity to revel in a new kind of sexual objectification.
As the film begins, we are introduced to Unnimaya, a woman who was admired by every man in the village. The story of Unnimaya unfolds in a song, where she is compared to “pickled mangoes”, “coconut”, and even “tar”. One would think it’s a parody of the many poems and songs where a man compares his love interest to the things he loves. But here the movie takes it to the extent that Unnimaya exists only as a fetish. She is the object of desire for literally all the men in the village and even after disappearing from the scene of action (moving to a different place after marriage, and never appearing in the plot again), the legend of Unnimaya is transferred into a banana sapling.
This banana sapling eventually reaches Ashokan’s house and grows into the plant that Ashokan “falls in love” with.
Through the lens of psychoanalysis, Ashokan’s “love” with the banana plant is not much of a mystery. Ashokan’s sexual anxiety increases every time a woman rejects him. He is frustrated and distressed at seeing his cousin enjoying moments of affection with his wife. More than anything, Ashokan dreams about filmy-sexy (censored enough for family audience) times with his future wife. When he finally sets to perform the marriage to cure whatever issues the stars and planets have with him, he wants to marry the “most beautiful” banana plant (the Unnimaya banana plant). Importantly for Ashokan, the beautiful banana plant that he discovered is not going to reject him like other women.
He finds a temporary solution to his crisis through the banana plant, except he grows to be obsessed about the banana plant.
Classic fetishism, Freud would immediately conclude and call his next patient. Anyways.
He is heart broken when the banana plant gets broken down in rain (like all banana plants do in Kerala), but he decides to grow his “two kids” – the two banana saplings from the plant. What appears as immature and ostentatious do not stop there even when he is offered to marry a woman who likes him.
The movie gets one thing right – about understanding Ashokan’s problem as related to mental health, but ironically that’s the thing the movie gets wrong about as well. It is a practice in Malayalam cinema for years now to show mental hospitals or rehab centers either as degenerate prisons or as beautiful resorts. Ashokan does one or two yoga moves and gets an absurd out-of-the-blue phone call from his cousin, played by producer sir Dulquer, and he seems to be all well so soon.
Another cliche in Malayalam cinema is to depict some sorts of poetic justice. The women who leave men are not shown in a good light, and the poetic justice is earned by showing that the men get a “better”- read beautiful, successful, loving – wife. Here, perhaps as an answer to all the women who rejected him, the woman Ashokan ultimately marries is played by the much adored Nazriya. The movie ends on a happy note as Ashokan has married a beautiful girl who is so much in love with him, but unfortunately Ashokan still imagines his family photo like this:
I was asked “why are you wasting time illustrating something that could have been a Twitter thread instead”. Yeah, sometimes we don’t know why we do what we do- like DQ could have easily planted a banana plant instead of making Maniyarayile Ashokan and hating everyone who doesn’t like the movie. But yeah.