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Polite Society (dir. Nida Manzoor, 2023)

Last updated on April 30, 2023

“I am the Fury,” growls Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) as she looks into the camera being held by her sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), and then attempts a 540 kick that she hopes will be her signature move in the career she’s aiming at:  stuntwoman.  Ria fails, and will continue to fail, at completing this elaborate spinning kick, but as we learn, Ria is nothing if not persistent and determined.

Lena, however, is less so.  She’s dropped out of art school, is frustrated by what she feels is her lack of talent, and spends her days alternately lying on her bed, going out for walks, and buying a whole barbequed duck from a local Chinese shop, all the while trying to hide from her mother’s acquaintances.  However, an invite from Raheela Shah (Nimra Bucha) to attend an Eid soirée at her fabulously extravagant home results in Lena meeting Salim (Akshay Khanna), Raheela’s geneticist son, and the two begin a whirlwind romance that leads to their engagement.  Wedding plans proceed in a blur, and the couple plans to marry and immediately move to Singapore – all of which finds Ria increasingly uncomfortable both with the speed of the relationship, and with her sister’s future husband and mother-in-law, both of whom Ria finds suspicious.

Everyone dismisses Ria’s concerns as that of an adolescent, younger sister having a hard time coping with what will be the sudden loss of her sister and best friend – for Ria and Lena are as close as friends, scrapping hard as siblings will, but always there for each other. Ria firmly believes Lena will come out of her funk and return to her journey as an artist, and Lena believes that Ria will become the stuntwoman she wants to, and is working so hard towards.  And in some ways, this would already be a believable plot in a movie about two sisters navigating the changes in their lives as one decides to get married and make sweeping changes to her life. 

But this is not the story that director Nida Manzoor wants to tell.  Instead, Manzoor creates a fascinating blend of genres, melding a story of British Muslims, sisterhood, and great evil, against a backdrop of martial arts and tradition.  This is not surprising, because Manzoor is the acclaimed writer and director behind the Channel 4 series We Are Lady Parts, which explored the universe of a Muslim female punk band.  Manzoor’s writing is complex and deeply funny.  She breaks down our stereotypes and misconceptions of what young Muslim woman are like, revealing them to be just as saucy, just as funny, just as ambitious, and just as connected to the world as any other young women from any other background, despite needing also to balance their faith and family expectations.  In Polite Society, Manzoor gives us an adolescent heroine who is brash, funny, and entirely capable of handling the villains the world throws at her.  Ria is The Fury, but she’s also an amazingly unstoppable force, a fast friend, an irreverent daughter, and a devoted sister. 

Manzoor’s wild and creative blending of genres is something perhaps akin to the masala genre associated with Hindi language cinema, and alluded to with the film’s title rendered in English, Hindi and Urdu.  Polite Society is, at once, an examination of what it means to be a Pakistani Muslim in contemporary British society, with both sisters choosing paths that are distinctly non-traditional – Ria, especially, rejects the “traditional career path” of becoming a doctor, choosing, instead, to find her inspiration in English stuntwoman Eunice Huthart, to whom she pens fervent emails throughout the course of the film.  The film also examines what it means to be a young South Asian woman, who must conform to community expectations steeped in patriarchy.  It is meaningful that Ria sees herself as someone who does not want to conform to these expectations, and that she finds it disappointing when her sister decides to give up her dreams of becoming an artist, to choose to marry in the most traditional way possible, something she suggests is very “Jane Austen”.

Every good masala film needs a worthy villain to match its hero(ine), and for Ria, there is no better villain than Salim’s mother, Raheela.  Raheela’s motives reveal themselves to be equally rooted in patriarchy and tradition.  Both women want to smash the patriarchy, but for very different reasons which place them in direct conflict.  Raheela needs her son’s marriage to happen in order to fulfil her destiny; Ria needs the marriage to be called off, and her destiny is to confront Raheela.  Ria has reason to believe that Raheela’s motives in arranging the marriage of Salim and Lena are not all that they seem, and, with the help of her friends, arranges an elaborate heist involving kidnapping her sister and putting a stop to the wedding.  As a cover, Ria suggests that she should dance at the wedding (a tradition in South Asian weddings), and proceeds to give us an inspired rendition of Madhuri Dixit’s performance of “Maar Dala” from Devdas

Polite Society is at its most glorious in its fight sequences, truly fitting for a film where the main character aspires to be a stuntwoman herself.  Not surprisingly, the confrontation between Ria and Raheela is, perhaps, the most spectacular sequence in the film, taking its inspiration from Chinese wuxia films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Wuxia period films give us martial arts with elegance, grace, and flow, and having our heroine fight in full wedding lehenga brings these qualities to the fight choreography.

Perhaps the best thing Polite Society has given us is its feisty, furious teenaged heroine, Ria.  Priya Kansara is delightful, funny, and completely convincing as the devoted sister, fast friend, and furious stuntwoman.  Kansara gives us Ria in all her adolescent glory, hitting the film’s wacky beats, convincing us in her dreams and drama – it’s a thrilling and revelatory debut as a lead in a film.  Priya Kansara is, like her character Ria, a fury and a force to be reckoned with.

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