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Polite Society

A martial arts-loving teenager tries to sabotage her sister’s wedding in this delightful genre mashup, which nods to everything from Bollywood flicks and spy movies to Jane Austen and horror.
By Sarah Ward
April 27, 2023
By Sarah Ward
April 27, 2023

Fists fly in Polite Society. Feet as well. When the latter aren't suspended in mid-air attempting to execute stunning kung-fu stunts, they just might be busting out their best Bollywood dance moves. Words are screamed and shouted, often between sisters Ria (Priya Kansara, Bridgerton) and Lena Khan (Ritu Arya, The Umbrella Academy), who are thick as thieves until they suddenly aren't. Schoolyard fights rumble like they've spilled straight out an action movie, which budding stuntperson Ria dreams of being in. Showdowns with Lena's future mother-in-law Raheela Shah (Nimra Bucha, Ms Marvel) could've burst from a Quentin Tarantino film. Espionage missions are undertaken by high schoolers, as are heists at a spectacular Muslim wedding in a lavish London mansion. Lena scoffs down a whole roast chicken on a public footpath like it's the only thing she's ever eaten. Ria and Lena free themselves from their angst by letting loose in their living room to The Chemical Brothers' dance-floor filler 'Free Yourself'. And being a dutiful member of her community is the absolute worst fate that could await an ass-kicking British Pakistani teenage girl.

In other words, a little bit of everything happens in Polite Society, the anarchic and eye-popping debut feature from We Are Lady Parts creator Nida Manzoor. That includes nods to Jackie Chan movies and The Matrix, plus Bond-style antics and Ennio Morricone-esque music drops. Add in riffs on Get Out, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-inspired wuxia, video-game flourishes, musical dance numbers, and nudges in Jane Austen and Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan's directions. Scott Pilgrim vs the World and Kill Bill leave imprints. When it examines intergenerational pressure, so do Everything Everywhere All At Once and Turning Red. Whatever this high-energy charmer throws at the screen, it always serves the narrative. It also showcases Manzoor's lively and bold filmmaking eye. But more importantly, Polite Society is the spin-kicking whirlwind it is because that's what it feels like to be a schoolgirl training in martial arts, yearning to pack a literal punch, desperate to become anything but what society demands and tired of being dictated to — and saddled with cultural expectations but determined to propel along one's own path in general, too.

At school, Ria is told that she should go into medicine. Other than her best friends Clara (Seraphina Beh, Top Boy) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri, Call the Midwife), her classmates mock her stunt-performer ambitions. Bully Kovacs (movie debutant Shona Babayemi) even gets brawling over them. Ria's parents Fatima and Rafe (We Are Lady Parts alumni Shobu Kapoor and Jeff Mirza) advocate for a more practical life goal, not just for her but for aspiring artist Lena. And yet, Ria is certain that she's going to make stunts her career, so much so that there's only two other things she believes in as passionately. She has zero doubts that Lena is meant to be a great painter, ignoring the fact that she's just dropped out of art school. Then, when a surprise invite to the Shahs' Eid soirée sees Lena start dating Raheela's doctor son Salim (Akshay Khanna, Chloe), the most lusted-after bachelor in their family's social circle, and get engaged amid plans to move to Singapore, Ria couldn't be more convinced that the whole situation is 100-percent shady.

When We Are Lady Parts hit TV screens in 2021, it did so with a clear understanding of complicated sisterly relationships. Focused on all-female, all-Muslim punk rockers, the gem introduced the titular Lady Parts with quite the track: 'Ain't No One Gonna Honour Kill My Sister But Me'. In Polite Society, the film's central sibling feud gets physical — when Ria and Lena throw down in one frenetic fray, "Khan vs Khan" is emblazoned across the frame like this is Street Fighter — and, whether they're flinging limbs or hugging it out, their clash is complex. Battling sisters is a nice shorthand for one of writer/director Manzoor's key messages, stressing that there's no such thing as just one type of Muslim woman. Ria and Lena couldn't be closer before Salim's charisma splinters their bond, but even they don't know everything that each other is, wants, hopes for or fantasies about.

There's no one straightforward description for Polite Society either, with its kaleidoscope of genres, bouncing between capers, coming-of-age journey, comic tone, sibling celebration and arranged-marriage satire — and its Bend It Like Beckham-influenced narrative, swapping soccer for stunts. As it bounds through Ria's world, as well as her fears about not realising her only dream and losing Lena to a conventional existence, it manages to sprinkle in horror and science fiction. Manzoor also pays loving tribute to Ria's passion not only by staging dazzling stunts, but by having her protagonist idolise real-life stunt professional Eunice Huthart. The British ex-Gladiators star sports a resume that boasts GoldenEye, The Fifth Element, Titanic, 28 Days Later, Children of Men, Maleficent, Justice League and Eternals, as well as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Fast and Furious, Terminator, Pirates of the Caribbean and Tomb Raider titles, and Polite Society finds room to wink at many of them.

Ensuring that the style of a film so utterly suits its story isn't easy, and nor is having every aspect of a movie's look and feel epitomise the statement it's making — then also doing both in a way that makes it plain that no other approach could've done the flick justice. That's a feat that Manzoor smashes, and repeatedly, with equally dynamic help from cinematographer Ashley Connor (Night Sky), editor Robbie Morrison (Starstruck), inspired sound effects and a thumping global soundtrack. The camerawork has as much of a spring in its step as Ria, as does Polite Society's happily hectic pace, vibrant use of colour and everything that echoes from the cinema speakers. All movies should be acts of immersion, but rare are the films that so deeply plunge their audience into their lead character's head and heart with everything it can, let alone so committedly, creatively, convincingly and compellingly.

Rare are the on-screen finds like Kansara, too, who is as expressive and exuberant as the picture she's in. Polite Society doesn't idealise Ria at any moment — a film so devoted to shattering stereotypes and destroying any possibility of Muslim women being seen as a monoculture was never going to avoid her impulsiveness and hot-headedness — instead giving Kansara ample room to have a helluva lot of fun in her fleshed-out main part. She's playful, enterprising and heartfelt while operating at a mile-a-minute speed. She isn't afraid to make big leaps and stay spirited from the get-go, and to both unpack and lean into Ria's main-character syndrome. She's also a winning blend of pluck and spark in a roundhouse kick of a joyously entertaining flick that makes every single jab and strike matter.

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