Polite Society Review – Sundance Film Festival

Writer and director Nida Manzoor broke out with her hit television show We Are Lady Parts that followed a bunch of British Muslim girls who formed a punk band. Manzoor’s debut feature Polite Society carries on that punk spirit infusing it with a distinctly British Asian feel and a true love of action genre films and the importance of young women destroying the patriarchy one flying spin kick at a time.

Sixteen-year-old Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) cares most about two things – her upcoming career as a stunt woman and her older sister, Lena (Ritu Arya) who has always supported Ria’s dreams but seems to be in a deep depression because she hasn’t managed to achieve hers to be an artist. Dropping out of art school has left Lena in a limbo and despite her parents (played wonderfully by Shobu Kapoor and Jeff Mizra) being supportive to an extent, they’re both very pleased when at an Eid Soiree at the incredibly wealthy Shah mansion, Lena catches the eye of seemingly the most eligible bachelor around, Salim Shah (Akshay Khanna).

Clearly less excited by the prospect of her sister dating Salim, is Ria who thinks there’s something not-quite-right about the whole Shah family, including the matriarch, Raheela (Nimra Bucha). Opting to wander about the mansion during the soiree she comes upon a table filled with photos of eligible women and is disgusted to find Lena on it. Ria is also aware how the ultra-rich Raheela simply tolerates her own more working-class family. That Raheela could be keen on a match between the now seemingly aimless Lena and her successful geneticist and doctor son strikes Ria as fishy and she is intent on getting to the bottom of the mystery even if it means alienating Lena in the process.

Ria is “extra” even by her own description. Her dreams of being a stunt woman are documented on her YouTube channel ‘Khan-Fu’ and her best friends Clara (Seraphina Behe) and Alba (Ella Buccoleri) form her at school crew. They support her and quip with her as she takes on (and loses to) the school bully, Kovacs (Shona Babyemi) in what Manzoor sets up as Mortal Kombat like fight scenes. Manzoor isn’t worried about the believability of the script or the situations – she’s wanting to take you on a kinetic action/comedy ride, and she does just that.

When Lena accepts Salim’s proposal after three weeks of dating it is Ria who is not only scared of losing her sister to the fit guy with the good teeth, but also questioning the idea of an assisted marriage that both her parents tell her is a good thing. What can a girl do? Come up with a three (or more) point plan OPERATION WIFEHUNTER to stop the marriage with her besties while also emailing her hero the prolific British stunt woman Eunice Huthart about her issues with men ruling the world and the loss of Lena’s talent as an artist.

From here Manzoor essentially sets up a heist film with increasingly outrageous and clever scenarios. Clara, during planning for one of Ria’s ideas says, “There’s a reason that tropes are tropes, because they work.” Manzoor knows her tropes well and employs them with abandon – from referencing everything from classic action films from Leone to Bond, to the blisteringly great score that evokes punk, Blaxploitation, Westerns and more.

Manzoor, of course, uses tropes for subversion. Hers is a deeply feminist film that exalts girl power (literally and figuratively) and gives British Pakistanis their own spin on the genre.

Manzoor’s direction is downright fun and is ably captured by cinematographer Ashley Connor. The wire work is fantastic, especially when it is as imperfect as the would-be stuntwoman performing it. What makes Polite Society really sing is the performances by Priya Kansara as Ria and Ritu Arya as Lena. Also adding to the heady mix is veteran actor Nimra Bucha as the scheming Raheela. Bucha and Arya have some experience with action roles with the former being recently in Ms Marvel and the latter doing great work on The Umbrella Academy. What is surprising is how much Kansara carries the film as someone who has appeared only in a few episodes of much more sedate British television.

Polite Society is a film made for The Sisterhood, but also for sisters. It knows that it is over the top and doesn’t care. It does skew for a teen-oriented audience and that is somewhat perfect. If one thinks of it as the British Asian rebuttal to films like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World then a clear idea of where Manzoor is coming from emerges.

Many years ago Gurinda Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham made a star out of Keira Knightley but saw its Asian characters go under the radar (although co-star Parminder Nagra has had a successful television career). Manzoor’s film won’t have the same thing happen. It never loses focus of the community at the heart of the work.

Polite Society is a wonderfully frenetic and expertly paced action/comedy film which is built on real affection for the Ria and her “extra” personality. No-one is asking you to accept that the plot could exist in reality, but Manzoor makes sure that the audience accepts that Ria’s tenacity is wonderful, and the sisterhood is in full, ass-kicking, force. Polite Society could well be the feel great film to come out of Britain in 2023.

Director: Nida Manzoor

Cast: Priya Kansara, Ritu Arya, Akshay Khanna

Writer: Nida Manzoor

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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