The Pakistani-British Khan sisters, Ria (Priya Kansara) and Lena (Ritu Arya) have dreams that deviate from what their community and family expect from them, namely to work in STEM and marry well to guarantee socioeconomic security. But Ria and Lena have dreams to work in the arts, whether that be stunt choreography for Ria or painting for Lena.
They resolutely pursue said dreams, but as the weight of expectations and reality begin to crush on them, so comes on in Raheela (Nimra Bucha) and her son Salim (Akshay Khanna) to whisk Lena into a life of marriage and stability. But as Ria won’t let her sister go into domesticity without a fight, she and Lena find so much more than either of them bargained for. Written and directed by Nida Manzoor, Polite Society will also take audiences on a wildly hilarious, action-packed, and earnest ride unlike anything they’ve seen before.
Much like in her TV project We Are Lady Parts, Manzoor has created a story centering brown Muslim women who face societal adversity without ever resorting to stereotypes that western media has all too often heaped onto Southwest Asian, North African, and South Asian (SWANASA) and Muslim women. While Lena and Ria do face down the patriarchy, Manzoor presents the central conflict as not an oppression somehow inherent to their Pakistani or Muslim culture, but in a nuanced capacity that demonstrates how the worldwide toxicity of patriarchal and capitalistic pressures comes down most harshly on women generally.
The story Manzoor sets (at least as it starts out) is a relatively simple and grounded one about family that breaches into profundity and (very welcome) absurdity. The heightened reality of the conflict magnifies the issues that our writer-director wants audiences to think about, and it works to great effect. While the setting is that of Pakistani-British society, it’s never an admonishment on Manzoor’s own Pakistani and Muslim background, which she consistently cherishes and centers so much through her work. With her constantly witty script that never relents in energy, and a keen eye for the films glorious visuals, action, and pacing, Manzoor proves herself as a masterful director and screenwriter.
In achieving this balance in Polite Society, Manzoor forcefully comments on the undue and unjust pressures that women, and specifically SWANASA women must face as they aim to achieve fulfillment and happiness for both themselves and their families. And Lena wants to marry Salim not to make her family happy, but for herself after despairing that she won’t be able to make it as a successful artist, knowing that Salim and Raheela’s wealth is a practical draw, as well as the sincere love she feels. We all knew Ritu Arya was a fantastic actress already with her role as Lila on Umbrella Academy, but here she gets to demonstrate even more of her range, imbibing Lena with wonderful poignancy, frustration, and deep compassion for her family, especially Ria.
While Lena acquiesces to the capitalistic pressures, Ria is relentless in achieving her dream to be a stuntwoman, despite her family insisting she become a doctor. “I’m not a stinking doctor,” she protests! She’s a wonderfully flawed protagonist who messes up far more than she succeeds, giving audiences, and especially SWANASA women, a charismatic, hilarious, and heartfelt hero to root for. Working with her steadfast and hilarious mates Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) to save Lena from monogamy, Kansara plays Ria with vivacity and relentless passion, cementing herself as both a dramatic and comedic lead who can also do some exceptional flips, dance, and martial arts. But most of all, she’s a highly devoted (often to a fault!) sister who will do anything to help Lena achieve her dreams and happiness. Audiences will be charmed with Kansara and Arya as they command the screen and herald the Khan sisters’ story.
The script and story give Nimra Bucha so much to work with, allowing her to revel and chew up the scenery in all her scenes. While Bucha is very much the antagonist, there is so much depth given to Raheela as she revels in her villainy. The performance and script will allow you to empathize with her while knowing she’s still very much in the wrong, making for a fascinating villain to watch. It’s very much a step up from other villainous roles Bucha has previously played. And again, Manzoor presents Raheela without resorting to stereotypes, but in showing a South Asian Muslim woman who has had the unjust weight of patriarchy and capitalism thrust on her, driving her to her villainy. It’s about the systemic harms that these systems inflict upon all of us, and how they unfortunately may drive women in our societies to inflict them on each other, and in very dramatic fashion here.
The action and martial arts of Polite Society are outstanding, making this a martial arts epic as well as a compelling comedy. Manzoor and her choreography team did their research into classic Wuxia and martial arts films (Ria has a poster for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and implemented various action scenes throughout the runtime. Building up from school and household fights to a full-on brawl at a Desi wedding, Manzoor and her team keep up the action to keep audience enthralled. With a killer soundtrack and score by Tom Howe and Shez Manzoor, and consistently stunning cinematography from Ashely Connor, Polite Society is a constantly wondrous and thrilling delight for the eyes and ears.
There’s not enough good I can say about Polite Society. I implore you to watch it by whatever method is safest and most accessible for you. Polite Society shows we need more stories from Nida Manzoor and SWANASA creators like her who wonderfully portray our peoples with sincerity and passion, breaking barriers in revolutionary ways. With a stellar cast, soundtrack, action, high stakes, and rip-roaring verbal and physical comedy that will result in countless laughs, you’ll want to watch Polite Society over and over again. I know I can’t wait to see it a second time and much more after that. Thank you so much Nida Manzoor.
Polite Society will be out in theaters April 28.
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