Part coming of age teen drama and part action thriller, Polite Society, the debut film from writer-director Nida Manzoor, is a must-see this year. Rich in allusions to cult classics like Kill Bill, Get Out, The Matrix and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, it’s packed full of relatable family drama, witty one-liners, dynamic cinematography and well-oiled fight scenes. With such a packed dance card of genres, it would be easy for a film this big to lose focus, but Manzoor keeps everything working in harmony to produce an unforgettable tale of sisterhood and family.
Our heroine is Rita Khan (Priya Kansara) lives in London with her family, attends a private all-girls college and spends every waking moment working towards her dream career, a stuntwoman. Her world turns upside down when her sister Lena (Ritu Arya) falls in love with society’s most eligible bachelor Salim (Akshay Khanna) and rushes into marrying him, seemingly giving up on her dreams of being an artist. Despite Lena’s apparent happiness, Ria decides that she, and her sidekicks/friends Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri), must ‘save’ her – concocting a series of harebrained schemes to break up the happy couple and to uncover a potential secret plot by Salim’s mother Raheela (Nimra Bucha). This results in several high-energy fight scenes between Ria and various ‘villains’, which feature classic martial arts film elements (think visceral sound effects, continuous shots, dramatic close ups) but mix in humour and surreal sari choreography.
The real magic of the film comes from Manzoor’s wry social commentary. From the overly dependent mummy’s boy Salim, to the humour-less careers counsellor pushing Ria towards a career as a doctor, to finally Ria actually being chased by blood thirsty aunties and uncles, there are some subtle and not to subtle metaphors to the pressures Ria and Lena are under. Whether that’s the expectation of the school to ‘get a serious job’ or the social pressure to find a suitable match within their muslim community, these toxic expectations gradually push Ria and Lena to breaking point.
Even though Lena clearly feels the pressure to marry as she is the older sister, it was vital to Manzoor that the film was not focused on a cliche forced marriage storyline. Lena’s parents, Fatima (Shobu Kapoor) and Rafe (Jeff Mirza) are involved in the pair’s courtship, and are certainly excited that Salim is ‘a good catch’ (a handsome geneticist, what’s not to love?). Making the marriage forced would remove Lena’s agency and be culturally insensitive, and Ria’s stout opposition to the partnership despite it being a love-match makes her appear even more juvenile and naive.
An honourable mention must be made to the cinematography and style of the film as a whole. The title cards, overly stylised fight sequences and cliche sound effects hark back to classic action films like Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but also have a fantastic campy anime or video game like quality. It’s fun, dramatic and leads to some fantastic chase scenes across London. It is also very enjoyable to watch fight scenes where women are rough, tough and just as bloody as the men. Interestingly the film also gives nod to some Bollywood classics with added melodrama, some impractically large outfits and the obligatory big musical moment.
This is much more than Scott Pilgrim with saris – it’s a coming of age for the new generation. It’s smashing the patriarchy and empowering women, without being overly disrespectful to culture and community. Manzoor does a fantastic job of exposing the suffocation young women live with; creating a playful and bloody exploration of the toxic nature of modern polite society.