Anglo-subcontinental filmmaking has come a long way since Bend it Like Beckham (2002). That “heartwarming” tale of a young girl from an Indian migrant family who wants to be a soccer star, has been superceded by a story of a teen from a Pakistani family with ambitions to be a stuntwoman. Once again, the cultural issues are front and centre, but instead of kicking around a soccer ball, the characters in Polite Society kick ass.
This is a first feature for director, Nida Manzoor, whose previous work has all been for television, including a 2021 series called We Are Lady Parts, about an all-girl Muslim punk rock band. If that sounds wild enough to secure Manzoor a Salman Rushdie-style fatwa, she has gone one step further with Polite Society, a film that delights in challenging stereotypes and conventions. This slice of suburban family comedy is also a martial arts extravaganza, a bizarre coming-of-age story, and a black horror fantasy with a wedding theme. It’s an original hybrid, fast and consistently funny.
The story revolves around Ria (Priya Kansara), a 16-year-old schoolgirl from a Pakistani family living in the London suburbs, whose burning ambition is to be a stuntwoman. To further this aim, she writes fan letters to her idol – real-life stuntwoman, Eunice Huthart – but never seems to get a reply. She practices obsessively in her room, and films herself playing the superheroine for her website (“I am the Fury!”), gradually blurring the line between fantasy and everyday life.
Ria is devoted to her older sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), who once nurtured her own grand ambition to be an artist but has since dropped out of Goldsmiths and fallen into the doldrums. This has not dampened her sister’s loyalty, who believes it’s their destiny to both become stars in their chosen fields. Lena, however, is proving hard to persuade.
Everything in Ria’s world gets upset when the girls are dragged along to an Eid party at a wealthy neighbour’s house, in which we meet an entire subculture of prosperous, upper-middle class Pakistani families. The centre of attention is the son, Salim (Akshay Khanna), a handsome young doctor, who finds himself surrounded by a swarm of nubile admirers. Yet of all the eligible young women at the party, the one who attracts Salim’s attention is Lena.
A fullblown engagement soon develops, sending Ria into a meltdown. She views this relationship as a catastrophe which spells the end of her dream of dual success. She can’t bear the idea of Lena as a dutiful housewife, and superstitiously feels her own ambitions are doomed without her sister’s support. At once she sets out to kill this romance, ably assisted by two large, loyal school chums, Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) and Clara (Seraphina Beh).
One problem is that Salim seems to be squeaky clean – rich, handsome, successful, with a social conscience and no obvious skeletons in his closet. A much bigger problem is Salim’s domineering mum, Raheela (Nimra Bucha), who worships her boy, and will stop at nothing to secure his happiness. As tiger mothers go, Raheela is the complete man-eater, with a will of iron and the build of a heavyweight champion.
As Lena’s wedding day gets closer, Ria is driven to ever more desperate expedients, as she searches for a crack in Salim and Raheela’s armour. She knows in her bones there’s something wrong with this marriage, but her efforts to convince others only lands her in trouble and alienates her sister’s affections – with violent results. She almost loses us as well, until the story takes a nightmarish pivot and it’s game-on. The final chapter plunges us into the big wedding celebration, where Ria makes her last, desperate attempt to save her sister.
It’s a mark of Manzoor’s comic talent we are happy to accept that not only Ria and her friends, but virtually everyone in the film is a martial arts expert! As this is the case with those superhero movies Ria and the rest of the world adore, we have already been softened up for this improbable discovery. After watching Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, one might imagine everyone was born with a special kung fu gene.
With her expressive face and energetic acting style, this film may be the start of a long career for Priya Kansara, but she’s only one of a highly committed cast. Much of the comedy comes from the costume department, as the combatants are rigged up in the most elaborate Pakistani wedding gear, complete with accessories.
Polite Society is such an unlikely mash-up of genres it’s easy to overlook the way the plot draws on wellworn literary tropes. When Lena says he is going to marry Salim, Ria replies: “So you’re doing a Jane Austen then?” Suddenly one sees Salim as a typical Jane Austen male, but is he Mr. Darcy or one of the more duplicitous charmers? The sisters, Ria and Lena, echo Marianne and Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, although their martial arts expertise is an innovation.
Manzoor has had fun ‘doing a Jane Austen’ in Pakistani style, with those respectable Georgian families transformed into equally respectable – and surprisingly progressive – Muslim ones. Although Ria is constantly striving to break free from constrictive family expectations, her parents are permissive and easy-going. Somehow, in suburban London, they have raised two daughters who are part Lizzie Bennet, part Lara Croft. One can only wonder how the film will go down in old Lahore.
Written & directed by Nida Manzoor
Starring: Priya Kansara, Ritu Arya, Nimra Bucha, Akshay Khanna, Shobu Kapoor, Jeff Mirza, Ella Bruccoleri, Seraphina Beh, Shona Babayemi
UK, M, 104 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 29 April, 2023