Fresh out of covering #MSPIFF42 where I got to watch quite a few directorial debuts by women, I missed out on this one, but thankfully Focus Features are offering free screenings at various theaters nationwide. Polite Society is an action comedy set in a Pakistani family in London, written and directed by British Pakistani filmmaker Nida Manzoor. Some of you might be familiar with her work in the We Are Lady Parts series centering on an all-female Muslim punk band in the UK.
In her feature debut, Manzoor once again takes inspiration from London’s rich and diverse collection of cultures. Some have compared this one to Jane Austen’s adaptations, and while I thought this would be similar to Gurinder Chadha’s Bride & Prejudice, Manor’s story is definitely more original and close to her own upbringing in an affluent Muslim community in London. The inspiration from classic action movies is evident as well, even its tagline – Big Trouble. Little Sister.– seems to be a nod to John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China.
The story’s protagonist Ria (Priya Kansara) is a martial artist in training and dreams of being a movie stuntwoman like her idol Eunice Huthart (a real-life stunt double for the likes of Angelina Jolie, Uma Thurman, etc.). She records her training on her Youtube channel, Khan Fu, with the help of her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) who’s been in a bit of a rut since she drops out of art school. While Lena is currently unsure about what she wants to do with her life, Ria is deadset on her stuntwoman career ambition, which feels genuine instead of simply an act of rebellion against typical Asian parents’ expectation that their kids aspire to be an engineer or doctors.
Manzoor might have been inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds as she divides the narrative into five chapters and gives each an amusing title: A Tale of Two Sisters, EID Soiree, Operation Wife Hunter, Assault on Shah Mansion, and The Wedding. The sisterhood highlighted in chapter one is soon threatened when the family is invited to a lavish Eid al-Fitr party by the Khan’s wealthy friend Raheela Shah (Nimra Bucha). Ria immediately dislikes Raheela’s handsome only son Salim (Akshay Khanna) who’s popular with the ladies. Even more so when the debonair geneticist suddenly takes a shine on the beautiful Lena and to Ria’s horror, things escalate quickly.
Given how close Ria is to Lena, it makes sense that she’s resentful of the fact that her older sister would be taken away. At the same time, she’s also adamant Lena stick to her dream of becoming an artist, which of course will be buried forever once she becomes the wife of some rich doctor. All the shenanigans of Ria and her two besties Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) trying to catch dirt on Salim at the gym is quite a hoot despite its inherent silliness.
Ria even puts all her martial-art training to good use at the Shahs’ mansion, where she watches Salim and his mom’s relationship emanating serious Oedipal Complex vibes. Meanwhile, Raheela proves to be a relentless force to be reckoned with, refusing to let anything or anyone stand in her way of seeing her beloved son married to a woman of her choice. You read that right, it’s her choice more so than Salim’s. Bucha relishes playing a scary mom, taking the ‘mother knows best’ sensibilities to villainy proportions.
I applaud Manzoor’s inventiveness and creativity in staging the high-octane action scenes, some are pretty brutal such as the fight scene between the two sisters and the battle of Ria vs Kovacs (Shona Babayemi), her classmate rival-turned-ally. Now, I think the narrative goes off the rails a bit in the 3rd act, introducing a sci-fi element to her already crowded genre mishmash. I’m not going to spoil it for you but there’s a particular scene that made me go ‘oh come on!’
Manzoor strives to mix the light and dark themes in Polite Society, while they don’t always work seamlessly, the performances and dynamic action sequences are quite a blast. The real star is definitely Kansara, who instantly commands my attention the second she’s on screen. She nails her spunky, no-nonsense character Ria with aplomb, while skillfully juggling her comedic and action chops. Kansara has a convincing sisterly chemistry with Arya (whose resemblance to Angelina Jolie can be a bit distracting) and her tense scenes with Bucha are a lot of fun to watch (that ‘spa day from hell’ is hilarious!).
Overall, this is a deliriously entertaining movie with a female-empowerment message about kicking down stifling religious traditions and the patriarchy. You could even say it’s a nod to female filmmakers in a world fighting to be heard/noticed/recognized in a male-dominated world. It’s no surprise that there is plenty of female prowess behind the camera here, including costume designer PC Williams and DP Ashley Connor.
The story is clearly a personal one for Manzoor and it’ll surely resonate with those in the West Asian community and beyond. I hope she continues to make movies in the future. Here’s to bold new voices in cinema!
Have you seen POLITE SOCIETY? I’d love to hear what you think!
3 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: POLITE SOCIETY (2023) – a fun, boisterous genre-bending celebration of sisterhood”
Yeah, I want to see this though it’s likely I’ll wait for it on a streaming service near me. It just looks cool.
I highly recommend this, Steven, so yeah hope you get to watch it at some point!
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