Polite Society, the feature debut from We Are Lady Parts creator Nida Manzoor, doesn’t pull its punches on its heroine, aspiring stuntwoman Ria Khan (Priya Kansara). There are literal punches from bullies and villains trying to stop Ria from thwarting their plans, and even a familial tussle that knocks a hole in on a bedroom door big enough it renders the doorknob useless. But there are also more subtle digs that come Ria’s way from her parents and teachers, her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya), who knows how to push her buttons, and even when her friends think she’s a bit of a wanker. She tries to brush off the comments and insults (and even the punches) with unshakable confidence, but in her lowest moment, she wonders, what if they were right?
Director: Nida Manzoor
A London teen aspiring to become a famous stuntwoman pulls every tool in her arsenal to stop her older sister from marrying a man after becoming suspicious about the motives of him and his mother. Equally heartfelt and hilarious, it’s a strong debut for writer/director Nida Manzoor.
Leaning on several genres, fun action setpieces, uproarious humor, and a heartfelt sisterly bond that carries the film, Polite Society is a wild, entertaining ride that isn’t afraid to get weird or wear its heart on its sleeve.
Neither is Ria, for that matter. When she isn’t in school, she’s taking martial arts classes or filming stunt videos for her YouTube channel, roping Lena, who’s in a listless kind of depression after dropping out of art school, to hold the camera. Not many people watch her videos, but Ria dutifully sends them to famed stuntwoman Eunice Huthart—whose film career in stunt work goes back nearly 30 years—in emails that double as exposition. Eunice doesn’t respond, but Ria isn’t discouraged by the radio silence; she assumes Eunice is too busy working on a Marvel or a Star War to reply immediately. (And yes, Ria uses the singular “War.”)
Ria’s parents don’t think being a stuntwoman is a realistic career goal, her classmates think she’s a joke, and her teacher puts her down for an internship with a doctor instead. Seemingly, only Lena supports her, but that appears to change once Lena starts dating Salim (Akshay Khanna), a successful (and wealthy) doctor who’s looking to settle down but hasn’t fared as well in that department, takes up all of Lena’s time. Ria is instantly suspicious of Salim and his mother, Raheela (Nimra Bucha), for reasons she might not immediately be capable of articulating.
But it becomes all too real once Lena and Salim become engaged after just a month of dating. The engagement—and the couple’s plans to move to Singapore after they marry—make Ria so upset that she can’t even fake being happy for Lena in front of their family for a second. “So you’re doing a Jane Austen, then?” she quips to her sister.
How much of Ria’s anger and suspicions are because of jealousy? How much of it is a reaction to the possibility of no longer seeing her biggest supporter (and the person who knows her best) every day? Is Ria’s fear that Lena’s impending marriage means the end of her artistic aspirations a legitimate concern, or is it more of a projection of how Ria views her aspirations? And how much of it is because of something more sinister lurking under the lavish veneer of London’s British Pakistani community’s wealthiest and most put-together family?
Polite Society plays with all these conventions and questions, and the simplest explanation is that it’s a bit of everything. But it’s also a lot weirder than it seems initially, and Ria’s best friends Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) are more than happy to help stop Lena from becoming a trophy wife. Even if it means plotting to kidnap Lena from her own wedding.
The various setpieces from Ria’s attempts to break up Lena and Salim, influenced by The Matrix, Kill Bill, and Scott Pilgrim, are really fun to watch. The film is divided into chapters like “A Tale of Two Sisters” and “Eid Soiree,” and when a huge fight is about to commence, the film flashes their names onto the screen like a video game. And the fights—whether they take place inside Ria’s school, several rooms in the Khan home, or throughout Raheela’s mansion—are stylish and creative. But the emotional core of many of those fights, as well as Polite Society as a whole, is the sisterly bond. Thanks to Kansara and Arya’s assured performances, we see how much Ria and Lena’s bond is worth fighting for.
Polite Society is in theaters starting April 28, 2023.