“Polite Society” by Nida Manzoor – Martial Arts or Marriage?
A big South-Asian wedding winks at Jackie Chan and his kung-fu moves in a Jane Austenesque sisterly love story with a sprinkle of the inevitable comparison to Everything Everywhere All at Once. Nida Manzoor’s Polite Society – just out in theaters in the U.S. after its acclaimed debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – is a funny mashup of cinematic genres, an irresistibly irreverent, boldly deranged, multi-pop-cultural take on British-Pakistani family values that “encompasses martial arts, horror, science fiction, romance, comedy, musicals and more horror” (as the Chicago Daily Herald writes in its review).
Polite Society is mainly the story of young Ria Kahn (played by Priya Kansara), facing her post-adolescence crisis while dreaming of becoming a stunt woman. She doesn’t care what others think about her ambitions. The only person she idolizes is her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya), who has just left art school and – to her younger sister’s horror – plans to marry a very handsome and proper London doctor named Salim (Akshay Khanna); the elaborate preparation for the wedding takes a good part of the film’s second half.
If Lena can so easily trade art for marriage, Ria reasons, what are her my chances to become a professional stunt woman in a Marvel movie? As it turns out, Ria had many good reasons to oppose her sister’s marriage.
“I wrote Polite Society mainly to finally have as a lead in an action movie a teen-age South-Asian girl,” director-writer Manzoor said at the Q and A following the screening of the film in an HFPA sponsored event at the Harmony Gold Theatre. “I grew up loving action films albeit feeling excluded from that world: that’s why I dedicate this work to the adolescent myself, forced to see my country people relegated to marginal or minor roles, if not those of terrorists.”
Nida Manzoor is well known in the U.K. and abroad as the creator and showrunner of the very popular Peacock series We Are Lady Parts, a comedy about the eponymous British punk rock band. She continues: “I wanted also to tell the story of the strong bond and love between two sisters, and to do so I tapped in my own personal life, examining me and my real sister. We have a very tight relationship, intimate and caring. However, when we argue it can become a brutal thing!” she says laughing heartily.
During the film the sisters’ bond will be seriously tested. Lena’s marriage plans push Ria to try and break this sort of family “combined” wedding orchestrating a daring robbery and embarking into a crazy kung-fu fight. But any comparison to Everything Everywhere is misleading.
“I actually wrote the first draft of Polite Society about 10 years ago,” says Manzoor. “I was trying to do all the genres and it was the first thing I’d written out of film school, but I couldn’t get the film made and television opened up for me in a way that film didn’t. I started working directing pilots in the UK, writing kids television. I got my show We Are Lady Parts greenlit and that was an incredible experience, which finally allowed me to finance and produce Polite Society.”
The film allowed Manzoor to find her true voice as an author and filmmaker, and say the things she really cares about, including the genre itself. “I studied martial arts as a teenager,” she explains. “My sister is one year older than me, and we used to fight together in martial arts class, but also out of the class a lot as well! I remember fighting with her in class and then getting smacked down to the ground and feeling the physical pain of having my face hit the floor, but also the humiliation of our peer teenagers laughing at us.
“There’s something in that moment of being a teenage girl, coupled with the pain of that makes you want to work it out with action. I think that was the moment I thought I needed to make an action movie about what it feels like to be a teenage girl…. after all the times my sister kicked my ass when I was growing up, I had to kind of work through some shit!”, she laughs.
Next to Manzoor, at the Q and A, was sitting young actress Priya Kansara, seen recently in the British TV series Bridgerton. “I knew absolutely zilch about martial arts before I was offered this role,” Priya said. “I’ve never done martial arts before. I’ve never done stunts like this before. I was cast about six or seven weeks before we started this shoot.
“So, we did a big deep dive, and it was really important to me that I did as much of all of the stunts as I possibly could because it’s so important to Ria. I got to be a stunt woman, which is what Ria wants to be, which is amazing. I attempted everything.”
Kansara elaborates on the fighting sequences in the film: “What you see in the movie it’s 90% the real me. I did have an incredible double, Erin, who was such a guiding light for me. I learned so much through imitating her. She ended up teaching me, more than doubling me. We had such an empowering stunt team, they really encouraged me to do as much of it as I could, and they knew how important it was to me to do as much as I could. I was like, ‘Step aside, Tom Cruise, we’re doing this!’”
Manzoor is very well versed with martial arts: “I think my first real kind of experience with Kung fu was watching The Matrix when I was like 11 and that blew my mind,” she says. “And the Hong Kong kung-fu films, Jackie Chan, and the Jet Li and Wu Ping films. I loved the balletic nature of those film, but also, I felt there was a real closeness to the Bollywood I grew up on. There’s a spectacle cinema event in the cinema I grew up on, and Hong Kong kung-fu spoke to that.”
Asked about the chaotic wedding sequence at the end of the film, Manzoor said: “I wanted to bring the fun absurd Bollywood tenor and over- the-top with the kind of kung fu I love. That was such a joyful thing to do. Speaking of genres, I grew up also really loving teen movies, especially American teen movies, with that sort of realism and respect for the teenager. We talked about Slums of Beverly Hills as being one of all-time favorite teen movies and just the truth of what it means to be a teenage girl, and Donnie Darko. Polite Society It’s a kind of love letter to the films I love, and a film that my teenage self would’ve really liked.”