Nida Manzoor’s feature debut is a riotous action-comedy set in London’s Pakistani community

Polite Society

Source: Sundance Film Festival

‘Polite Society’

Dir/scr: Nida Manzoor. UK. 2022. 104mins

An aspiring teen stuntwoman finds her life turning into an action film in Polite Society, an amusing genre mashup that celebrates sisterhood and individuality. Priya Kansara is endearingly adorkable as a martial-arts-loving Londoner who fears that her older sibling is marrying into an evil family, prompting her to wield her fighting prowess to save the day — even though hardly anyone else shares her suspicions. Rambunctious and playful, writer-director Nida Manzoor’s feature debut radiates fizzy delight, showing audiences a breezy good time. 

Throws realism aside for sunny set pieces

Polite Society premieres in Sundance’s Midnight section, catering to hip audiences familiar with 2021 Screen Star of Tomorrow Manzoor’s award-winning series We Are Lady Parts (produced, like this film, by Working Title). The picture boasts rising talents Kansara (also a Screen Star) and Ritu Arya, and the crowd-pleasing tone should be a boon when the film opens in the UK and US in April. 

Ria (Kansara) adores her older sister Lena (Arya), in part because they both are following their dreams: Ria wants to be a stuntwoman, while Lena pursues painting. But when Lena falls for handsome, well-to-do Salim (Akshay Khanna), Ria is disappointed how quickly her sibling drops her artistic aspirations, agreeing to get married and move with him to Singapore. Even more upsetting to Ria, however, are her concerns that Salim’s family — specifically, his controlling mother Raheela (Nimra Bucha) — have nefarious motives behind this romantic pairing. Impetuously, she decides that she must stop the wedding, utilising her nascent martial-arts skills against anyone who gets in her way.

Manzoor has clear affection for these close-knit British-Pakistani sisters, cheering them on as they good-naturedly rebel against their conservative parents in order to be themselves. That’s why it’s so hard for Ria to believe that Lena would give up her dreams to “just” be a wife — her disapproval blinding her from a difficult truth that Lena has started to accept about herself, which is that she’s maybe not talented enough to make it as an artist. 

There’s an underlying poignancy to Ria’s sense of betrayal, but Polite Society is fun and breezy, gleefully throwing realism aside for funny set pieces. Without warning, an ordinary disagreement between Ria and a classmate turns into a martial-arts showdown; balletic movements and graceful slow-motion treated matter-of-factly, even though the characters are otherwise grounded in everyday life. That Manzoor never comments on this jarring disconnect is consistently charming — and in keeping with Ria, who admits that her parents think she has an overactive imagination. It would be inaccurate to say that Polite Society resides inside her head, but it definitely seems powered by her buoyant, dreamy attitude.

Bucha, who plays the snooty Raheela, constantly judging Ria and her working-class family, makes for a wonderfully boo-hiss villain — that is, if she is indeed a villain. Polite Society initially leaves the viewer uncertain if Ria’s disdain for Salim’s haughty clan is warranted, or if she’s merely jealous of her older sister for finding a soulmate. Manzoor eventually reveals precisely what’s going on and, while it would be unsporting to spoil what transpires, the picture makes room for a heist plot and even some vaguely horror-like elements.

That said, the tone never gets too dire, with the filmmaker admiring her resilient main character, who views herself as an action hero — despite the awesome kicks she can’t quite execute or the missteps she makes. Kansara embodies the awkwardness of adolescence, but also the ebullience — that spirited belief that only she can rescue her imperilled sister. 

The jokes come flying from every direction, most of them deeply silly. Ria goes undercover as a man at one point, doing a wondrously dopey impression. Elsewhere the film satirises a familiar thriller trope, suggesting that perhaps knocking people out with chloroform isn’t as easy as it seems in films. Class, race and culture clashes are examined, but Manzoor’s touch is always light. To be sure, Polite Society is so relentlessly carefree that it can sometimes feel insubstantial — its digressions into different genres proving rather superficial — but the film has such a sunniness that it’s hard to begrudge the approach. Ria wants to save her sister, but what she really wants is to find herself; that journey of self-discovery has plenty of kick.  

Production company: Working Title

Worldwide distribution: Universal Pictures

Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Olivier Kaempfe, John Pocock 

Cinematography: Ashley Connor

Production design: Simon Walker

Editing: Robbie Morrison

Music: Tom Howe and Shez Manzoor

Main cast: Priya Kansara, Ritu Arya, Nimra Bucha, Akshay Khanna, Seraphina Beh, Ella Bruccoleri, Shona Babayemi, Shobu Kapoor, Jeff Mirza