Unhinged and unafraid, Polite Society is a story told by and for brown women

Nida Manzoor’s debut feature packs a mean womanly punch — or several!
09 Jun, 2023

We are in an era with a delightful surge in Pakistani global media representation. Joining this wild train — and shifting its tracks — is British-Pakistani director Nida Manzoor’s first feature film, Polite Society. Starring Nimra Bucha and Umbrella Academy’s Ritu Arya, the film carves its own niche as a South Asian women-centred action comedy on sisterhood, shaadi culture, and the maniacal inner workings of a “polite society” we know all too well.

As an avid fan of Manzoor’s previous award-winning television series, We Are Lady Parts, this film was one I was exceptionally excited for. I watched it with all the motivation I could muster at 3am — and it did not disappoint.

Set in the UK, Polite Society follows young Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) — a fierce misfit determined to become a stuntwoman with the help of her tough but supportive older sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), who faces her own struggles as a woman of “marriageable age” and a simultaneous art school dropout. After learning of Lena’s unusual engagement, and meeting her fiancé (Akshay Khanna) and mother-in-law (Nimra Bucha), Ria feels in her bones that something is off. She and her equally bizarre friends set off on a heist mission to track down what the in-laws are hiding.

Wacky and wild as it is, this film does many crucial things. One of those is, of course, making women not only the centre but the drivers of the narrative. For once, I found myself watching an action film where women weren’t the sexy bikini-clad girlfriends or even the one-off typecast “badass bitch” — they were the action.

I held my breath, watching Ria wipe blood off her lips and charge forward again, particularly in vigorous battles with Bucha’s marvellously wicked Raheela — the brains behind her son’s cruelty and a rigid enforcer of patriarchal values herself, as aunties often are. Still, there was an aggressive satisfaction I felt, fists tightening over my blanket as the characters kicked and screamed things out on-screen. What made it especially fun to watch was seeing women who looked like me kick ass in glittering, embroidered pishwas. Magnificent.

Another plus in the film — apart from the flying kicks, hair-pulling, and sucker-punching — is its complex portraiture of all kinds of women’s relationships. From familiar, hilariously vicious rivalries between women in-laws to moments where mothers miss a beat with their daughters, Polite Society colours its relationships in multiple shades.

Manzoor’s depiction of sisterhood is far from sweet, refusing to shy away from all the erratic chaos that comes with sisterly love. But Ria and Lena’s messy sibling fights point to a much larger and widely dismissed pain stemming from the common tearing apart of women’s bonds through patriarchal influences on marriage. And with the disintegration of such bonds comes a far deeper grief over losing friendship, comfort, dreams, and even one’s sense of self.

Rather than dwelling overwhelmingly on these themes, Polite Society takes its viewers through ludicrous, sometimes marginally believable plot-lines with various strange twists that, only when left to simmer, really get you thinking.

Thankfully, for me and my endeavour to avoid deeply triggering content, this is ultimately, a feel-really-good film. Seeing Ria fight for her sister with her friends in moments of collective feminine rage against the patriarchy gave me a vengeful kind of joy, buzzing all the way from my core to my fingertips. The power of sisterhood — by blood or not — is truly unparalleled.

One of Manzoor’s prime talents is her knack for killer comedy with quick-cuts, snappy character one-liners, and an almost animated cinematographic style. Slow-motion shots of Ria’s valiant — but often failed — attempts at fighting, set to the sound of cracking bones, were too ridiculous to be jarring, often bringing me to fits of laughter. Kansara herself is an impressive new presence with her dedication to authenticity, deciding to take on many of her own stunts, as well as her perfectly awkward expressions and impeccable delivery.

From rishta aunties to rich brown immigrants, Manzoor and her cast mock desi culture, both home and abroad, like nobody’s business. And they’re mostly right — apart from all the cuss words Ria freely throws around in front of her mother. It’s the chappal sentence for most of us, I’m afraid.

Still, as a film that delves into Pakistani women’s lives, from navigating social expectations to the pain of waxing, Polite Society soars amongst the plethora of Pakistani diasporic media representation we’re seeing these days — including Jemima Khan’s recent What’s Love Got to Do With It?, where Sajal Aly’s screen-time was disappointingly low.

Having co-written the punk score for We Are Lady Parts, Manzoor marks her punchy projects with a strong, diverse musical presence. Ranging from Mohammed Rafi to recent artists like The Bombay Royale, Polite Society’s greatest moments of action, comedy, and drama come to life through the accompanying soundtrack. A standout song, now on repeat for me, is Karen O and Danger Mouse’s alternative track, ‘Redeemer’. And of course, to mine and all filmi viewers’ delight, Manzoor finesses her shaadi-based action-comedy with a surprise choreographed dance to an unforgettable Bollywood classic — no spoilers!

All in all, Polite Society is about its women. Those who are lost, and those who are unwavering; those who are good, evil, or anything in between — each of them angry and powerful in their own right. Although making an absurd heist mission out of a shaadi had its occasional defects, such as limited time spent on developing nuance in characters, Manzoor’s action-comedy offers a space for critiquing the tensions and traumas of desi marriage culture, whilst shifting the narrative towards sisterhood, strength, and women’s aspirations.

In love or not, Polite Society stands for no compromise on the grounds of women’s comfort, independence, and happiness. And it’s definitely convinced me to sign up for karate!

Polite Society’s DVD release is set for June 13