South Asian diaspora films about marriage and culture clash are a dime-a-dozen, so it’s refreshing to see one that blends the concept with genre pastiche. Polite Society is an action movie throwback, a coming-of-age comedy, and a surprisingly inventive unearthing of unspoken social mores, even though it often bites off more than it can chew. The story of a teen girl who’s convinced her sister’s impending nuptials have sinister undertones—and who subsequently tries to rescue her using martial arts—it’s the feature debut by TV director Nida Manzoor (We Are Lady Parts). For better or worse, it feels like a first-time feature through and through, between its occasionally awkward construction and its seeming hesitance to fully commit to its gimmick. However, it also bears the wide-eyed ambition of someone with a lot to say about quiet forms of intra-communal oppression, and a number of novel ways to say it.
Music introduces us to the story even before we meet its characters. Otherwise ordinary shots of packed London neighborhoods and youth karate classes brim with instant energy, thanks to the blaring sounds of “You Me Bullets Love” by Australian band The Bombay Royale, who pepper funk and surf rock with Bollywood stylings from the ’60s and ’70s (the rest of the soundtrack is a similarly pulsating cultural blend). Chapter titles introduce each new twist and turn with a font akin to the hand-drawn posters of Curry Westerns, as we see the world through the eyes of Ria Khan (Priya Kansara). She’s a teenager with dreams of being a big-screen stuntwoman, as evidenced by her various Bruce Lee and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon posters, as well as her nonstop penchant for taping YouTube stunt reels.
As her camerawoman, Ria enlists her older sister Lena (Ritua Arya of Umbrella Academy), a bob-haired painter whose art school ambitions haven’t worked out the way she’d hoped. However, when Lena’s attentions slowly turn away from her canvas and towards an affluent, eligible bachelor—Salim Shah (Akshay Khanna), a suave geneticist and a family friend—the middle class Ria, who bucks tradition anyway with her choice of career, can’t help but push back against the conservative undertones of their blooming romance, from their first date being parentally approved, to the looming possibility that Lena might sacrifice her art to be with a man.
(The movie’s) lack of narrative elegance is often counterbalanced by its delightful stunt choreography.
Convinced that her sister has somehow been ensnared, Ria ropes her two high school besties (Ella Bruccoleri and Seraphina Beh) into heist-like hijinks to dig up dirt on Salim, though it seems obvious that she’s making up his nefarious intentions in his head…Or is she? That’s a question the movie answers with more of a thud than with any sort of nuance or skill, but its lack of narrative elegance is often counterbalanced by its delightful stunt choreography. Ria is intent on re-creating a particularly complicated spin-kick developed by her idol, Liverpudlian stuntwoman Eunice Huthart—a real-life Hollywood mainstay, whose poster also adorns Ria’s bedroom wall—and we see the young upstart try and fail at it numerous times, including in a heightened wire-work brawl with her high school bully. Their fight feels straight out of a Wuxia classic, and it’s the kind of action scene that places Polite Society in a heightened, farcical world of combat-as-communication (think pro wrestling, or shonen anime), albeit temporarily.
There are moments when the movie’s approach becomes perplexing, when it takes a few steps back and approaches its drama and family dynamics with a more naturalistic brush. In the process, its more cartoonish elements either feel out of place, or enter an uncanny narrative space where you aren’t initially sure if what you’re watching is farce, or a farcical dream sequence nestled within something more serious.
Kansara delivers a truly hilarious performance, with the kind of unhinged physical commitment western cinema hasn’t seen since Jim Carrey in the ’90s.
However, Kansara’s bravura performance binds each scene together despite these tonal disparities, which makes a meteoric impact from the moment Ria first appears. Kansara’s adolescent aggression rides a fine line; Ria’s determination, born from her love for Lena, lures you into her goofy schemes, after which her occasionally wild-eyed frenzy ejects you from the character’s perspective altogether, forcing you to view her actions from a place of wisdom and remove, before the cycle begins anew. The young actress single-handedly keeps this tonal pendulum swinging, even when the rest of the movie does not (it has an initial energy born from whip-smart staging and blocking, but this slowly fades). Along the way, Kansara delivers a truly hilarious performance, with the kind of unhinged physical commitment western cinema hasn’t seen since Jim Carrey in the ’90s. She’s an instant comedic star, veering between slapstick and deadpan depending on the scene in question, and she has plenty of dramatic and action chops as well.
Playing opposite Kansara is Nimra Bucha (Ms. Marvel) as the film’s de facto villain: an embodiment of the cultural oppression Ria perceives around every corner. Bucha plays Salim’s hoity-toity, mansion-dwelling mother, whose “Eid soirée” not only serves as an audition for the community’s eligible bachelorettes, but crafts a distinct class backdrop for Lena and Salim’s courtship (thus creating its own quiet inequality, of opinion and perspective, between their families). With her nose in the air, Mrs. Shah dotes on Salim like he’s Allah’s gift to humanity, a typical dynamic between South Asian mothers and male heirs—the raja beta, an honorific best translated as “king son”—at which Manzoor takes particularly vicious aim. Not only does she probe at some of its more uncomfortable, even oedipal implications, but she further entwines them with a tongue-in-cheek scrutiny of what exactly South Asian mothers-in-law tend to search for when arranging meetings with prospective brides. Manzoor’s methods are best left unspoiled, but suffice it to say, they also offer Ria a strong motivation to flex her martial arts muscles, whether or not it’s the smartest option.
Mrs. Shah dotes on Salim like he’s Allah’s gift to humanity, a typical dynamic between South Asian mothers and male heirs—the raja beta, an honorific best translated as “king son”—at which Manzoor takes particularly vicious aim.
Polite Society is the kind of film where everyone acts just a little bit sillier than they should. It works about half the time—the banter feels improvised after a while, but it lacks spontaneity—and the supporting cast are mostly just trying to keep pace with the energy Kansara and Bucha bring to the screen, as they turn even half-baked thematic ideas into delightful set pieces. Though perhaps what works best about it is what remains least explicit, which is the gentle, sometimes adversarial dynamic between the two sisters, and the way Ria’s obsessive protection of Lena (and her desire to see her succeed as an artist) stems from the way their identities are entwined as first generation Pakistani Britons. They’re all too familiar with society’s shackles, and so their unconventional interests—as a stuntwoman and painter respectively—become mirrors to one another, as wildly differing outlets for the same emotional impulses.
Seeing Lena supposedly throw all that away can’t help but feel like a reflection of Ria herself, perhaps in ways she doesn’t quite comprehend, and so even when there’s an “LOL Random” approach to gags involving other characters, Ria’s actions feels consistently rooted in a developing sense of identity. This culminates with cinematic grace as she performs a melancholy dance, “Maar Dala,” performed by Madhuri Dixit in the 2002 Bollywood hit Devdas—she employs a particularly violent incarnation of its original choreography—at Lena’s wedding, right before the third-act chaos ensues.
Draped in her own version of Dixit’s iconic green saree, Ria’s climactic action scenes represent a fulfillment of both personal and familial duties. While the cinematic execution leaves much to be desired—action works best when fully visible; Polite Society is too liberal with its cuts—the thematic self-actualization this represents is one rarely seen in South Asian diaspora stories, which too often present culture and the individual at inherent odds. That’s far from the case here, even if it’s something with which both Ria and Lena constantly wrestle, as they face their various aunty-shaped demons in satirical fashion: with clenched fists and fight stances, ready to sock the specter of cultural expectation right in its nose.
Published on January 23, 2023