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By turns a spy thriller, martial arts movie and sci-fi fantasy, Nida Manzoor’s Polite Society playfully expands the parameters of the kitchen-sink family melodrama, wresting the kitchen sink from the wall and throwing it full force at the audience to tell the coming-of-age story of Ria, a karate-loving British Pakistani teenager.
A diligent practitioner of martial arts, Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) longs to forge a career as a stunt woman; meanwhile, her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya), recovering from depression, doubts her own ability to develop a career as an artist. Their parents, while sympathetic to the girls, anxiously feel that both sisters are jeopardising the veneer of respectability that mother and father have worked hard to maintain within their genteel, judgemental suburban community. But when Lena becomes romantically involved with genetic scientist Salim Shah after an encounter coordinated by their mothers, Ria begins a rebellious campaign to save her older sister from conformity.
At its heart, Polite Society is a feminist exploration of women’s agency under patriarchy (which, the film makes clear, is not only upheld by men). Ria and her friends equate marriage to a man with oppression; Salim’s wealthy mother Raheela repeatedly talks about giving up her life for her son; and while Lena seeks liberation in love, her romantic future is being decided by others. Sending up everything from family relationships to beauty standards, Polite Society focuses consistently on women; their responses to social conditions are varied, complex, and guaranteed to cause conflict.
While the film addresses the objectification of women’s bodies literally – this is not a story that relies on metaphor or subtlety – there is nuance in its consideration of tensions between anglophone and Pakistani culture. Scenes of Lena and Ria dancing to British rock music in their lounge are intercut with Raheela and her friends critiquing the sisters’ Westernised habits. That the older women are indulging in a quintessentially British activity as they take high tea in an upmarket hotel underlines the hypocrisies that underpin their values. The film also suggests that the Pakistani caste system translates approximately into the British class system, with the sisters’ mother, Fatima, keen to improve her social standing through association with Raheela, and uncomfortable differences between the two families’ levels of wealth.
As the sisters, Kansara and Arya hold the film together even in its more preposterous moments, and it’s a joy to watch their characters grow and unfold as they fight social conventions. Manzoor gives the film some edge by emphasising the pent-up aggression of Ria and her schoolgirl gang; in fact, the sheer brutality of Ria’s fights is at times shocking, the realism of certain violent scenes often jarring with the film’s broader cartoonish style. It’s a register – more common in Indian cinema than in British – that prompts reflection on our expectations about who gets to commit physical violence onscreen, and where they do so.
Manzoor choreographs action with panache. Ashley Connor’s cinematography and Robbie Morrison’s editing afford every blow the time and space to land (no mean feat when compared with higher-budget movies that pass by in a blur of special effects). There are nods to Edgar Wright, Tarantino, Peele and 80s martial arts movies – telling that Manzoor’s reference points are films made mostly by men. With Polite Society, she proves that women’s struggle to break into traditionally male-dominated genres is completely unjust.
Nonetheless, Manzoor’s concept – which draws heavily on her 2014 short 7.2 – has less impact in the wake of numerous other ‘kick-ass’ women on screen, from Atomic Blonde (2017) to superhero franchise movies such as Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (2020). Her use of fight scenes to convey the strength required of women in a patriarchal context is diluted by their more commercially minded exploitation of violence. And while some elements feel transgressive for a British Asian comedy (most notably the quasi-incestuous closeness of the mother-son relationship), the intergenerational conflict between young, progressive women and their conservative elders feels a little worn.
A mishmash of genres safety-pinned together with a reliance on recognisable stock characters and narrative beats, Polite Society is saved from cliché by an anarchic sense of fun and Ria’s punk sensibility. It’s a bold and brash calling card from Manzoor, who playfully challenges society’s expectations about British Asian women both in front of the camera and behind it.
► Polite Society is in UK cinemas Friday 28 April.