One of the best depictions of Muslim women I’ve come across in the media is the show “We Are Lady Parts” by Nida Manzoor. So, after a friend recommended that I watch the movie “Polite Society” which was written and directed by Manzoor as well, I was sure I’d love it right away. The 2023 film is so refreshing and out of the norm especially for a debut feature film. Right from the bat, you can tell it’s going to be quirky and eccentric. And for someone who believes we need more spoof films, it (unsurprisingly) won me over very quickly. To have a film that is both incredibly goofy and that brings about significant themes such as family, sisterhood, culture and tradition, friendship and the unethical nature of the extravagantly wealthy is a magnificent feat.
It pulled at my heartstrings from the start where we see the protagonist, Ria Khan (played by Priya Kansara), and her sister, Lena Khan (Ritu Arya) showing each other such tender love and support. They express such intimate and somewhat mundane joys of having a sister – lying in bed together doing nothing but staring at the ceiling, helping each other with things that need to be done, dancing to songs that the older one probably introduced to the younger one. It’s a lazy but common approach to have two female characters hate each other, especially sisters, even when they eventually arc and become friendly towards each other so the movie showing a different relationship between Ria and Lena was a welcomed breath of fresh air. This dynamic is further emphasised in the friendship between Ria and her best friends, Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) who play crucial roles in helping Ria throughout the movie.
Ria wants to be a stuntwoman after high school and Lena has recently dropped out of art school. Both these career paths don’t really fly in the South Asian community they’re raised in but the sisters cheer each other on over the disapproval of their parents, especially the mother who feels the societal pressure for her girls to get “real” jobs and more importantly get married to men with “real” jobs. Lena gets into a rushed relationship with a geneticist, Salim Shah (Akshay Khanna), to whom she gets engaged after a ridiculously short while. Ria suspects that Salim and his mother, Raheela (Nimra Bucha) have ulterior motives behind the marriage being planned between the two. She decides to put on her Sherlock-Holmes deerstalker hat and find her way down to the root of things. This, consequently, causes pandemonium and relationship rifts between the characters and their families. However, she finds out that the two plan to impregnate Lena with a clone of Raheela so Raheela can get a “second chance at life”, showing how disposable people in lower social classes are to people in higher ones.
Manzoor collaborates with costume designer PC Williams whose work immensely contributes to both the story development and the characterization. In the wedding heist, for example, we see Ria in a green and gold traditional South Asian garb showing her in a newer, more confident and determined light. Before this point, we’d mostly seen her in drab school uniform which was also a crucial thing to Williams having grown up seeing teenagers in films not particularly looking like teenagers. Even the change in wardrobe when Lena starts dating Salim added a subtle dimension to her change in personality. I particularly loved all the fight scenes with the older aunties in beautiful South Asian outfits throwing punches and showcasing amazing footwork. This, to me, was an almost elusive nod to one of the film’s key implications : that anyone can be anything despite all the boxes society tries to put them in because of their gender, age or cultural expectations.
The film’s set design showcases the intersection between the British and Pakistani cultures the characters find themselves in bringing to light the inevitable twofold nature of intergenerational immigrant families. The soundtrack also reflects this same duality with songs like Mohammed Rafi’s “Gulabi Ankhen” co-existing in the same score as The Chemical Brothers’ “Free Yourself”. The set also allows for the gap between the opulent Shahs and the middle-class Khans to be seen. Again, this disparity is also utilised by costume design in the wedding scenes where Ria’s family is in blues and greens (save for Lena) and Salim’s family is in pink, reds, oranges or yellows.
As a genre, I’ve never really enjoyed drama but the fight scenes in this film are so well-choreographed that even when they got a bit too gory for me, I couldn’t seem to look away (and, for context, normally anything with so much as a drop of blood feels like a Quentin Tarantino movie marathon for me). However, the movie doesn’t confine itself to a singular genre – it is ,all at once, a coming-of-age comedy, a bollywood heist and a martial arts film.
The film carried an irreverence with it throughout which I enjoyed immensely. I love it when I’m enjoying art so much that only in retrospect do I realise how important the message carried along with it was. It taught me lessons on community and the importance of support, how rebellion is sometimes a necessary act and of course, one that we learn every day, the “polite society” is only out to harm and use every other individual for their own selfish gain.
With the brilliant directing, the amazing performances and the delightful cinematography, it wouldn’t come as a shock if this film became a cult classic à la Scott Pilgrim vs The World.