When British-Pakistani teenager Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) finds out that her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) has fallen for a man and wants to get married, she enlists the help of her friends to stop the wedding, and save her from throwing her life away. While there have been countless films about marriage through cinema history, probably none have had as much high-octane energy – and martial arts – as Polite Society.
It is easy to envision this explosive debut by British writer-director Nida Manzoor accumulating a devoted following in the vein of Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010) – the cult action-comedy which it channels effortlessly with its frenetic visual style and implausible combat scenarios. In fact, at different points and sometimes simultaneously, viewers might also be reminded of Kill Bill, Get Out, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix and a variety of other classics, without the film ever feeling derivative or all over the place. Polite Society is a work of many genres and themes: the fact it weaves these together so seamlessly and cohesively is a testament to Manzoor’s prowess with the pen, and behind the lens.
It is a film about family and sisterhood. At the heart of it all is Ria, a schoolgirl who aspires to be a stuntwoman, and her love for her older sister. Even though British South Asians are one of the largest minority groups in the UK, and despite the success of features like Bend it Like Beckham and East is East, there have been relatively few movies that focus on them. Polite Society brings the dynamics of two very distinct families from that community to the fore – the Khan sisters and their parents on one side, and Raheela (Nimra Bucha) and her son Salim (Akshay Khanna), who is set to marry Lena, on the other. Raheela is the overbearing mother and Salim is the mummy’s boy. Their creepy co-dependency and love is very different from the Khans, where the parents are torn between supporting their headstrong daughters, whose dreams and ambitions they don’t understand, and having their family conform to community expectations of tradition and respectability. The film lays bare the toxicity of such societal pressures, from the way Ria’s teacher pushes her towards a career as a doctor instead of what she is passionate about, to the manner in which older characters cast judgement on younger ones’ marital status and prospects.