When sisters fight, it can be ferocious. But Polite Society, the debut feature of Nida Manzoor, creator of Channel 4’s We Are Lady Parts, takes those squabbles to a new extreme. When Ria (Priya Kansara) and Lena Khan (Ritu Arya) butt heads, they do so literally. They palm strike. They calf kick. They hurl each other through doors. It’s one of the many fight sequences in Manzoor’s funny, rambunctious blend of coming-of-age comedy and martials arts extravaganza. They reflect not only of Ria’s dreams of becoming a Hollywood stunt performer, but the way teenage conflicts often feel propelled by a life-or-death urgency.
And, to the zealously ambitious Ria, there’s nothing that quite spells death like matrimony. When Lena, an art college drop-out, falls for the ideal bachelor (Akshay Khanna’s Salim) – a rich, devastatingly handsome philanthropist – it forces Ria into crisis mode. With the help of her friends, Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) and Clara (Seraphina Beh), she hatches a series of increasingly elaborate schemes to liberate her older sibling from the binds of courtship and the domineering gaze of her future mother-in-law Raheela (Nimra Bucha).
Over the course of Polite Society, and its multiple smackdowns, Ria comes to see how much her sisterly concern is really driven by her own fears. If Lena is so quick to give up on her career as an artist, what does that spell for Ria’s own future? Did Lena quit because she realised she didn’t have the talent? Or did she finally give in to her parents? (One quietly crushing line from the Khan matriarch, Shobu Kapoor’s Fatima, is telling: “I let her go to art school, that’s more than other mothers.”)
Manzoor’s film, with a roundhouse kick to the heart, both parodies the generational divide with its fantastical plot and finds sympathy for what makes parents domineering. The pressure on children here comes not only from heightened expectations and the fear that an elder’s sacrifices will come to nought – but, for both Fatima and Raheela, from a well of quiet sorrow. If these women had enjoyed the same opportunities as their children, what could they have achieved?
It’s that magical combination of emotional honesty and stylistic verve that makes Polite Society the type of cinematic event that you always hope will translate to concrete success at the box office, as it did for this year’s Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All at Once. Manzoor may speak in the same visual language as the action films Ria has hungrily consumed – many of them undoubtedly featuring her idol, real-life stunt performer Eunice Huthart, a veteran of GoldenEye, Titanic and V for Vendetta – but she still finds ways to ground her film in her protagonist’s own mundane reality.
The sound of an eagle’s cry rings out each time someone delivers a verbal affront. Whenever Ria curls her fists up, ready for a brawl, a title comes up to introduce the duelling combatants. A waxing session ingeniously becomes an interrogation scene. And with relative newcomer Kansara, naturally charismatic and instantly loveable, at Polite Society’s very centre – it’s easy to cheer on like Ria’s really out to save the planet.
Dir: Nida Manzoor. Starring: Priya Kansara, Ritu Arya, Nimra Bucha, Akshay Khanna, Jeff Mirza, Ella Bruccoleri, Seraphina Beh, Shona Babayemi, Shobu Kapoor. 12A, 104 minutes.
‘Polite Society’ is in cinemas from 28 April
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