Director: Nida Manzoor
Stars: Priya Kansara, Ritu Arya, Seraphina Beh
Anyone who’s caught Nida Manzoor’s swift and witty Channel 4 sitcom We Are Lady Parts (quick, its on their endlessly rebranded on-demand service) will already know that her leap to fully fledged film director makes perfect sense. From the off her sprightly show evidenced a cineaste’s eye. It’s opening episode alone folded in references from 1930s melodramas to the Coen Brothers. Like Edgar Wright before her (an obvious and inevitable point of comparison) Manzoor’s visual style was primed for the jump to a bigger canvas. And so it’s of little surprise that her feature debut Polite Society is an absolute banger.
Steeped in the traditions of the West London-based British-Pakistani community (we’re in the Shepherd’s Bush region) but inclusive enough to broadly accommodate all-comers, Polite Society raises a brash middle finger to both generationally-imprinted patriarchy and the staid limitations of conventional, predictable UK cinema. Teenage Ria Khan (a stardom-ready Priya Kansara) knows her destiny is to become a stuntwoman and is devoting herself to this dream wholeheartedly. She is aided in making videos (her website is named, gloriously, Khan Fu) by her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) who is in the midst of a depressive episode having dropped out of art college. The opening chapter of the film is devoted to establishing their sorority, a connection that is about to be challenged by the seemingly-familiar dramatic wedge of matrimony.
Lena falls for suave mummy’s boy Salim (Akshay Khanna), brushing aside her former dreams in favour of planning the perfect wedding with the aid of snobbish mother-in-law-to-be Raheela (Nimra Bucha). Incensed and abandoned, Ria smells a rat, and makes sabotaging the nuptials her primary objective, drafting in her besties and budding sidekicks Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) and Clara (Seraphina Beh) to dig up dirt on the pristine-seeming Salim. Cue crazy plots schemed up in Ria’s loft-space, daring covert missions and a succession of opponents that Ria has to do battle with, beat-’em-up-style, in order to achieve her goals.
Edgar Wright dubbed his career-high cult classic Scott Pilgrim vs. the World a “fightsical”; a musical that replaced the song and dance numbers with fisticuffs. The same could well be said for Polite Society, which relishes hyping up larger-than-life showdowns, blazing the screen with X vs. X text and using these action interludes to metaphorically explode the dramas happening in the narrative. They’re a blast, pitted with flourishes that nod broadly to the rich history of South Asian cinema, while peppering in references to western favourites; everything from Tarantino’s Kill Bill to Cameron’s Terminator movies. The intention throughout is overwhelmingly to entertain, and on that score Polite Society never fails. It is also relentlessly forward-thinking.
Much like her contemporary Raine Allen-Miller, Manzoor is eager to roundhouse kick contemporary British cinema out of the doldrums. There’s an affection and respect here for the work that’s been done before. As Clara herself points out; tropes are tropes because they work. But as with Allen-Miller’s urban spin on the rom-com Rye Lane, there’s also ambition to break the British templates out of their self-restrictive bonds.
To wit, whenever Polite Society feels as though its about to fold back into traditional and predictable narrative patterns, it pushes in another direction. Most pointedly this occurs in the midst of the second act, when the story embraces genre elements in a breakaway venture to distance itself from expected turns. Ria makes some startling discoveries that push the story wildly into territory one might more comfortably expect from Jordan Peele (indeed, Get Out seems a particularly strong influence). These moves might have busted the film’s credibility had the heightened fight sequences not already elasticated our acceptance that Manzoor’s movie is capable of being “a bit extra”.
For all it’s cartoony turns and Twilight Zone inclinations, Polite Society anchors itself thanks to Manzoor’s ear for down-to-earth dialogue and via a more-than-capable cast. Newcomers and seasoned players collaborate. Everyone is on their A-game. While behind the camera Manzoor evidences the confidence of a natural. This is slick, self-confident filmmaking that feels effortful. Effortful in the sense that everything feels considered. Every lighting set-up. Every needle drop. Every bit of stunt work.
Seeing as Polite Society scans as a love letter to stunt players (c’mon, catch-up, Oscar), let’s also champion the work performed in part by the film’s sterling cast, but also by Guiomar Alonso, Francesca Cozier, Claudia Heinz, Rob Lock, Christina Petrou, Ansko Pitkänen and Adam Rhys Williams (okay I’m done quoting imdb now). They help enhance what feels like a joyous ensemble work.
Polite Society rails gleefully against men, against institutions, against a former generation’s freakish grip on reliving and recreating the past. It sees stuffiness and absurdity in tilting toward such decrepit windmills. In rejecting the old, it – and Manzoor – face a new direction, one which may be unfocused and incomplete, but which its youthful characters can manifest together. In this sense – and in-keeping with its brisk pace and rascally tone – it is an incredibly optimistic piece of entertainment, one that ultimately deserves far wider appreciation than it seems liable to conjure on its initial cinema run (the film seems to have been rather undersold, and multiplex screenings are disappointingly low in numbers).
This movie needs to be found and loved. Manzoor is one of the brightest hopes for UK cinema precisely because she offers a genuine alternative to the safe, sentimental curmudgeonly offerings that more commonly clutter screens in the hope of snaffling up the so-called ‘grey pound’ (a certain Jim Broadbent-starring snoozefest seems to be collecting far more screenings this same weekend). The old needs to be KO’d in favour of the fervent and the new. Respectful as it is to the heritage – and the movies – that birthed it, this is the new.