Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Polite Society (2023) dir. Nida Manzoor

A film of big announcements


Polite Society is a film of big announcements. Between writer and director Nida Manzoor and budding star Priya Kansara, this will be a film that puts names on the map of artistic relevance and probably secures quite a few jobs in the meantime.

Manzoor and her feature film debut, Polite Society, have already been compared to fellow Brit Edgar Wright, and particularly Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010). Just about every review I’ve seen mentions the name “Wright” at some point or another. And there’s something to that if one only cares for nimble stylistic decisions like fancy title cards, comedic zooms, and the British equivalent to Americana. (One review I read described Manzoor’s film as a mix of Get Out, Scott Pilgrim, and The Matrix.) But this is too reductive for Polite Society. Even if she grew up watching Wright’s greatest hits, Manzoor did not make a British-Pakistani feminist Wright film. She made a Nida Manzoor film.

An optimistic stuntwoman in the making, Ria Khan (introducing Priya Kansara) is both familiar and inimitable. Seeing her own ambition in her older sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), a recent art school dropout, Ria devises a plan basically straight out of The Suite Life of Zack & Cody to prevent her sister from marrying Salim (Akshay Khanna), the handsome doctor who saves babies. Her individualism, artistic ambition, and childlike plot to save her sister from the patriarchal clutch of monogamy are pretty standard stuff in the genres Polite Society rifs on, especially as a Pakistani film. (Consider, for example, Kamala Khan’s superhero obsession and how her family initially responds to that symbol of individualism in Ms. Marvel.) 

But in terms of identity and vocational ambition—a Pakistani-British teen aspiring stuntwoman—as well as her relentless love for her sister, Ria is not like many protagonists at the top of the box office. Kansara, whose largest role heading into her first film role was a two episode appearance in Bridgerton, pulls off the teenage role despite being in her late 20s—a casting decision that rarely works for this viewer. She embodies Ria with a wild imagination, loving flippancy, and even volatility. Her presence doesn’t limper for a second. In 2021, Kansara was working for a pharmaceutical company. By 2026, there’s a non-negligible chance she will be as recognizable a name as Anya Taylor-Joy.

She’s not the only name being made here. Between this and her Peacock/Channel 4 show We Are Lady Parts, Manzoor is now a can’t miss filmmaker for myself. “We Are Lady Parts” is the name of an all Muslim woman punk rock band that features a few of familiar faces, most notably Ritu Arya as well as Shobu Kapoor, who plays a loving yet traditional mother in both. Acknowledging that two pieces of art don’t provide enough to identify full patterns, Manzoor looks to be developing a knack for avoiding ethno-religious tropes while fully leaning into specific challenges or pressures experienced by Pakistani women living in Britain. In Lady Parts, there is not just one way to be a Muslim woman, i.e. a rather submissive hijabi, as our current stream of Western media purports but many; in Polite Society, the marriage at the center of the film is one of (apparent) romance rather than a stereotypically arranged marriage. The parents in both are understanding of their children’s artistic passions but remain somewhat nervous about the financial potential for their respective passions. Thematically, Manzoor appears ready and well-equipped to dismantle clumsy stereotypes. 

Uncoincidently, she also seems just as prepared to bend genres to her will. In my favorite scene in the movie, a pre-wedding waxing is shot with the genre signals of a war or spy movie torture scene. In a sequence I lamented only for its brevity, Manzoor seems to reference the sensuous dance and musical numbers of Bollywood films. I even think I saw a Monkey King reference in one of the fights. But… all of this is couched through a coming-of-age genre flick. To return to the earlier comparison, Edgar Wright fully embraces and combines genres; Manzoor, much like the Asian films she’s inspired by, flows in and out as the story demands.

I would tell you to remember the names Nida Manzoor and Priya Kansara, but something tells me I don’t have to make that request. 

Polite Society
dir. Nida Manzoor
103 min.

Opens Friday, 4/28 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre and theaters everywhere

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