Writer-director Nida Manzoor takes the kung-fu fury of a Pakistani teenager to propel her black comedy about rebellion, identity and dreams. Told through the story of two sisters, Ria and Lena, Polite Society is Bollywood marriage drama with Jane Austen accents, blended with martial arts.
Set in the UK, Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) is the younger child with grand dreams of becoming a stunt woman. She practices obsessively and regularly records videos for her Youtube channel, craftily called Khan-Fu. She spars with her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya), an aspiring artist who is withering away at home after dropping out of art-school. At school, Ria gets pummeled by a bully, shaking off the dust and humiliation to go another round.
Down on her luck, Lena does strange things, like ripping into an entire roast chicken. The judgemental gaze of passing Auntyjis says it clearly—this is not the way to behave in polite society.
When Lena’s marriage gets fixed with a local eligible doctor, Salim, the Khan family is ecstatic, barring Ria who is instantly suspicious of her inbound brother-in-law and his mother Raheela (Nimra Bucha). She begins to sniff around, convinced something sinister is afoot. Her two besties Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri, hilarious) are accomplices in Ria’s plans to unearth the truth. Ria’s actions are partly fuelled by an insecurity and fear that Lena’s fate impacts her own offbeat dreams, which could fall prey to cultural conventions and parental pressures—of taking on a respectable profession like medicine.
Manzoor uses comic book fonts and supers to divide the story into chapters such as ‘Eid Soirée’ juxtaposed with menacing background music to build tension and foreboding. The hysterical laughter of the desi aunties plays like a horror movie soundtrack. Polite Society is a lot about style and subversion but not very substantive. The final bout takes place during the wedding celebration, with key players costumed in the most garish outfits seen on screen in recent times, enough to make Sanjay Leela Bhansali squirm when Ria performs to ‘Maar daala’ from his Devdas.
Part of the issue rests in characterisations. Ria is perpetually and inexplicably angry, or angsty or violent. Yet you do root for this ungainly and passionate teen. Lena’s character lacks heft and Raheela is presented like an Asian Cruella de Ville. There is also a very conscious metaphor about Asian men and the uncut umbilical cord, presented in a dark and twisted form. As the conflicted Lena, Ritu Arya is the only actor who evokes sympathy. Manzoor compromises on the film’s emotional graph, favouring high flying kicks and teenage belligerence over a coming-of-age story that exploited the potential of an action comedy set within polite society.