“The sooner you get out of this Stepford Wife cardigan phase, the better for everyone!”
Following her award-winning comedy show We Are Lady Parts, British writer-director Nida Manzoor makes her leap onto the big screen with what could very well be the comedy of the year.
Polite Society follows British-Pakistani teenager Ria Khan (the terrific Priya Kansara), a karate-chopping young woman who dreams of little else than becoming a stuntwoman. Her sister Lena (Ritu Arya) is the only person who believes in her and continues to be her great defender despite finding herself in a bit of a funk after having dropped out of art school. Still, both are determined to champion one another, with Ria wanting her older sibling to embrace the radical creativity she has within her.
However, their seemingly unbreakable bond is put to the test by a formidable adversary: a suitor with perfect teeth and lavish wealth named Salim (Akhshay Khanna), a young doctor with marriage on the brain. His overbearing mother Raheela (a scene-stealing Nimra Bucha, who plays the role of a more flamboyant Darth Vader, cape and all) insists her son finds a partner quick-sharp. Disaster strikes when Salim meets Lena at an Eid “soiree” and they fall in love. And when Lena tells her sister she intends to marry "the smarmy wanker", it’s up to Ria, who senses something more nefarious is at play, to rescue her sister from what she sees as patriarchal submission.
There’s no point in mincing words: this satirical South Asian take on Scott Pilgrim -meets- Get Out about crane-kicking the patriarchy is as entertaining as it is full of heart. To say it’s a blast is putting it very mildly. There’s a genuine punk exuberance about this Jane Austen remix that decries from the witty writing and the comic-strip aesthetic, one that is completely exhilarating. And while there are Kill Bill -reminiscent smackdowns aplenty, at the heart of Polite Society are some heavy matters.
Manzoor negotiates the tone quite brilliantly as she balances sisterhood comedy with explorations of the generational rifts within Pakistani society. She paints the portrait of families split between tradition and modernism, disapproving “aunties” and those who chose not to conform. However, the writer-director shrewdly elects to never outright condemn; she critiques the complex toxicity of societal pressures and established rules without judging those who choose to accept them. Her characters rebel against conservative expectations and through the eyes of both sisters, we understand that being a “good Muslim” has nothing to do with the shame enforced on those who choose to follow their desires.
It’s a deft balancing act, one that never take itself too seriously, especially when the plot goes in some loopy and slapstick-heavy directions which lead the audience to question how reliable Ria is as a narrator. And while there are a few niggles here and there – the first half being tough act to follow, and Ria’s mates Clara (Seaphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccikeri) not quite hitting all their comic marks – none of them end up amounting to much, purely because you’ll be too busy smiling and in a state of appreciation for what Manzoor has achieved. Oh, and the soundtrack kicks as many arses as Ria does.
Which all leads to the following question: Is Nida Manzoor the future of British comedy?
On the strength of this uproarious genre-blending comedy of manners, you’re damn right she is.
Polite Societyis out in selected theatres now.