In ‘Polite Society,’ Nida Manzoor Continues To Smash Stereotypes and the Patriarchy

Nida Manzoor, the creator of the Muslim punk comedy series “We Are Lady Parts,” continues to subvert cultural expectations in her feature debut, “Polite Society.” Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya star as Ria and Lena Khan, a pair of well-heeled Muslim sisters living in London. Both dreamers, their relationship takes a turn after one of them seems to meet Mr. Right, but the other is less than impressed with this so-called Prince Charming.

Although one would probably never guess from the description above, “Polite Society” is just as much of an action film as it is a comedy. Ria, who is still in high school, dreams of being a stuntwoman, a very non-traditional choice for someone from her background (a teacher pushes her to become a doctor). The dust-ups she gets into at her all-girls’ school are not merely instances of slapping and hair-pulling, but full-on choreographed fights, and she makes YouTube videos of her stunts, calling herself The Fury. Ria also documents her life and emotions in the form of a one-way correspondence with her favorite stuntwoman (think Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt”). 

Twentysomething Lena, meanwhile, is back home after dropping out of art school, and spends most of her days moping around in sweats. Her relationship with Ria seems to be the one bright spot in her life. While Ria and Lena’s parents, Fatima (Shobu Kapoor) and Rafe (Jeff Mirza), are mostly supportive and warm parents, they (mainly Fatima), like most parents, are not immune to societal pressures. Fatima is thrilled when Raheela (Nimra Bucha), the queen bee in her social circle, invites the family to an Eid party at her large house. There, Ria and Lia meet Raheela’s doctor son, Salim (Akshay Khanna), the catch of the season. While Ria is less than impressed with this mama’s boy, Lena is smitten after he unexpectedly singles her out for attention.

Following a whirlwind courtship, Lena and Salim become engaged, and Ria does not hold back her anger and disapproval. While Fatima and Rafe are thrilled, their youngest daughter is determined to stop the wedding, going to great lengths to dig up dirt on her future brother-in-law, even conspiring with her best friends, Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) and Clara (Seraphina Beh), to steal his laptop from a men’s locker room, a hilarious sequence involving some snazzy drag king looks. 

But the Khans really start to worry about their younger daughter after Ria goes as far as to attempt to plant condoms filled with lotion in Salim’s bedroom in order to make him look like a cheater. Manzoor has a lot of fun playing around with the audience’s expectations. Does Ria have just cause to want to be rid of Salim? Or is she just acting weird because she’s afraid of losing her sister? Does Lena really love Salim? Or is a marriage to a wealthy man just a better option than having to get a job as a receptionist? Is Raheela just another society lady with a domineering personality? Or is there something more sinister going on behind her polished veneer? All of these questions flow through the viewer’s mind until the eventual twist is revealed, and it is more enjoyable to watch unfold if one goes in unspoiled.

Finally, there is an action-packed third act that mostly takes place on Lena’s big day. Manzoor and her team go all out, not just with the outfits and decorations one would expect to see at a high-end South Asian wedding, but also with the fierce and exhilarating action sequences. Ria and her pals make use of the whimsical and effective wuxia style of fighting previously seen in films like “Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” In addition to smashing the patriarchy, Manzoor, through Ria and Lena, crushes stereotypes about Muslim women and proves that there is more than one way to achieve a happy ending and fulfillment as a woman.

Polite Society” releases April 28 in theaters nationwide.