It’s common to define any kind of immigrant community or culture by its diversity; the term “melting pot” gets thrown around so often that it’s practically a cliché. But in her debut feature film Polite Society, director Nida Manzoor reinvents the term with gusto. Influences as far-reaching as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Jackie Chan, The Matrix and Devdas are married together in this zany, wacky action comedy to wonderful effect.
Polite Society follows Ria (Priya Kansara), an aspiring teen stuntwoman. Ria puts her training to use. She’s attempting to derail her sister Lena’s (Ritu Arya) upcoming wedding to the charming Salim (Akshay Khanna). Ria knows Salim has nefarious intentions.
Kansara is an instant comedy superstar. She performs many of her own stunts, gamely throwing herself into the comic book-esque martial arts that the film’s energetic fight scenes demand. She effortlessly marries physical comedy into her fight choreography; Ria jumps off the screen with the energy of a comic book character. She’s bombastic and over-the-top and totally, unabashedly bonkers in a way that girls – particularly Brown girls – seldom get to be on screen.
The heart of the story is the sisters’ relationship, and Kansara and Arya sell the dynamic effortlessly. The relationship starts with the familiar closeness that can only exist between siblings. The real skill, however, comes as they pull off the fracturing of the relationship. With Lena’s engagement, the sisters find themselves on divergent paths, making different choices and finding themselves driven further apart. Both tap into the strange and specific grief of knowing that the person you’re closest to won’t stay right by your side forever, but are all the more hilarious for doing so.
The film’s aesthetics are a glorious pastiche – martial arts, Bollywood, sci-fi, and comic books all leave their mark. In a landscape where movies seem like they’ve been filmed on a flip phone with the lights off, there’s an undeniable joy in the vibrant colour palette and bombastic visuals alone. Fight scenes are almost characters unto themselves in this film, beautifully and energetically choreographed. You can practically taste the actors’ relish as they tackle the absurdly fun sequences – they’re truly a delight to watch.
If the film has a weakness, it’s that the dialogue and scripting fall somewhat flat beneath the inventiveness of the visuals and the energy of the cast. The overall plot is a wry satire of marriage culture and the broad strokes are funny. Unfortunately, there are some details that fall a little flat. Whilst the chemistry between Ria and her friends feels naturally bubbly, their conversations sound unavoidably scripted. The conversations never quite accurately capture the cadence of conversation between teen girls. They also don’t lean as wholeheartedly into the exaggeration that gives the rest of the film its character. The depictions of the British secondary school aesthetically reflect the likes of St. Trinian’s or Wormwood Hall. The show didn’t quite bring the messy, boisterous interiority of teenage girls to their dialogue as successfully as it did to their movements and energies.
Still, for whatever qualms I did have, there’s only one way to describe Polite Society: a film with a Matrix–meets–Kickass-style fight scene. At the same time, the protagonist wheres a green lehenga and delivers a Bollywood performance that would make Madhuri Dixit proud: enormously imaginative fun.
For more from Meha, check out her review of Joyland!