The Plot: Teenager Ria (Priya Kansara) has dreams of becoming a stuntwoman, which her British-Pakistani parents dismiss as just childish notions. Her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) is an art-school drop-out, something which doesn’t bother her since she believes that she didn’t have any talent for it in the first place. Lena has other plans involving dishy new love interest Salim (Akshay Khanna, a doctor who seems too good to be true. Ria is concerned that her sister is making the wrong choice and sets out to disrupt the wedding plans. However, future mother-in-law Raheela (Nimra Bucha) will stop at nothing to make sure that things go off without a hitch…
The Verdict: Having worked in short films and television series, writer-director Nida Manzoor makes her feature film splash with Polite Society… and no doubt she will leave some waves afterwards. Not tsunami-size, but enough for the film industry to take interest in her potential as both a visual storyteller with an overactive imagination and a writer with a keen ear for electric dialogue delivered with a knowing sense of humour. The title sounds like a Jane Austen-style romantic drama and it’s not the only reference to her in this admittedly wild cinematic concoction that draws from many different genres. Ostensibly, Polite Society is an action-comedy centred around the diverging relationship between two sisters as their lives stall, so they have to find new ways of getting back onto the yellow brick road and find meaning in their lives. Yes, there’s even a bit of fantasy wish fulfillment thrown in here.
In fact, there’s a lot more going on in Manzoor’s script as it takes in Ria’s ambitious quest to stop her sister’s wedding and potential doom. There are horror and science fiction mad scientist genes in the mix (‘get me that womb!’ is a stand-out line), a spy/espionage sub-plot and a hearty dash of over-the-top Bollywood-style trappings just to wrap it all up in a neat little bow. What all this means is that one is never quite sure what to make of it all. Is there just too much going on here to digest in one sitting, particularly with the spiciness in characterisation and setting – which appears to be England, but it could just as well be America with its diners and Tarantino-style driving shots? The answer is yes – leading to a wildly inconsistent tone that occasionally grates on the nerves. What if Ria is just over-enthusiastic and grabbing the wrong end of the stick while trying to do stuntwoman drop-kicks on her prospective mother-in-law?
However, one can’t help but wryly smile at the sheer nerve and artistry of it all. Despite reservations about the tone, Manzoor still pulls this crazy mix together with visual invention and style. It’s never boring, with the pacing of the film just right and the character arcs neatly sanded off for extra narrative impact. It helps that her cast get into the combative mood and fun of the film, with Priya Kansara (in her film debut) making a solid impression as Ria. Her youthful naivety about adult relationships and firm belief in the power of sisterhood is touching. If only another recent film involving a British-Pakistani family (What’s Love Got To Do With It?) had the nerve to feature drop-kicks and sticking it to the man (‘down with the patriarchy!’). No so-called assisted marriages here. Polite Society is delightfully impolite and cheeky filmmaking from a writer-director who somehow manages to execute it in the spirit of fun. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s a riot of colour, humour and many genres speaking through one distinctive voice. It’s worth listening to.
Rating: 3 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: Delightfully impolite
Directed by Nida Manzoor.
Starring Priya Kansara, Ritu Arya, Akshay Khanna, Nimra Bucha, Renu Brindle.