written and directed by Nida Manzoor
Part of the pleasure for an American audience is the sort-of ‘come out of nowhere-ness’ of Polite Society: none of the actors are well-known here, and most are relative newcomers. Even writer/director Nida Manzoor is somewhat new—she directed the British tv series We Are Lady Parts, and a couple Doctor Who shows in 2020. She has crafted a quirky comedy about Pakistani-British teens trying to fit in in contemporary London, and there is a higher pleasure in how all these relative newcomers can come together and make a good, funny, movie with, incidentally, characters and a cast of (secular) muslims.
Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) is a fifteen year old immersed in western pop culture, with plans to be a stuntwoman and work in Marvel movies (Or, as they say in Britain, apparently, to work in “a Marvel.” She attends a private girls school (which, in England, confusedly, are called public schools) and takes karate lessons, while posting videos (“vids”) of herself reciting Marvel-esque lines combined with martial arts moves, to her website (not Instagram, actually) which is titled, Kahn-Fu.
Her older sister Lena (played by Ritu Arya) is eighteen to maybe twenty, an art-school dropout in low-grade goth depression, frustrated that she’s not ‘good enough’ as an artist, but unsure of what else to do. Ria adores her older sister, and looks to her as a role model, so when Lena is set up in an arranged marriage with the handsome rich Salim Shah (played by Akshay Khanna)—and actually ends up enjoying his company and becomes happy quits her artistic aspirations—Ria is devastated: If Lena gives up her dreams, then how can Ria hope to accomplish hers? Thus, Ria goes into superhero mode in order to rescue Lena from this sinister arranged-marriage plot.
The funny part is, of course, that there might actually be a plot, beyond the arranged marriage. Thus, Polite Society nudges into an homage-to-Marvel action movie, all the while still keeping with Bollywood-ish conventions: there is still a dance scene, in which Ria sings with the overdubbed voice of a much older woman. But also martial arts! With women in full traditional (gorgeous) Pakistani-muslim marriage dresses whirling and twirling in the air.
After Ria has convinced her nerd friends to help her rescue her sister from marriage, all three of them raise their fists and yes, “Down with the patriarchy!” What they don’t realize is that they’re actually taking on the matriarchy. In British-Pakistani society, or at least as it’s portrayed int Polite Society, the mothers have all the power and the do all the scheming. Ria’s dad (played by Jeff Mirza) is just a middle-class office cog, deferring to his wife in all matters, including the arranged marriage—the most interesting line he has is when the whole family attends a soirée at the Shahs. On their arrival, looking at the huge Shah house, he says simply, “Shit.” He’s fully aware of the class difference between the two families and doesn’t feel worthy. Ria’s mom (Shobu Kapoor) is also fully aware of the class difference: that’s why she wants to get Lena married, to marry up and into the Shah lifestyle.
Ria accuses Lena “going Jane Austen” in going along with the arranged marriage to a rich man. Lena counters that, like Austen’s characters, she’s still choosing to do so. The appeal of Austen, and of Polite Society, is the feeling in young people that they’re still not in control of their own lives and that parents still push their children (especially the girls) into lives they don't want. This is amplified in Polite Society. After all, marriages from the Indian sub-continent are still mostly arranged. writer/director Nida Manzoor’s agenda is obviously that Pakistani families should embrace the freedom of choice, in marriage and, as it’s put in the movie, in what one wants ‘to do’—meaning a job but also a life. These are issues that most people still go through, so that, even in this supposed unique sub-culture of British-Pakistani families, there is a universal appeal, even as Manzoor celebrates the differences too.
Polite is always a façade, society in the ‘high society’ sense is always a façade, which covers up what people really think, otherwise society would collapse—according to society. Ria speaks freely, speaks her thoughts—she’s not polite. She doesn’t want to fit in to polite British-Pakistani-Muslim society. To Ria, Lena becomes the example of what becoming polite means, or what happens: she goes from impolite goth-muslim to something else—something designed by adults. And though polite gets her the handsome rich Pakistani boyfriend, is also gets her conformity, just like what happened to her mom, and all the other older Pakistani women. Ria senses that the creative life isn’t so much a goal, as a process, a life, a way of living. The tension in the movie is of course, like it is with young people in any society, whether Ria and Lena can choose their own lives, and be supported in that act. That process.