In 2021, I reviewed the TV comedy series We Are Lady Parts. That was the creation of Nida Manzoor, but since then, the show has fallen victim to the Peacock network’s quick trigger finger. No matter, since Manzoor has taken the opportunity to make her debut as a film director with Polite Society, whose title could hardly be less appropriate to the British movie by that name where young Muslim women push against their traditional upbringing in fantastical ways.
Our heroine is Ria Khan (Priya Kansara), a London teenager from a squarely middle-class Pakistani family who studies karate more assiduously than anything in school. She wants to be a stuntwoman for British movies and TV, even though she lands on her face every time she attempts a flying reverse spinning kick. Her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) usually helps film Ria’s stunts for her YouTube channel, but she has been severely depressed ever since dropping out of art school. Maybe that’s why she submits when their parents arrange a marriage to Selim Shah (Akshay Khanna), an impossibly handsome, charming, considerate, wealthy young doctor who fixes birth defects in the womb. Ria becomes convinced that this catch is the embodiment of pure evil and sets out to stop the wedding before Selim whisks Lena away to Singapore.
Clearly we’re dealing with more than just teenage emotions here. Ria and her school friends (Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, an effective comedy team) repeatedly attempt to dig up dirt on Selim, including dressing up as men to steal his laptop from his gym locker, and last year’s Four Samosas did better at squeezing laughs out of novices trying to plan and commit crimes. When Ria sees Selim’s unauthorized reports on the uterine health of hundreds of young women including herself, we’re meant to be unsure whether she’s seeing what’s really there. The moment doesn’t come off, though, nor does Ria’s fight against Lena that destroys the top floor of their house. (Their parents are apparently so used to this that they don’t even bother to come up to check the damage.) The whole film is meant to be both a comic martial-arts fantasy and a study of a teenage girl’s angst over the prospect of her beloved sister abandoning her, and Manzoor can’t quite pull off this difficult task.
The movie does hit a delightful stride in the latter half, with Ria and her friends trying to chloroform and kidnap Lena from her own wedding. The extended sequence includes Ria distracting the guests by performing a dance number that incorporates kung fu moves into the choreography, and the climactic fight scene between her and Selim’s domineering mother (Nimra Bucha) is quite beautiful, with the two women performing delicate moves while in traditional South Asian bridal dresses. (Ria wears an anarkali while doing backflips across the floor, and it looks tremendous.) This is a fight sequence that you won’t get from Bollywood — Indian films have women who look pretty and women who kick ass, but generally not at the same time. It sports a great kicker when Selim walks in on the fight and asks, “Mum, what are you doing?” in the tone of someone who’s found his mother picking a petty squabble with the caterers.
The movie boasts a star-making turn from Kansara, whose two-episode stint on Bridgerton I haven’t seen yet. She has the martial-arts and the dance moves, and she’s particularly funny when Ria’s attempts to act normal only make her look crazier to her family and friends. Speaking of which, the science-fiction plot that Ria believes she uncovers is almost as demented as the one in Get Out. If not everything in Polite Society is positioned just so, the specific British Muslim viewpoint that Nida Manzoor brings to it gives her teen science-fiction martial-arts comedy an exotic flavor that you won’t get from anything else at our multiplexes.
Starring Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya. Written and directed by Nida Manzoor. Rated PG-13.