In Nida Manzoor’s World, Martial Arts and Jane Austen Belong in the Same Movie
“Polite Society” is an action caper filled with martial arts battles and secret lairs. It’s a romance in which two smart, impossibly attractive people fall in love. It’s a Jane Austen-esque comedy of marriage in which a teenager meddles in her older sister’s love life while their parents look on in dismay.
It’s also a movie with a lavish, Bollywood-inspired musical number, because why settle on a single genre when you can cram in as many as possible?
Yet this new British film does not feel tonally inconsistent or stylistically scattered; rather, form imaginatively fits function.
“It’s about women dealing with norms and expectations and rules, and wanting to push them,” the writer-director Nida Manzoor explained in a video conversation from Bristol, England. “When they’re breaking them, I’ve got to break genres as well. So it all felt like it was working together, not just me being insane.” She laughed. “Maybe a bit of me being insane.”
Reviewing “Polite Society” for The New York Times, Amy Nicholson called it a delight that signals the arrival of Manzoor as “a promising new thing: a first-time filmmaker impatient to evolve cultural representation from the last few years of self-conscious vitamins into crowd-pleasing candy.”
In the film, Ria, the youngest in a British Pakistani family, attends high school while training hard to fulfill her dream of becoming a stuntwoman. (She idolizes Eunice Huthart, a real-life Liverpudlian with extensive experience as a Hollywood stunt double.) And so the actress portraying her, Priya Kansara, had to get with the program — fast.
“I have no prior martial arts experience or anything like that,” Kansara said in a video chat. “I was cast around six, seven weeks before we started the shoot, so that’s the time I had to learn as many of the stunts and the fight choreography. It was intense because there was so much to get through. And Ria is just a crazy kid; she doesn’t really stop.”
The plot moves at a fast clip peppered with a lot of action, which is nearly always layered with rambunctious comedy. When Ria, who usually has no time for “girlie” accouterments, is forced to endure a wax, the scene is shot like a dramatic interrogation in an early James Bond movie — “but with this kind of villain Auntie character,” Manzoor said, referring to Ria’s nemesis, played by Nimra Bucha.
The film is often cathartic in the way it lets girls and women do — with contagious glee — things we have seen men do onscreen for decades. When Ria and her sister, the art-school dropout Lena (Ritu Arya), go out for burgers, they wolf them down with memorable gusto.
“Nida came up to us, like, ‘Just go for it, eat like you haven’t eaten in hours and you cannot wait to get into it,’ ” Kansara said. “Me and Ritu took the note literally and we went for it. After that take, Nida came back up to us and was like, ‘OK, maybe not that much.’ ”
For Arya (best known as Lila Pitts in the Netflix series “The Umbrella Academy”), being encouraged to chomp was a refreshing change from what she usually sees in movies or on television. “I love watching people eat, but onscreen they are often sort of playing around with their food because of the amount of takes they have to do,” she said in a joint chat with Kansara. “Which is why it’s satisfying when you see people actually eating. I love that scene for that reason.”
Arya was familiar with Manzoor’s sensibility because they had worked together before, most notably on the 14-minute comedy “Lady Parts,” which Manzoor made for Channel 4 in 2018 and in which Arya played the lead singer of the short film’s titular punk band, a raucous quartet of Muslim women. (Because of scheduling conflicts, the part was recast when the short became the series “We Are Lady Parts,” which streams on Peacock in the United States; Manzoor is currently writing Season 2.)
Manzoor started writing “Polite Society” around 10 years ago but kept running into obstacles as she tried to get the project off the ground. Very early on, before such suggestions became less acceptable to make, potential financiers would ask if she could make the central family a white one. Others would have preferred something a little bit less action and more art house. Later, the emphasis on comedy became a problem: Couldn’t there be some weighty issues like, say, an arranged marriage?
Manzoor did not budge. “It was like, ‘It’s a joyful film about South Asian Muslim women,’ ” she said. “So much of the reason I’m a filmmaker is because I want to not have our stories only be about trauma.”
Giving “Polite Society” emotional ballast is the bond between Ria and Lena, which was inspired by the one between Manzoor and her own sister, Sanya, who is a year older. (Their brother, Shez, worked on the soundtrack.) After collaborating with Arya on “Lady Parts,” Manzoor felt she was a natural fit for the role of Lena. “She has the quality of my oldest sister,” Manzoor said, “that natural, inherent sort of alternative brown girl, which is quite rare, actually, in actors. It’s kind of mercurial and wild and vulnerable at the same time.”
Even a brutal brawl between Ria and Lena, at a low point in their relationship, was inspired by real life. “I used to fight with her — we used to do martial arts together,” Manzoor said of Sanya. “I have this memory of when we were in a martial arts class and our instructor always wanted us to fight when we did sparring.” She laughed. “It was kind of creepy.”
Asked why she was so keen to put women being active and physical at the heart of her film, Manzoor dug back into her past again.
“I used to love sports, and doing martial arts and dancing,” she said. “And then around 12, 13 years old, your body changes and you become objectified. I felt so alienated from my body, so ashamed of it. I realized I’m drawn to genres that allow women to be in possession of their bodies: playing an instrument, being onstage. That was something I lost when I was a teenager, that physicality,” she added. “In my art, I’m always trying to show women have it or regain it or find it.”