Polite Society is a raucous good time. Stories about sisterhood should always have this much martial arts action.
British high school student Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) knows what she wants to be in life: a stuntwoman. She records her moves for her YouTube channel, shouting, “I am the fury!” in her garden while her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) holds the camera.
Lena’s future isn’t so clear. She dropped out of art school, and now she mopes around in bed until Ria literally drags her out of it.
The girls’ parents Fatima (Shobu Kapoor) and Raff (Jeff Mirza) are supportive of their oddball daughters, but the pressure from their Pakistani-British social circle is mounting. There are only so many ways to deflect thinly-veiled insults.
It’s a surprise when the middle class Khans are invited to an Eid celebration at the mansion of one of the wealthiest women in the group, Raheela Shah (Nimra Bucha). It’s even more of a surprise to Ria when Lena chats with Raheela’s handsome doctor son Salim (Akshay Khanna) and actually appears to be enjoying herself.
Ria is convinced that there’s something suspicious about the Shahs. Why else would Salim and his mom take an interest in artsy Lena? Ria enlists her hilarious friends/sidekicks Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) and Clara (Seraphina Beh) to find dirt on Salim, but their spying only drives a wedge between the sisters. Is it so wrong for Lena to be happy receiving attention from a rich hunk who’s looking to settle down?
Polite Society has so much going for it that it’s hard to know where to begin. What is undeniable is Priya Kansara’s magnetism as Ria. Her performance commands attention and rewards it with an absolute star-making turn. She’s funny, snarky, and charismatic, and a total pro at the action sequences as well.
The martial arts fight scenes in Polite Society are terrific, smoothly integrated into the plot but surprising all the same. Though the fights are used for comic effect, they are totally hardcore — a delightful subversion of gender tropes given that the fights take place mostly between women in women’s spaces (a girls high school, a widow’s mansion, Ria’s bedroom, etc.).
Ritu Arya’s Lena is quite the fighter, too, as is Nimra Bucha as Raheela. Fresh off her turn as the villain in the Disney+ series Ms. Marvel, Bucha is proving to be the go-to intimidating South Asian mom of the moment. Arya plays off of Kansara beautifully, making the sisters’ relationship feel familiar and believable.
The Khan parents provide the moral center of the film in a subtle way. In contrast with Raheela’s eagerness to find a bride for Salim, the Khans are content to let their girls find their own way. While they are aware that marriage and family are a potential path to stability (and one that would make it easier for Fatima to socialize with the other moms), they aren’t pushy about it. Fatima encourages Lena to date Salim because it seems to make Lena happy. As long as the girls aren’t getting into serious trouble, their happiness is all that matters to their parents.
Filmmaker Nida Manzoor’s fresh screenplay and direction deftly mix social commentary with a lot of laughs — and plenty of flying kicks. Polite Society is a top-class effort from a young filmmaker to watch.