Films that explore the confluence or contradictions of cultures isn’t particularly new, not even if you consider the stories of South Asians living in the west. Altogether rare in comparison, South Asian immigrant stories where they embody the role of the protagonist have been popular among both the audience of the east and home countries. What isn’t old or largely seen within the spectrum are stories that are rooted in genres. In this regard, Nida Manzoor’s Polite Society is fresh, daring, funny and exciting.
Manzoor’s debut narrates the life of two Pakistani-English sisters who find themselves at odds with one another when the older decides to marry someone the younger sister, an aspiring stunt woman, is suspicious of. What follows is a relatable yet bizarre ride following the younger sister Ria’s attempt to break off the impending marriage of the older sister Lena (played brilliantly by Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya, respectively).
The stakes and character wants are pretty clear right from the beginning (from the trailer, in fact), so the rest of the film only serves to explore the how of it. From the get go, the tone of the film is set with its quirky edits and title slates, the choice of music and the excess of colours. But the story manages to stay rooted in the real-world experiences of these characters, never allowing the style to take over the substance.
In recent years, South Asian representation in western cinema has become commonplace. Though restricted to realistic immigrant stories, romance or fictionalised period pieces, the presence of Mindy Kaling, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Kumail Nanjiani in the US, and Rahul Kohli and Riz Ahmed in the UK among others have boosted our perspectives. The presence of South Asians in genre films had a late start but it seems to be slowly picking up.
Nanjiani debuted as the first Indian superhero in Marvel — Kingo; Iman Vellani’s version of the joyous Kamala Khan / Ms. Marvel soon followed, and now Manzoor is here with her version of a superhero sister too. All of these representations offer the opportunity for brown people to finally see people who look and talk like them on screen, living events that are larger than life and existing within the larger global Hollywood pop culture.
The heart of Polite Society is desi at large
For Polite Society, that is achieved, however, by borrowing multiple pop culture references from Bollywood — whether it is opening the film with older Bollywood songs, or using Devdas’s Mar dala in the climatic scene, Manzoor reminds us constantly that the characters are desi at heart despite their realities navigating through upper class London.
The nuances in family dynamics, their get-togethers to gossip about the other desis in the city and the very smooth interrogation to find whose sons and daughters are single and eligible to marry — the heart of Polite Society is desi at large.
The genres and the homages unfold slowly through the film. In the beginning, the tonality is only set by the edits and title cards along with the use of pop culture Bollywood songs. Then it gets into the realm of absurdity (well, here, the reality of the world) in the second act when the two sisters have a face-off. Filmed in similar fashion as older Asian martial art films and well, Everything Everywhere All At Once. As the story progresses and we move from one chapter to the next (the film is divided into chapters), the tonality of the film broadens.
There is a secret lab somewhere in a palace where the charismatic groom-to-be is conducting secret tests. The wants and needs of the antagonists in Polite Society go back and forth between science fiction and fantasy. Because Polite Society doesn’t allow the audience to define itself within set tonality and genres — existing between comedy, coming-of-age, action adventure and immigrant stories — it becomes more accessible to a wider audience than, say, a Ms. Marvel, which from the start exists within its own set of rules, and where Pakistani actress Nimra Bucha also plays the evil mother.
Much like Ms. Marvel, it has large socio-political undertones
Representations in genres — be it fantasy or horror — is important. It taps into a far more loyal audience than a humanistic drama. Within these small pockets of loyal audiences lie many South Asians hoping to see an extension of themselves on screen, which will be viewed by the world at large. Sure South Asian cinema — Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Nepali, which are largely viewed by their own audiences — have a broad range of stories to offer, a large number of which lean towards various genres. And sure, RRR broke into the scene last year and introduced the global audience to the flavour of Indian masala films. But RRR is an exception to the norm. And this is why characters like Ria Khan, Lena or even Kingo and Kamala Khan are so important to brown audiences.
Polite Society, much like Ms. Marvel, has large socio-political undertones. Manzoor talks about the agency Indian families and societies give to women’s bodies, the patriarchal notion of favouring parents over partners, and acquiring wives only for them to be vessels for offspring is heavily explored. Ms. Marvel draws a direct parallel to its past — the partition of India, and the impact it has had on the children of the migrants. In both stories, the young female protagonists want to be something different from the stereotypical Indian in the west — the doctor, the engineer. They are protagonists with niche interests and curiously dreamy eyes, despite unfortunate realities. South Asian experiences, though heavily tragic at times, are rich and less-explored territories for the west. So when they are packaged within worlds that seem otherwise otherworldly, it allows audiences to introspect in ways that are more welcoming and conversational.
Though it premiered at Sundance, Polite Society is less likely to make a dent in world cinema at large. The script isn’t the sharpest, even though it’s full of heart. Despite embracing absurdity, it shies away from being as daring as Everything Everywhere All At Once. But its success — both critical and commercial — promises room for more such stories. And with a growing number of Indian origin British and American directors in the scene, there’s hope for more.