'We are deserving of being here': How the Sundance hit 'Polite Society' transforms Muslim women into action heroes
Director Nida Manzoor says the film is a direct response to trauma-centric narratives about Muslim women.
When writer/director Nida Manzoor broke into U.K. television in the early-2010s, she hoped to speak for a population that had largely been overlooked by the media: young British Pakistani women like herself who proudly embraced both cultures. But she quickly learned that she was expected to follow conventional narratives about the wives and daughters of Muslim families that were being presented on TV across the pond.
"Early on in my career, I was asked to write about forced marriages and honor killings, as though those were our only narratives as Muslim women," Manzoor tells Yahoo Entertainment. "It made me angry, because my truth was never those things. I felt like, 'I'm so over this: I want to show our stories with joyfulness and nuance. A lot of that anger and frustration fueled by my own art — it made me swing big."
Manzoor's first big swing was the acclaimed Channel 4 series, We Are Lady Parts, about an all-female Muslim punk band that belted songs like "Bashir With the Good Beard" and "Voldemort Under My Headscarf." (The show is streaming in the U.S. on Peacock.) Now, she's taking another turn at bat — on the big screen this time — with Polite Society, the story of two Muslim sisters that plays as a rollicking mash-up of Bollywood wedding comedies with martial arts movies, body horror yarns and even a dash of The Great Muppet Caper.
And once again, it's a project that British film companies initially tried to fit into a more familiar box. "There were certain executives who asked, 'Can you make it a white family?' or 'Can it be a forced marriage?'" Manzoor recalls. "As if the only stories about Muslim women that can be told have to have some trauma element to them. But I was always like, 'Nah nah nah — I'm gonna do something wild here.'"
Opening in theaters on April 28 after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Polite Society stars Priya Kansara as Rita Khan, a teenage kung-fu superfan with aspirations of being a major motion picture stuntwoman. Her biggest fan is her elder sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), whose own career hopes are on hold after dropping out of art school.
In that vulnerable state, she meets and falls for handsome bachelor, Salim Shah (Akshay Khanna), much to the delight of her parents and his perfect match-hunting mother, Raheela (Nimra Bucha). Rita, on the other hand, isn't willing to accept that her ambitious sister is settling for the conventional life of a Muslim wife, and she launches a series of well-intentioned, but execution-challenged capers to stop the impending nuptials.
Born and raised in London's vibrant British Pakistani community, Kansara says that she felt immediate kinship with the character that Manzoor created. "There are so many similarities between my life and Rita's," the actress notes. "Her friends, her school life, growing up with family pressures — all of those things felt so similar to me. I also felt connected to Rita in terms of her wanting to pursue an unorthodox career and facing up to the expectations of what society places on women. I felt that for sure growing up."
"Particularly as Brown women, there are so many small violences that happen every day in our lives," Kansara continues, reflecting on the way the Polite Society uses action movie beats as a source of power for Rita and Lena. "Living within those restrictions and placing them against these big violences through the film was incredibly cathartic. Especially as young women, there's so much visceral anger at people telling you, 'You can be this, you have to be that,' you actually do want to kick somebody! To be able to do that in the film was really fun."
Thanks to Manzoor's genre mash-up approach, Polite Society's Matrix-style fight sequences fulfill the same function that elaborate dance numbers play in Bollywood movies — lavish spectacles that are also in tune with the dramatic and emotional stakes facing the characters. "It was exciting to use action to talk about femininity and sisterhood," the filmmaker says. "I feel like those things don't often come together in action movies."
That sense of sisterhood even carries over into the antagonistic relationship between Rita and her mother-in-law to be. The two face off in the film's climactic bout, and it becomes clear during the course of that Shah vs. Khan smackdown that they're essentially fighting for the same thing: to be free of the traditional expectations that come with being a Muslim woman in the modern world. "That fight was my favorite thing to shoot because of that," Manzoor says. "The villain is not really the villain — it's a woman that who hasn't had the opportunity to explore her ambition. And the hero is a young girl who is also fighting to do that. They're both sides of the same coin, and they get to explore that through some really cool kung-fu."
It's also no accident that the scene pits a Shah against a Khan. Both surnames are common in Pakistan, the former descending from royal titles while the latter owes its origins to warrior kings like Gengis Khan. "In our movie, the Khans feel lesser-than," Manzoor notes. "They feel like they should be thankful that a young man like Salim Shah would even take an interest in their daughter. So there's a class dynamic that way, and that's also why Rita is this kind of scrappy, underdog character. Being able to depict the Shahs as a regal family also allowed for some over the top visual elements that were really fun to do."
Going over-the-top with the tone and style of Polite Society also serves as Manzoor's direct rebuke to the trauma-centric narratives about Muslim women she was once expected to write. "I wanted to see these women being joyful and also funny, which seems weirdly radical," she says. "Humor is a thing that cuts across cultures and disarms audiences and brings them into your world."
Even as Manzoor has sought to challenge and change Muslim representation onscreen, she's encountered resistance among more traditionally-minded Muslim audiences. "You do get people who are like: 'This isn't OK — why are you showing this?'" she admits. "We Are Lady Parts was warmly embraced, but there were certainly people who weren't happy. It's one of the things that I speak about with newer writers now — that burden of representation and the fear of disappointing your community.
"It hurts when that kind of criticism comes from your own community, but you've just got to keep going and make your art," the filmmaker continues, adding that Muslim women in particular face additional hurdles in telling their stories. "The burden of representation can weigh heavier — you're socialized to not upset the apple cart and there's a fear element to that. It's all part of our experience as writers from underrepresented communities. There's not a lot of diversity, so it's not a rich landscape for you to do your own niche thing. And when you do your niche thing, some people [from your community] will say, 'This isn't my experience.' Of course it isn't — it's one person's experience. Polite Society is the kind of film I dreamt of seeing when I was a teenage girl, so I feel lucky that I got to make it."
While Muslim action heroes are rife in Southeast Asian cinema, the most prominent contemporary example on this side of the globe is the Disney+ series Ms. Marvel starring Iman Vellani as the Marvel Cinematic Universe's friendly neighborhood Pakistani-American crimefighter, Kamala Khan. (Vellani will reprise the role in The Marvels alongside Brie Larson later this year.) Bucha also played a not-quite villain on that series, providing a direct link to her Polite Society role. Both Kansara and Manzoor regard the existence of a show like Ms. Marvel as a step in the right direction for depictions of Muslim women in Western media, although there's still a long way to go to reach parity.
"The media really frames how people think about underrepresented communities," Kansara says. "There are over a billion Muslims on this planet and we have confined our thinking of them to this very small range of characters that we've seen onscreen. For someone like Nida to come along and show that the community has joyful stories to tell humanizes them. It allows people to stop confining them to this small box."
"If this film does well, it shows our stories are worth being told and encourages producers to take more risks," Manzoor adds. "Seeing this kind of representation that says you can be an action hero — that this is your movie — makes you feel like you belong. Oftentimes, you grow up and you don't see yourself in art. This film represents my genre: It says that we can do everything and that we are deserving of being here."
Polite Society premieres Friday, April 28 in theaters.