Nida Manzoor’s latest film, “Polite Society” (2023), takes viewers on a journey through the complex web of generational dynamics with a healthy dose of satire. This subversive tale unfolds within a British Pakistani community in London, blending elements of thriller, family drama, and coming-of-age narratives.
Salim Shah, portrayed by a charismatic actor, stands out as the neighborhood’s beloved doctor and the center of attention. However, he carries a secret, one that binds him tightly to his mother, Raheela. Their codependent relationship unfolds in an enormous house, adding eerie undertones to the story with hints of Oedipal symbolism.
The film kicks off with a glitzy Eid party hosted at the Shah family’s lavish home. The gathering is a showcase for all the eligible girls in the neighborhood, dressed to impress. Unbeknownst to them, hidden devices within the floral arrangements are silently evaluating their fertility, setting the stage for a marriage plot that is both traditional and macabre.
While the film initially nods to familiar South Asian family tropes, it quickly pivots into its own unique narrative, injected with humor and self-awareness. Manzoor’s screenplay pushes the plot towards moments of slapstick parody, avoiding clichés and tropes. The true protagonists of the story emerge as two fiery sisters, Ria and Lena Khan, inseparable and always ready for a fight.
Ria, the younger of the two, refuses to conform to the heteronormative fantasy peddled by the older women in the community. She’s an aspiring stuntwoman with a passion for karate and an unwavering commitment to her art. Ria’s diary consists of letters to Eunice Huthart, Angelina Jolie’s stunt double, showcasing her dedication to mastering martial arts and backflips. Lena, on the other hand, has recently dropped out of art school, which Ria vehemently opposes, considering Lena an artist in her own right.
When Lena’s engagement to Salim is announced, Ria is determined to sabotage the wedding. She views marriage as a threat to their creative dreams and sisterly bond, launching a comically elaborate interference plan. The conflict escalates with the arrival of Raheela, Salim’s mother.
To Raheela, Lena represents the perfect vessel for carrying on their lineage, and she will stop at nothing to ensure this future becomes a reality. The clash between Raheela, a representative of the past, and Ria, a symbol of the new generation, is central to the story’s generational divide. Both women embody ambition, straddling the line between tradition and progress.
“Polite Society” is a potent commentary on patriarchy, with a unique focus on the complicity of women in the ill-treatment of other women. It subverts expectations and challenges stereotypes, offering a fresh perspective on familial and societal dynamics. Nida Manzoor’s film is a departure from convention, inviting viewers to question and confront the roles they play within their own communities and families.