What do you do when you're struggling to perfect a reverse flying spin kick and your older sister is engaged to a man you don't approve of? Well, if you're schoolgirl Ria Khan (newcomer Priya Kansara) in filmmaker Nida Manzoor's peppy new actioner Polite Society, you plan an elaborate wedding heist with your two best friends.
After dropping out of art school and falling into a depressive episode (the sort that involves eating an entire rotisserie chicken on the street), Lena Khan (The Umbrella Academy's Ritu Arya) finds her fortunes rapidly changing when wealthy bachelor Salim (Akshay Khanna) takes an interest in her. Her younger sister, aspiring stuntwoman Ria, does not approve of the match, however. She suspects something fishy is afoot – and the fact that she can't quite put her finger on what's wrong with Salim won't stop her trying to sabotage the union at any cost.
The film, which stemmed from the writer-director's relationship with her own sister, has been a labor of love for Manzoor, who wrote the first draft of the script a decade ago. "[Polite Society] was really inspired by my love of action movies, but also my desire to see myself there," she tells Total Film when we sit down with her and Kansara in a London hotel room. "I felt like I never really saw myself on screen."
She continues: "I realized early on that the action genre is such a perfect way to explore the experience of a teenage girl – your body is changing, it feels painful, you feel awkward in your body. It just seems like the perfect way to explore the violence of what it feels like to be a teenage girl through big, bombastic fight scenes."
And there are plenty of fight scenes in the film, with teenage angst manifesting as stylized hand-to-hand combat. Ria often finds herself caught in a scrap (whether that's a sisterly squabble with Lena, a confrontation with the school mean girl, or a showdown with a bigger foe) and there's even a dance number towards the end of the film, so it's safe to say that this role was a very psychically demanding one for Kansara.
"Ria doesn't really sit down," Kansara laughs. "I had never done martial arts before this. I was cast about six or seven weeks before we started the shoot and that was the time when we would train three, sometimes four, times a week. But trying to find a balance was really important so that I didn't burn out prior to starting the shoot, knowing how intense the shoot would be. I was just so lucky to work with such an incredible stunt team. They were really empowering and helped me to learn as much as I could within the short period of time."
Behind the camera, Manzoor certainly knows her stuff when it comes to action, having been raised on a diet of Jackie Chan and kung fu flicks. "One of my seminal film experiences was watching The Matrix for the first time. I was 11, thinking, 'wow,' and that just opened the door to all this Hong Kong kung fu. That film particularly spoke to me.”
"Then you look to films like Kill Bill, I just love those action scenes and there's a continuity – there's Yuen Woo-ping, who's the fight choreographer on Kill Bill, who also did The Matrix, and when I realized that I started looking into his cinema as well. Jackie Chan movies were what I grew up on – for me, he's a master of combining comedy and action, rhythm and specificity, and using his environments, which really informed how we were conceiving of the action, especially for the sisters’ fights. What can we use in a girl's bedroom to make the fight feel really grounded in the space? It feels like the fight is tailored to the space."
Another more surprising source of inspiration was Raw, the 2016 body horror from French filmmaker Julia Ducournau. "It's got the best sister relationship that I've seen in cinema, and this film was one that I was always mentioning to execs as I was pitching [Polite Society], 'this is what the sisters need to feel like,'" Manzoor explains.
Although the movie also grapples with growing pains, bodily autonomy, and cultural norms, the relationship between Ria and Lena is undoubtedly the cornerstone of Polite Society. It was important, then, that Kansara had great chemistry with her on-screen sister, and the pair are electric in their scenes together. "I was nervous about it because I hadn't met Ritu before we were cast," she explains. "But it was so easy, we really didn't even have to do very much. I remember the first rehearsal, she bought me a little present and we had a great chat, and then we would hang out a few times before we were filming and we had lots of rehearsals as well. But honestly, it felt so natural. It didn't really feel like work at all."
Before Manzoor made Polite Society, she helmed a project about a different kind of sisterhood: We Are Lady Parts. A six-part comedy series that aired on Channel 4 and Peacock in 2021 (and has since been renewed for a second season), it follows an all-female, all-Muslim punk band in London, a mismatched group of 20-somethings who bond over their love of music. Manzoor wrote and directed all six episodes, and Polite Society feels like a very natural progression from her work on the small screen.
"Getting to make We Are Lady Parts really helped me find my voice, my tone, aesthetic, the way I like to work," she explains. "I actually feel so fortunate [Polite Society] didn't happen until it did, because I felt like I had the skills to pull it off, finally. I had so many of the same heads of department that I'd worked with on Lady Parts, and it was a real collaboration and trust there. I felt like I was in the best position to make the film with the people I know I love to work with and who really are striving for the same tone, so that was just incredibly lucky."
Kansara recalls the first time she read the script for Polite Society, and it sounds like she fell in love with the character and the film almost immediately. "I was laughing so much, I was shocked at every turn," she says. "It was just a story that I got so absorbed in, I couldn't put the script down. The incredible relationships within it, particularly the love story between the sisters, is just something that really drew me to it. I felt instantly connected to the story because there's so much heart, even though there's so many crazy things going on whilst it's all taking place."
The love goes both ways, as Manzoor couldn't be more full of praise for her lead actor. "Priya emanates a goodness that was incredible because the character on the page can be quite annoying," the writer-director laughs. "What Priya brings is this truth where you really root for Ria because [she] emanates this positive, good lovability. She just lights up the screen, and we knew we had a movie star on our hands. Priya just elevated Ria off the page beyond anything I could have done myself."
"I find it crazy that anybody would read Ria and ever find her annoying," Kansara chimes in. "I never ever, not once, ever thought that she was an annoying character. You read somebody and you automatically feel their heart – I always felt her heart."
And for all its spin kicks, uppercuts, and bruised shins, Polite Society is a movie packed to the brim with heart. Is it possible that some people might find Ria's motivations and actions a little outlandish or – in Manzoor's words – annoying? Possibly, but as Manzoor, Kansara, and Total Film can all agree: if you haven't been a teenage girl (even the type who can't do a reverse flying spin kick), you just don't get it.
Polite Society is out in cinemas on April 28. For more, check out our guide to the rest of the year's most highly anticipated movie release dates.