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Op-Ed: ‘Polite Society’ Is A Badass Tale Of Two Sisters

By Ramya Kumar

A masterfully crafted work of art, Polite Society is without a doubt one of the best movies of the year. As a fan of Nida Manzoor’s writing and directing work since enjoying the Peacock original We Are Lady Parts, I was thrilled when Polite Society, her film debut, was announced. The movie not only lives up to but surpasses every bit of anticipation. Manzoor’s storytelling abilities reach new heights in Polite Society, with a simultaneously subtle yet overt exposé of truths about South Asian communities that those within them would never dare say out loud.

Ritu Arya and Priya Kansara as Lena and Nadine have an on-screen chemistry that even two actual sisters would have difficulty matching. Their talent – from their comedic timing to the vast range of emotions required by each character – combined with incredible performances from the rest of the cast and Manzoor’s genius writing and directing has created one of the most beautiful South Asian coming-of-age movies ever.

(Courtesy of Focus Features)

At first glance, the film might seem to mimic kitschy comic book-inspired early 2000s coming-of-age movies; several reviews have compared Polite Society to Scott Pilgrim vs the World. However, this comparison is a blatant disservice to the greater emotional, cultural, and visual depth the film creators bring to this movie. Upon deeper inspection, the on-screen remakes of comic-like fight scenes and Tarantino-esque gore between Lena and Nadine symbolize their deep feelings for each other. True fights between sisters, not including the squabbles about stolen sweatshirts and shoes, feel like shattering each other’s foreheads on mirrors, falling off a 12-foot-tall balcony, and leaving the scene of the harsh words exchanged with a bloody forehead and a broken nose.

Manzoor perfectly captures the duality of love between sisters: it is all-consuming, endless, and beautiful, but under strain and agitation, its depth is genuinely terrifying and knows no bounds. This is where the plot of Polite Society begins, testing the strength of the love between two sisters: Lena and Nadine.

After quitting on her dreams of becoming an artist, Lena has moved home, without a job, without a husband, and without a planned future- a combination of choices that officially designate her and her family as social pariahs in their South Asian community in London. To remedy this horribly catastrophic series of events, as described by her friends, Lena and Nadine’s mother pushes Lena into an arranged marriage-esque situation, much to Nadine’s dismay. As the youngest sister, Nadine’s glorification of Lena chasing her dreams of becoming an artist, a quintessential rebellion of the typically encouraged careers amongst South Asian immigrants – doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc. – underlies her dedication to becoming a stunt double.

At this intersection of dreams, we are introduced to one of many reasons their bond is so strong: Nadine is Lena’s hero. When her hero’s dreams of becoming an artist are threatened by a wife-hunting-mama’s boy, Salim, played by Akshay Khanna, and his evil mama, Raheela, played by Nimra Bucha, Lena refuses to let this mother-son duo ruin her sister’s life. Thus ensues the rest of the movie’s hijinks: Lena, with her two adorably well-intentioned, loyal best friends by her side (Clara and Edith, played by Seraphina Bush and Sally Ann, respectively), leads the mission to prove to the world that Salim and Raheela are evil masterminds. Despite Raheela’s continuous attempts – violence both physical and emotional in nature – at destroying Lena and her plan to expose the antics behind the marriage between Salim and Nadine, Lena perseveres, a testament to the love she feels for her sister.

While injecting the movie with the fun and suspense of a heist movie, Manzoor prioritizes unveiling truths about “toxic aunties” in South Asian communities. With comical genius, she revealed the lengths some mothers are willing to go for the “perfect match” for their “perfect little boy”; in the movie, these lengths are DNA tests, uterine strength examinations, and involuntary surgeries on potential matches. In real life, the same belief underlies discussions about marriage to this day: “It is good for a boy to be picky, but not good for a girl to be so picky,” to quote Raheela herself.

(Courtesy of Focus Features)

The scene that stands as the crowning jewel of a film already embellished with writing, acting, and cinematography of the highest calibre was Lena’s remake of the iconic Bollywood dance sequence set to “Maar Daala,” a song from the movie Devdas. In the song, the lyrics “Maar daala” repeat several times, which directly translates to “it has killed me,” lyrics dramatically sung by 16-year-old Nadine directly at 55-year-old Raheela, a humorous foreshadowing of the movie’s climactic showdown.

There is a creative genius in Manzoor’s methods of referencing old Bollywood movie scenes to add to the melodrama of Polite Society; by utilizing the tropes and archetypes of old Bollywood movies and morphing them to fit the coming-of-age stories of two South Asian girls in 2023, Manzoor reimagines the storytelling capacity of music, plots, and visuals of Indian culture of the “past,” proving these elements do not have to be left in the past, but can permeate South Asian cinema of the future. With all the extravagance of a classic Bollywood end, Nadine and Lena triumphantly make their grand escape from the wedding after finally revealing Raheela’s evil to the world, only to debrief their wild night through intimately sweet and quintessentially sisterly conversations.

Manzoor is not light in her mockery of South Asian aunties; Lena quite literally kicks about 30 in the face throughout the movie. This ridicule is not uncalled for, as the double standard for men and women set by more conservative, traditional South Asians is a menace and reflects the unspoken misogyny that is the foundation of many discussions about marriage today. In a scene where Lena yells at Raheela, “If you love him so much, why don’t you marry him!” she hints at the nearly oedipal dynamics this misogyny and sexism fosters. This comes to a head when Raheela reveals that she intended to use her son’s wife as a “vessel” to clone herself using her son’s sperm, another comical exaggeration of motivations behind why South Asian mothers are often so picky on behalf of their sons.

The most moving scene of the movie happens when Raheela says to Lena, “You are a silly girl with silly ideas…you are utterly unremarkable, a tragic waste of human life….” At some point or another, under the crushing expectations and standards of traditional South Asian communities, these words have been repeated in nearly every girl’s head. In the face of this verbal abuse, Lena, determined to save her sister, stands up and victoriously roundhouse kicks Raheela.

I will admit I cheered loudly in the theatre as I watched this; even Kansara has said, “Haven’t we all wanted to kick an aunty in the face at one point?” Needless to say, my first phone call leaving the theatre was to the only person on earth I would kick a thousand aunties in the face for my little sister.

Polite Society is now streaming on Peacock.

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