Polite Society Shows How Sister Relationships Can Be ‘So Cruel Yet So Fiercely Protective’

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures
Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya in Polite Society
In movies, there are three classic storylines that will always hook us from the outset: an evil future mother-in-law, hilarious high school politics, and of course, kickass stunts. Polite Society delivers these in spades, but what really makes this action comedy one of our favourites of 2023 (so far) is its honest exploration of sisterhood.
Sibling relationships are not necessarily new to cinema, but it's rare to see a light-hearted movie centre, not a romantic love, but a relationship between two sisters. Anyone who has a sister could guess that it won't be all smooth sailing, but this movie takes sisterhood drama to the extreme, with Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) planning an elaborate heist to cancel her sister Lena's (Ritu Arya) wedding.
In Polite Society, all men are secondary to characters Ria and Lena, and with the right balance of mushiness and mayhem, the audience falls in love with these two British-Pakistani women.
"The thing that I love the most and the first thing I truly connected to [when reading the script] was the love story between the two sisters," Kansara tells Refinery29 Australia. "The dialogue and the relationship that they have was just something I felt so connected to."
In the film, Kansara's character Ria is a martial artist in training who dreams of becoming a world-renowned stuntwoman. When she sees her older sister Lena give up on her dreams — dropping out of art school and quickly getting engaged to a man she barely knows — Ria decides she'll do whatever it takes to save her sister from the burden of marriage. All in the name of freedom and sisterhood. But staging a wedding heist is no easy feat when you have Lena's future mother-in-law from hell to face first.
Director Nida Manzoor, who was behind the popular British punk comedy, We Are Lady Parts, says she drew on her real-life experience to convey this tale of the ups and downs of sisterhood.
"I have an older sister who's just a year older than me and she's one of my closest friends, but we've [also] been the worst enemies," says Manzoor. "There's a real kind of particularity to a sister relationship where it can be so cruel yet so fiercely protective."
Manzoor explains that she rarely saw the big screen do this dynamic justice, because "it's always the romantic relationship that gets prioritised".
"It was just exciting to get to celebrate sisterhood because I feel like it's very unique," she reflects. "It's very cruel, but it's also very beautiful and it's something that I was really desperate to make a film about."

"There's a real kind of particularity to a sister relationship where it can be so cruel yet so fiercely protective."

nida manzoor
Besides sisterly affection, the British-Pakistani director says she also hardly saw young women who looked like her at the helm of action comedies when she was growing up.
"I loved action growing up, but I didn't see myself," she says. "I loved Jackie Chan movies, and I always dreamt of making a film that had a South Asian teenage girl who gets to be the Jackie Chan of her film because I didn't see that," she laughs. "So that was my first impetus, like, I want to make this film exist."
Ria embodies this fierce South Asian lead that Manzoor speaks of, and Kansara gushes about her character's ability to flip the stereotype of the quiet, obedient brown Muslim daughter on its head.
"She inspires me greatly with her ability to just not care what anybody else thinks and to just go for what she wants," says Kansara. "I often think about how I didn't feel that way when I was her age, so that really inspires me."
The stunt scenes in this film are a spectacle in themselves, not just because of the sharp movements, but because of the beautiful costuming that accompanies the action. Manzoor extended cultural representation beyond the casting, ensuring that Ria is wearing traditional South Asian garb while kicking some serious arse at one point in the movie.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures
"It was so intentional because it allowed me to bring together the things I love about South Asian culture and the Bollywood films I loved growing up," she explains. "But also the Hong Kong Kung Fu and, you know, in those sort of big Wushu martial arts films, costume is part of accentuating the martial arts."
She says designer PC Williams "crafted the costumes to not only celebrate the South Asian culture, but also, to think about how they would move in those fights".
Wearing an Anarkali — a long dress worn with trousers underneath in some South Asian cultures — made Kansara "feel cooler" as she performed her on-screen stunts.
"It was just really special. As the Anarkali moves when she does the flips and stuff like that, it just makes it look more dynamic, and honestly, made me look like I was a way better fighter than I was," she laughs.
This attention to detail makes the on-screen representation all the more sweeter for brown women, who like Manzoor and Kansara, have been waiting to see themselves on screen.
But, of course, amongst all of this kick-ass action, the question remains: will Ria succeed in saving her sister from the shackles of marriage? Their type of sibling love is universal and one we can't forget and it's because of that, that Polite Society is a must-see for everyone.
Polite Society hits Australian cinemas on Thursday, April 27.
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