“There’s a Beauty to the Dark Feminine”: Nida Manzoor on Polite Society
The unbreakable bond of sisterhood threatens to be thwarted by a eugenic evil conspiracy in Polite Society, writer-director Nida Manzoor’s feature debut. The British filmmaker, who was raised in a Pakistani Muslim household, has encased vital aspects of her own life in each project she’s embarked on so far. Her Peacock/Channel 4 show We Are Lady Parts, which follows a punk band comprised entirely of Muslim women, incorporates her natural musical prowess through writing the show’s music with her siblings Shez and Sanya. Now with Polite Society, Manzoor reflects on another immutable aspect of her life: the chaos and camaraderie inherent in having a big sister.
British-Pakistani teen Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) has all the faith in the world that she’ll grow up to be the next great stuntwoman (following in the footsteps of fellow Brit Eunice Huthart, who Ria idolizes and fosters a one-sided penpal correspondence with via email). Though she’s confident in her potential, it seems that her big sister (and recent art school dropout) Lena is the only person in her life who truly believes in her. When her dedicated YouTube videographer, workout buddy and hype woman announces her engagement to wealthy doctor Salim (Akshay Khanna), her little sister is heartbroken. When Lena then states that she’ll be moving to Singapore with Salim shortly after they marry, Ria can’t help but shake the feeling that something is terribly off. What begins as a simple ploy to sabotage her sister’s wedding morphs into a quest to stop Salim’s mother Raheela (an excellent Nimra Bucha) from enacting bizarre control over Lena’s reproductive organs. Frustratingly, Lena refuses to believe there’s anything afoot. Luckily for her, Ria knows enough martial arts moves to hopefully knock some sense into her.
Boasting alluring costume and production design, ambitious fight choreography and great needle drops (Karen O, Danger Mouse, X-Ray Specs and The Chemical Brothers meld perfectly with ample Bollywood numbers), Polite Society is a coming of age film that giddily wears its influences on its sleeve, yet refuses to show its true cards too early.
Manzoor spoke to me via Zoom ahead of her film’s stateside release. During our conversation, the filmmaker shed light on working with brother Shez Manzoor on the film’s score, King Kong Theory and the importance of female physicality on screen.
Polite Society lands in theaters this Friday, April 28 from Focus Features.
Filmmaker: This is probably a bit of a generic first question, but I’m very curious about specific touchstones for the film. I really dig your riff on a slew of recognizable coming of age films in Polite Society—I personally caught glimpses of Ghost World, Mean Girls, Bend It Like Beckham, Scott Pilgrim and Booksmart. Somewhat mature inspirations include The Matrix and various Tarantino films, as well. What I’d really like to know, however, are the films and media you looked at that are perhaps less evident to the audience.
Manzoor: I also grew up loving television comedies. I was watching lots of Malcolm Malcolm in the Middle, which isn’t a reference to really say when you’re trying to be a serious filmmaker. People are like, “What?”
But as you said, there’s a lot of teen comedy [references in Polite Society]. I’ve been talking about Slums of Beverly Hills recently, because that really spoke to me. Isn’t that film the best?
Filmmaker: It’s amazing! I think it’s the first film I watched with Natasha Lyonne in it.
Manzoor: She’s so cool in it, and I always thought, “This is punk in a way.” And music has been an important part of the film. Not only South Asian Bollywood music, but also Riot Grrrl and British punk. You know, Poly Styrene of X–Ray Spex—the last song in the film is a big X-Ray Spex song—was one of the only Black women punks in the ‘70s when it appeared that just white women were doing cool things. I looked at Virginie Despentes, a French feminist philosopher who has the King Kong Theory: “Women are more like King Kong than Kate Moss.”
The references are constant and endless. People keep saying [the film reminds them of] Jane Austen a lot, and I didn’t realize that, until I thought, “Oh, yeah, I did read a Jane Austen novel every year in my childhood.” It’s definitely hard-wired into my brain [laughs].
Filmmaker: It’s honestly impressive how many references Polite Society gleefully makes while still embracing its own gonzo individuality. Were there any steps you took to straddle that line, or did the film just always kind of speak for itself?
Manzoor: That’s a really great question, and one that I’m not sure I know how to put into words.
I think I just follow my affection for cinema and follow my joy. When I’m there, I feel like I’ll get it right most of the time. I love these movies. I don’t look down on an action movie or a genre. I love and enjoy them, so I can revel in it. Following the joy, I think, helps me walk the line.
Practically, it also helped doing test screenings. I’ve been talking about this more, and I know some filmmakers don’t like them because you may seem to be kowtowing to audiences. Actually, when you’re doing a film that is weaving genres, it really helps to put it in front of an audience and see like, “Oh, that didn’t work, but that did work.” How can I bring the audience along with me for the ride? It was a really great tool to help us kind of find the line—find where I’ve gone too far or find where I need to go further. Sometimes I lost some of the audience, but at least I knew what I wanted to do.
Filmmaker: I know that your own big sister, Sanya, is a huge inspiration to your work in general. When it came to casting Ria and Lena, how much did the actors need to remind you of yourselves, and what did Priya and Ritu bring to each role that helped flesh out the characters from page to screen?
Manzoor: I didn’t have to think about it because Ritu and Priya really just took on those characters and brought such life to them. I’ve worked with Ritu a lot before, because I think she possesses something of my older sister. It’s like a punk energy, being a sort of left field alternative girl; a bit wild with a kind of mercurial quality to her performance. But there’s some real vulnerability to her. She’s unique, and I love working with her, which is why I’ve worked with her quite a few times already.
Then casting Ria was really tough. I was trying to find an actor who could do all the tonal things: the comedy, the heightened action, the vulnerability, the angst. You know, on the page, she’s quite an annoying character [laughs]. Yet you’ve got to love her. We struggled for a month to find someone, and then I saw Priya’s tape quite late in the game, when I was like, “Ah, do I even have a film here?” Then she came in, and she’s just everything. She’s somehow a goofy teen, but also a badass, and also a movie star whilst being really silly. She has all these different dimensions. I felt like I had a film again when she walked in.
Filmmaker: Speaking of family dynamics in the film, I saw that your brother Shez is credited as having done the music. You, your brother and sister all wrote the music for your series We Are Lady Parts, so I’m curious what the process was like here. How did he and Tom Howe work to shape the sound of Polite Society, and how did it feel to be a bit more hands-off in that regard here?
Manzoor: It was amazing working with my brother. I feel like there’s a tone in the film which is slightly punk, slightly wild, and I knew that he would bring that. When he’s making a Bollywood score, there’s some weird guitar happening. It’s just something that he possesses as a creative. It’s part of the fabric of the film, it’s part of the tone of the film. Just having worked with him on Lady Parts, I know he has that kind of edge, a bite that not all composers have when approaching a fight scene. I’m like, “Make it Star Wars, but do it you.” Often my note to him would be like, “Can you just make it sound more like you, whatever you is?”
Sometimes he would want to do it more classically. Like, “Oh, now I’m referencing The Matrix.” And I’d be like, “No, but filter it through yourself.” Then it would have that kind of crunch or bite. It was just incredible to get to work with him. Tom, who came from a classically trained background, brought a level of orchestration and elevation. He gave it that kind of lift, like, “Oh, it’s a real action movie now.” Then Shez had this very specific tone and texture. They worked so beautifully together.
When I had needle drop moments in the film, they would kind of score around it and weave their music in with the music that was already there. So if there was a Western nod in the film, it’d also be reflected in their score. If I used an old Bollywood song, their score would have an old school inflection. They just really built it to fit with the music we had in there. It was a long process, but it was really careful, because the music does so much heavy lifting in terms of establishing tone and the world you’re in. I felt very lucky to be working with a couple of geniuses.
Filmmaker: I also couldn’t help but notice that Shez doesn’t have an avatar within the Khan family on screen. However, as someone who also comes from a family with two girls and a boy, my sister and I always joked that our mother spoiled and doted on our brother disproportionately compared to us. Is that at all channeled in the hilarious relationship between Raheela and Salim?
Manzoor: Hah, that is brilliant. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily directly inspired by my brother, although he was the boy and, like, the prince. That much is true. But if anything, it was more from when I was entering my early 20s and my mom was setting me up on all these dates. I was with all these sons, and they are the precious gems [of their families]. My brother’s such a weirdo punk, so he’s not really that, but it was definitely something within the community of these weird dates. I would sort of say “yes” and go on them because I was kind of curious, right? Being a writer, I was like, “Let’s see.” But actually, the boys weren’t nearly half as interesting as the moms who loved their sons.
There was this kind of fear around actually rejecting any of their boys, because I was like, “I’m going to get torn a new one by one of these aunties, because they’re fierce about their sons.” It’s hilarious. So getting to heighten that truth—thought it’s definitely a cultural thing—is something that I wanted to play with and turn up to 11 on screen.
Filmmaker: The crux of the film is this interrogation of women’s bodies and being able to choose our own destinies. I think that it’s really interesting to reflect that through a “villainous” woman character. How did you go about presenting this kind of cultural back and forth between generations of women while not necessarily causing a division?
Manzoor: The film was born from my love understanding of that generation—women who had so much talent, skill and beauty to offer but weren’t given the opportunities that my generation has. So I knew there was a kind of bitterness there, but also a truth in it. There’s a beauty to the dark feminine. There’s something about a woman scorned; a woman of a certain age just kicking ass and looking great whilst doing it. That’s delicious, beautiful and a character I have such love for. Coming from a place of love really helps me stay on the right side of it.
Filmmaker: Obviously, I’d be remiss not to touch on the phenomenal fight sequences and the several stunt coordinators who made them all possible. Is there an anecdote you can share about choreographing a scene, or an aspect of the film you and the crew needed to work around together?
Manzoor: The most joyful scene for me was shooting the boss-level fight between Raheela and Ria. It was just a coming together of all my heads of department’s brilliant work. I loved the set that Simon [Walker], my production designer, built of an over-the-top bridal suite. Then there was the joy of getting to do wire work, which I’d only ever dreamt of, and referencing exact shots from The Matrix. I wanted to do this sort of twist with her, but she’s in a South Asian outfit, so it’s again fusing my love of Bollywood with my love of martial arts. It was just so present in that one scene. There was also the great work of PC Williams, my costume designer, coming together with my brother and Tom’s score, which punctuates the scene perfectly. My editor Robbie [Morrison]‘s work was also really showcased in that scene.
Again, seeing women fight and have such possession of their bodies is something I’ve been reflecting on more recently. I wanted to make an action film because growing up, when you transition from being a girl to a woman, the way that society objectifies you causes a division between you and your body. There’s a sense of alienation from it, because you’re suddenly so filled with shame. It’s something I felt from doing martial arts and loving it, but then all of a sudden feeling uncomfortable in my skin. I didn’t want to do sports anymore. I felt ashamed of myself. So getting to make an action film where these two women are fighting, it’s physical, it’s strength, it’s beautiful, it’s cathartic.
Filmmaker: The fight scenes in general are great. The sister fight is also so funny, because it’s true: the most crazy physical altercations you’ll ever witness are two sisters going at it.