Movie Curiosities: Polite Society
Polite Society comes to us from writer/director Nida Manzoor, here making her feature debut after a respectable career in short films and television, most notably directing a couple episodes of “Doctor Who”. The cast is comprised of such talents as Priya Kansara, Ritu Arya, Nimra Bucha, and other actors of Indian or Pakistani heritage that nobody’s heard of. This one was a true wild card, coming out of nowhere to be one of the most crowd-pleasing surprises of Spring 2023.
But man, does this movie have problems.
Kansara stars as Ria Khan, a teenage misfit who studies martial arts and maintains a YouTube demo reel of stunts, all in pursuit of a future career as a Hollywood stuntwoman. Conveniently, this means that she spends a good chunk of the movie quite literally falling and getting knocked out so she can pick herself back up again. It’s clearly shown that Ria is tenacious against all doubts that she’ll ever make it as a stunt performer. In fact, she’s tenacious to the point of delusional with regard to any doubt that everything will work out exactly as she believes it should.
Ria’s most stalwart supporter — indeed, the one who obligingly shoots most of Ria’s YouTube videos — is her older sister (Lena, played by Arya), who’s going through her own issues. Lena has her own aspirations of becoming a great painter, but none of her more recent projects have panned out. Thus Lena has dropped out of art school, with serious reservations about ever going back.
So here we have two young single Pakistani women of indeterminate future, growing up in a culture that heavily values marriage and family. Enter Salim (Akshay Khanna), a handsome and charming world-class geneticist and the only son of a wealthy family, which of course makes him a highly eligible bachelor. It certainly helps that his mother (Raheela, played by Nimra Bucha) has been showing off Salim to every Pakistani woman in the UK with the clear and overt purpose of marrying him off.
And of all the women Salim could’ve chosen to court, he goes after Lena. The two aren’t even dating for a month before Lena and Salim are happily engaged. Ria does not approve of this and sets out to break them up. Hilarity ensues.
In all fairness to Ria, there are some noteworthy red flags here. For starters, Salim repeatedly proves to be a nincompoop void of any intelligence or personality, incapable of doing anything without his mother’s assistance or approval. I might add that Salim is clearly established as a biochemistry genius with a specialty in helping newborns and fetuses with genetic defects, yet he’s also a prude on the subject of sex and he’s visibly repulsed by the topics of menstrual cycles and reproductive health.
Lena, honey, check his degree. As a former bioscience major myself, I can personally guarantee this squeamish imbecile wouldn’t last a semester in undergrad A&P, never mind a month in grad school.
The other big issue is that Lena and Ria’s own parents (played by Shobu Kapoor and Jeff Mirza) seem shockingly unconcerned with the safety of their firstborn daughter. Moreover, the both of them are hopelessly cowed and totally subservient to Raheela, their superior in wealth and social status, to the point where they’ll unerringly side with Raheela over their own children.
Speaking of which, why would such a wealthy family marry into a lowly suburbanite household? Of all the women Salim could’ve chosen to marry, why would he pick the art school dropout with nothing to offer him? For that matter, why is Raheela so enthusiastic about this particular match for her one and only beloved son? Could Lena and Salim really be such a beautiful and loving couple after only a month of going out, or is there something else going on here?
But as far as Ria’s concerned, the biggest and most important issue is that Lena’s growing more distant. She’s got no time for anything else but Salim, she isn’t shooting stunt videos with Ria anymore, and worst of all, Lena has given up painting. Lena has given up her dream of being an artist, convinced that a career in painting is no longer attainable or worth the struggle. Which is certainly plausible. It sucks — indeed, learning when and how to let go of a lifelong dream is one of the most painful life lessons anyone can learn — but it happens.
Trouble is, Ria doesn’t want to hear that. She doesn’t want to give up on her sister, and she doesn’t want to believe that Lena will only ever be a housewife in Salim’s shadow. More to the point, If Lena doesn’t believe that her dream is within reach, what does that mean for Ria and her ambitions? If Lena couldn’t hack it with Ria so firmly and resolutely in her corner, what chance does Ria have without Lena to back her up?
In short, Ria is making this whole thing about herself. As such, she goes to the most absurdly delusional and outrageously unethical attempts in trying to dirty Salim’s image and break up the wedding, and every failed attempt only drives her to push harder. And because she’s acting entirely in her own interests to the point where anyone else’s well-being is beside the point, Ria only succeeds in driving away her friends and family, losing everything she ever loved.
Then the second half of the movie happens. And this is where we start running into problems.
See, as the plot unfolds, we come to learn that Samil and Raheela are indeed a pair of four-color supervillains and they do indeed have nefarious intentions toward Lena. Meaning that Ria was right all along. Which in turn directly undercuts the central theme that Ria has been acting like a self-centered delusional twit, and her psychotic methods for breaking up the marriage were entirely justified.
That’s the entire first half of the movie shot to hell. Yes, Ria does offer some lip service about how she did some awful things and she could use some time to work on her emotional issues, but that’s too little and far FAR too late. That ship has sailed, we’ve got bigger problems, there are other themes to address, we’re moving on.
The whole movie has a persistent problem with tone, and that midpoint reveal is a significant reason why. Yes, I get the logic of making the facade so convincing that even Ria loses faith in herself. And I get why the filmmakers wanted to pace their clues so the big climactic reveal of the grand master plan carried more heft (and it does). The problem is that the process wasn’t gradual enough, and there was too little ambiguity involved. The filmmakers put too much effort into selling the audience and everyone else on Samil and Raheela’s authenticity, making Ria’s grand self-destructive crusade a cornerstone of the plot and themes, such that the film actively contradicts itself with that midpoint reveal.
The action sequences are another case in point. Yes, the fight scenes are phenomenal, all beautifully choreographed and superbly shot, great fun to watch. The problem is that they’re all so stylized, it’s hard to tell what’s literally happening. For instance, are Ria and Lena literally destroying the entire upper floor of their house, or is that a visual metaphor for how the both of them are bickering with each other? If it’s the former, why aren’t their parents more pissed about it?
Another great example concerns the trio of aestheticians who suddenly become martial arts experts when Ria tries to run from Raheela’s mansion. As a visual metaphor for Raheela’s ongoing dominance over Ria’s life, it makes sense. Even as a visual metaphor for Ria’s life in a world of oppressive beauty standards, it makes sense. But as a literal fight scene between actual characters who seriously break into a fight scene out of nowhere, it’s outright absurd.
For comparison, consider Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, another stylized film that heavily utilizes onscreen graphics and lavish fight sequences. The difference there is that the whole film was built from the ground up with Scott himself as the primary storyteller. There’s an understanding that nothing we’re seeing is meant to be taken literally because we’ve got Scott Pilgrim — a narcissist who sees himself as the video game hero in a world of NPCs — as our unreliable storyteller. (Granted, that’s a lot more clear to anyone familiar with the source text, but still.) We don’t really get that consistency — or that level of heightened fantasy — with Polite Society, so it’s harder to tell how much of the film is only taking place inside Ria’s head.
Oh, and by the way, the whole point of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is that Scott is a self-centered douchebag who slowly comes to learn the harm he’s unwittingly done to his loved ones. The entire movie is all about the title character growing to a point where he’s ready to take responsibility and make amends on his way to being a better person. There’s nothing in there about how his harmful actions inadvertently had positive outcomes, thus muddying the thematic waters.
Raheela herself presents another host of problems. Yes, Raheela works ingeniously well as a dark reflection of Ria, with the third act bringing up all sorts of clever ways for Ria and Raheela to contrast each other on the subjects of bodily autonomy, lifelong dreams, parent/child relationships, class disparity, and so on. And yes, Nimra Bucha makes a fantastic archvillain, playing to the cheap seats and visibly having the time of her life.
The problem, alas, is that Raheela is ridiculously OP. She’s perfectly and effortlessly capable of everything from martial arts to bioscience, she’s got the wealth and the resources to defend against literally anything Ria could throw at her, and she can spontaneously materialize an army of faceless goons to handle anything she can’t do on her own.
Raheela is a Mary Sue villain, plain and simple. She’s so impossibly super-competent at everything that she can only be defeated by lazy writing. Literally any time when Ria defeats or outsmarts her, it’s only because Raheela shows uncharacteristic stupidity. Granted, Raheela and Ria are both shown to be their own worst enemies by focusing on what they want to a destructive degree, so this could be another way in which they serve as a reflection of each other. But I’m sorry, when Raheela is finally taken down in the climax, no way that shit should’ve worked.
Which brings me to another issue with the climax: I don’t believe for a second that Raheela was truly defeated once and for all. I won’t go into details, partly because I want to avoid full-on spoilers and partly because I don’t have anywhere near the legal expertise to sort through the convoluted nightmare of figuring out who should get brought up on what charges. Suffice to say that anyone with Raheela’s money and connections should have no problem whatsoever in getting away scot free to try her evil master plan again somewhere else.
Hell, let’s make that the sequel. Raheela and Salim try again somewhere else, and they run up against another plucky teenager who takes them down for good. I would totally go for that movie.
To be clear, Polite Society is a fun and stylish movie, well worth watching. The central performances are great, the action sequences are wonderful, the main feminist themes are uplifting, it’s just a funny and exciting movie all around. Even so, this was very clearly the work of a first-time writer/director who doesn’t quite have a firm grasp on consistency or tone quite yet. It’s frustrating how the movie is abundantly clear in some parts where more ambiguity is needed, and how the filmmakers only settle for halfway when the film needed to be heightened full-tilt.
I like the movie, don’t get me wrong, but I wish I’d liked it more.