The recent coronation of Charles III was a bit of a relief for me: He finally made it! The old girl’s gone at last. That being said, it appears that much of the old girl’s Britain is gone as well. It seemed that every ethnicity in Britain was given a place at the coronation, and we were serenaded not by the glowing choruses of Purcell, Handel, or Elgar, but by a black gospel group in tacky white clothes. Nida Manzoor’s first feature is therefore a timely delight.
Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) is not openly aspiring to be a ruler of any sort. She’s a determined Pakistani teenager who is into martial arts, has a website where she calls herself “The Fury,” and worships the Queen — Eunice Huthart, that is, the British queen of stuntwomen. Ria is a tough karate student, making videos showing off her prowess and fierce, determined warrior spirit as she performs a triple spin and kick before falling flat on her face. A tiff with the school bully (“Let’s dance!” Ria growls) winds up with the bully tossing Ria into a glass case while the monitor snores away in the background. Is this a symbol of how official Britain deals with racial conflict today?
Ria may call herself the Fury, but her motto might well be the same as what General Nathaniel Greene said of the Continental Army: “We fight, get beat, rise and fight again.” But Ria keeps bouncing back. She has the zest of a dozen Energizer bunnies.
Ria is completely unlike Lena (Ritu Arya), her older sister, who begins the film in an awful funk, destroying her canvasses as she gives up art school, then mindlessly wanders the streets and smokes. For occasions when other women get a pint of chocolate ice cream and pig out, Lena buys a rotisserie chicken and bites into it whole, holding it in her hands. Lena has no point in living except to be the camerawoman for the videos on Ria’s website. Ria has to literally drag the melancholy Lena out of bed to do it.
Meanwhile, Ria has to spar with her parents, Rafe and Fatima, who want her to be a good Pakistani girl rather than become a stuntwoman. At school, the teacher frostily dismisses Ria’s career goals, and tries to steer her into medical school, where all good Pakistanis go. But not Ria.
Things change when the family attends the Islamic festival of Eid at the palatial estate of Raheela (Nimra Bucha), the reigning queen of the ladies’ social circle. Raheela is at once imperious and villainous. Ria smells the coffee and realizes that the the party was arranged to find a suitable wife for Salim (Aksha Khanna), Raheela’s geneticist son, a handsome, soft-spoken prince of the desert.
“He’s a smarmy wanker,” Ria snorts.
But Salim is attracted to Lena, and immediately courts her. Lena then rises out of her depression. Ria argues against their courtship. Lena has to become an artist rather than merely a geneticist’s wife after all.
“Look at you,” Ria exclaims. “You’re wearing cardigans, now. Cardigans!”
But what’s wrong with Salim? “He’s like that Mr. Darcy wanker . . . with all that 1800’s retro.”
Lena agrees to marry Salim and move to Singapore with him. Ria calls her chums Clara and Alba into action to stop the wedding and expose Salim and Raheela’s machinations. “First,” Ria says as she maps out her plan on a chalkboard, “I’ll try diplomacy.”
But Ria’s diplomacy is reminiscent of John Bolton’s, so things quickly escalate. The film is fast-paced, with lots of physical comedy and a collection of mad schemes worthy of I Love Lucy, including Ria dressing as a man to get into Salim’s locker at the gym (“Remember,” Ria tells herself, “walk hunched-over, tits in”).
It turns out there is something indeed nefarious in the wedding plot involving a perfect eugenic specimen and Raheela’s evil intentions (a scene where she tortures Ria with a bikini waxing is at once icky and hilarious). Ria, after suffering many disappointments, defeats, social isolation, and disgust at her failure to be The Fury, rallies to save Lena in a rousing, action-filled, Kung Fu-heavy and farcical last act that resembles James Bond meets Xena the Warrior Princess meets Chopsocky meets Bollywood.
There is a ton of energy in Polite Conversation, and it moves quickly. The acting is superb. Ria is so focused and determined, you can’t help but root for her. If Ria had been the protagonist in Catcher in the Rye, New York’s streets and bars would have been full of wounded, groaning, doubled-over phonies in the wake of Ria’s choler. She has a sensual side as well: She performs a wedding dance for Salim and Raheela with some other girls that is an homage to Maar Dala, a show-stopping number from the 2002 Indian film Devdas. But Ria’s hatred and desire for vengeance overrides any aesthetic concerns. She stares at a cold, wary Raheela, making it clear that Raheela is gonna get hers.
I found both women’s facial expressions fascinating. It’s interesting how women from the Indian Subcontinent look really evil when they want to. They have the villainess thing nailed down — every woman a Kali.
Polite Society is certainly a girl power kind of film, and would seem to be a testament to wacky, warlike feminism. But the overriding emotion is that of sisterly love, and how Ria and Lena bond and protect each other. Their parents, while they remain in the background, are certainly well-rounded as characters and caring. It’s a great debut film for Manzoor and is colorful, silly, thoughtful in the right (few) places, and captures the energy of youth — not in a decadent or subversive way, but in terms of always fighting and not giving up. Ashley Connor’s camera work is likewise well-paced and delicious.
The film takes place in an England that is Pakistani and colored in nature. White people only appear on the periphery, and the cast only includes three white actors: Bella, Ria’s excited chum; the schoolteacher; and a security guard. It’s interesting that at both the Eid festival and Lena’s wedding, all the servants are white. Raheela’s palatial mansion is very old English and proper . . . and under Pakistani ownership. In this film, even if it is set in England, white people are irrelevant. I therefore thought this film was very apt for the coronation, celebrating the end of English domination over their own country. Even when Princess Di started dating again after dumping Charles, she ran with Dodi Fayed, the Egyptian son of a multimillionaire, not to mention Harry choosing Meghan Markle.
Polite Society makes no bones about discussing the race question, unlike Stephen Frear’s 1987 film Sammy and Rosy Get Laid, dealing with class conflict and racial social tensions in a Pakistani immigrant (Sammy) and the English woman he shacks up with (Rosy). Sammy’s father, a corrupt politician, urges Sammy to come home. “This is home,” Sammy blankly replies after a cocaine binge, and indeed, a Pakistani/Indian community now exists in the United Kingdom and has strong roots. And also, unlike the blacks, who come to live off welfare and offer little, those from the Indian Subcontinent have actually gained political power: the Mayor of London is Sadiq Khan, the new Prime Minister is Rishi Sunak, he Scottish First Minister is Humza Yousaf, and Ireland’s Prime Minister is Leo Varadkar. They are now in the political driver’s seat.
Polite Society also uses eugenics and the idea of a master race very ingeniously — but from a Pakistani viewpoint, And really, why not? They were, if not the original Aryans, certainly in the same neighborhood.
All of Stephen Frear’s fretting about black and white seems irrelevant today. The war is over, and Pakistan and India won. I recall the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was every bit as despised by the media and much of the middle class as Trump is today. When Punch was still extant, every issue included unrelenting attacks on her. For all of Maggie’s nationalism, she did nothing to stop the endless stream of immigration into the country. The one time she made a disparaging remark about foreigners, it was about the Irish after Lord Mountbatten’s assassination by the Irish Republican Army. “What can you expect of them?” she said bitterly. The Irish and the English are always at loggerheads, while in the end, Pakistanis eventually took over both governments.
The Pakistani invasion recalls 1066, when the Normans took over Britain from the Saxons and put themselves in charge, mixing Norman with Anglo-Saxon and taking some of their native culture with them even as they adapted to their new hosts in other ways. Britain today is almost a mirror image of British rule in India. The English people are now nothing but extras in their own movie.
These new realities form the backdrop of Polite Society. We are seeing a new colonial ruling class in embryo being created across the dissipated West. But the film can also be appreciated for its merits. Ria is a heroine with gumption, and I appreciate her aggressiveness. That gaze of hers is infectious and draws you in. It’s an enjoyable diversion, and once you see her as The Fury, you’ll never think of curry in the same way you did before.
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