soul sisters

Polite Society’s Khan-Fu Sisterhood

Ritu Arya and Priya Kansara on what it takes to execute a flying reverse spin kick in a dress.

Polite Society stars Ritu Arya (left) and Priya Kansara (right). Photo: Saima Khalid/Focus Features
Polite Society stars Ritu Arya (left) and Priya Kansara (right). Photo: Saima Khalid/Focus Features
Polite Society stars Ritu Arya (left) and Priya Kansara (right). Photo: Saima Khalid/Focus Features

In Polite Society, the debut feature film from We Are Lady Parts creator Nida Manzoor, Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya play Ria and Lena, Pakistani British sisters on the edge of a cataclysmic estrangement. For their entire lives, the pair has supported each other creatively (younger sister Ria wants to be a stuntwoman, while older sister Lena goes to art school) and withstood their parents’ gentle concerns and the more overt judgment of their conservative community. But when Lena drops out of school and starts dating the handsome and wealthy geneticist Salim (Akshay Khanna), coveted by all the Muslim aunties as a prime arranged-marriage candidate, Ria goes ballistic, convinced that Salim and his mother, Raheela (Nimra Bucha), have nefarious plans for Lena. She’s not wrong. And so Polite Society barrels through a whirlwind of dry comedy, high-energy fight scenes, and sisterly bickering as Ria sets out on a mission to save Lena from the “Stepford Wife cardigan phase” she’s worried will separate the two forever.

Seated together at the Soho Grand Hotel in New York, Kansara and Arya exude the same effervescent chemistry that makes their work in Polite Society so endearing. They hold hands, with Kansara’s gold-glitter fingernails catching the light; they make full eye contact when sharing memories from the set, reciprocally delighted by each other’s presence. “We both felt like we lived our dreams, and we got to do it together,” Kansara says.

What would you say you learned from one another while making this film?
Priya Kansara: Ritu has this incredible curiosity. She questioned the script: “Why did Lena walk into the room in the first place? I don’t even think she would have stayed here for that long.” It was really empowering to see somebody ask questions to the director, to the writer. I was like, “These are also potential questions that I can ask myself about Ria.” That’s one thing that I learned from you: to be more curious and to never be scared of questioning.

Ritu Arya: Wow, thank you. What did I learn from you? I want to say the positivity and bright energy you brought. It’s contagious — that openness, that spreading of sunshine.

How did you each approach playing sisters? Do you have siblings?
PK: I have a younger brother. Two of my cousins are very much like my sisters. I grew up seeing Ria and Lena in my life. That relationship is very close to me, and it was one of the things that really attracted me to the entire project.

RA: I’ve got two brothers, one older, one younger, so I had so much to draw on — how much I feel a responsibility to support my younger brother especially. Lena doesn’t want to get out of bed because she’s in this dark place, but then she helps Ria with her videos. I really wanted to pull that out of the script more. When I was video-ing Priya, and Lena is like, “You’re awesome, you’re amazing,” that’s how I am when I’m helping my younger brother do an audition tape. Their dancing stupidly in the living room wasn’t originally in the script, either. There are these moments that I have with my brothers that no one else understands.

Ritu, I’m curious if you stayed in touch with Nida after you worked together on the We Are Lady Parts short
RA: When We Are Lady Parts got green-lit as a series, scheduling meant I wasn’t able to do it. But I was rooting for her. I feel like she’s a soul sister. I think we met up a couple times for a coffee, and I did Doctor Who with her. Life happens and you get super-busy. Like anyone, the audition came through my agents. I didn’t even know she had made this or was in the process of developing it. I wasn’t sure if I’d have to audition, because I’d worked with her a couple of times, but no, I auditioned and got the part.

Sounds like it was serendipitous.
RA: That’s how it felt. When I went to audition for We Are Lady Parts, I remember feeling, This is bigger than me. I’d actually written a script about an all-brown-girl punk band, and the lead character was called Zyra. When the audition came through for Lady Parts, I was like, “Who the hell is this woman who’s managed to hack my laptop?” I was, like, suspicious. I went in there being like, “Let’s see how dodgy this is.” When I got that part, I’ve never cried so much. I knew it would be the beginning of a relationship that would mean a lot to me. I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for that moment. We joke about it, how we helped each other manifest.

Photo: Saima Khalid/Focus Features

There are four action scenes that I think really capture the film’s hyperreal aesthetic, comedic tone, and the complexity of its choreography. Let’s start with the first video that Ria and Lena film for Ria’s channel, Khan-Fu. Ria is trying to master a backward spin kick.
RA: I genuinely had so much love for Priya on that day, because it was really cold, and I was lucky enough to be wearing a big hoodie but she was wearing this small little ninja outfit. It was really early in the morning.

PK: In the script, Lena has a few words of encouragement, but Nida gave us the freedom to run with it. We just did it over and over and over again. It was kind of like improv. What’s the word?

RA: Riff.

PK: That’s it! You were just riffing. You smashed it, man.

RA: Oh my God, you smashed it. I remember one of the takes, I really wanted it to make it into the movie, but it didn’t. We had to go back inside, and I was finding different methods for Lena to get Ria inside, and there was one where I was like [lowers her voice into a hushed yell], “There’s a zombie attack!” I acted like a zombie chasing after her. Maybe it was too weird, too fast, or too much of an homage to Edgar Wright.

Ritu, were you actually filming Priya with a cell phone during those Khan-Fu, “I am the fury” scenes? 
RA: Oh, yeah, yeah. I’ve got so many videos of her still, saying the same fucking thing. [Laughs] I shouldn’t swear. All of you saying, “I am the fury.”

You brought up Edgar Wright. The Khan vs. Khan fight between Ria and Priya feels so Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, with the sisters throwing each other through walls.
PK: It’s very Edgar Wright–y and Jackie Chan, in that we use the location and the props in the room, like the hair straightener. That was all very strictly choreographed. The fight tells so much story as well, because Lena just kicks Ria’s ass. She’s clearly a better fighter and the one that Ria learned from.

Do either of you have a favorite prop that you used during that fight? Lena shoving Ria’s face into the picture frame might have been my favorite. 
PK: That was a really nice touch. Also, that picture —

RA: That picture is so weird!

PK: Awkward!

RA: I’m doing this with my hand. [They lean in together to re-create the picture pose, with Arya’s hand in an awkward position under her face.] We took so many pictures; why did they pick that one?

So you relished the opportunity to destroy it. 
PK: Yeah, we kind of did! This wasn’t a prop, but I really like the bite scene, too. That is one of my favorite performances of Ritu’s. I remember on the day, people were crying watching the monitors. You move people like I have seen nobody else do. You play Lena with depth and nuance that I don’t think anybody even saw on the page. You created that. I remember being in that scene, and I was like, “Ria wouldn’t cry, but I am crying right now!” I literally had to hold it together.

And the waxing scene, during which Raheela forces Ria to get waxed and is trying to intimidate her into no longer investigating Salim. It’s shot like a James Bond torture sequence. Priya, are you actually getting waxed? 
PK: We use honey; it wasn’t wax. I grew out my leg hair for this scene, and even then, it just wasn’t quite long enough. We wanted it to be comedically long. The scene starts with Nimra in the chair, and she rises from the dark into an I’m doing my villain monologue situation. There’s a close-up of me screaming into the camera. I was like, “I can’t believe this is my job. This is what I do for a living, guys.” That scene is very intense, and Nimra plays terrifying so well. She is going to be the next Bond villain; she has to be.

The waxing thing was really nostalgic. In South Asian culture especially, I was told, “Don’t shave, your hair will grow back thicker.” My mom used to tell me that religiously. Going into the waxing, I was like, It is torture. When I’d go to India and get my wax done, they would use a butter knife to put the wax onto my legs. This is the full Desi experience in my local village. I remember telling this to Nida when we were rehearsing: “Can we use a butter knife?” It was really fun to put our own spins on these things.

Nimra Bucha also plays an evil mom in Ms. Marvel. She’s clearly having so much fun in this film. 
PK: She is one of the loveliest human beings on this planet, which is ironic, because she plays such an evil character. But she’s made for the screen. She’s terrifying but also really sexy; I have a really big girl crush on her. She was there on set, asking the cleaners if they wanted cups of tea. After we wrapped, she invited me around. We really liked these tofu sandwiches that we used to get when we were rehearsing stunts. She remade those sandwiches for me. And as an actress, she brought some really fun ideas. It didn’t matter how evil her character was being, she always had the time to check her hair and make sure she looked good.

RA: In this industry, I hate it, but you can feel like you’re losing currency as a woman when you get older because there are so many more roles for younger people, and that can sometimes create bitterness. That’s a theme of the movie as well, what that can do to you. That’s what makes it so special and inspiring when people like Nimra and Shobu Kapoor, who play the moms, were just rooting for us. We felt so much love and support. It makes me so excited that that’s how we’re progressing as a society and a culture.

Photo: Saima Khalid/Focus Features

In the film’s wedding fight scene, you’re both fighting your way out of the reception hall in these beautiful and elaborate costumes. Did you have to practice with the outfits every time?
AR: I was super-excited, and then when I put on the wedding dress, I was like, “How am I going to fight in this? It’s so heavy! This was much easier in my joggers.” It’s a whole new skill — not just with the weight of the dress but also with the jewelry being such a hazard.

PK: It was dangerous! They had to pin the jewelry on to her so it wouldn’t fly up and slap her in the face.

AR: Priya’s braid kept whipping her in the face. It was a whole thing. I had these big industrial metal clips underneath the dress to try and hoist up the masses of petticoats so my leg could go up and do these high kicks. It was very cathartic, the scene where we kick all the aunties’ asses.

PK: The “No, shame on you” bit was —

Both: Ahh. [Laugh together.]

Also during the wedding, Priya, you re-create the choreography from the song “Maar Dala,” originally performed by actress Madhuri Dixit in the film Devdas. Were you familiar with the film?
PK: I remember watching Devdas when I was a kid. Seeing this in the script was one of the things I was most excited for: I’m gonna live my childhood dream, be in a Bollywood sequence. We could be a little bit wacko with all the moves. I included the Marvel drop, and I wanted to do all the finger guns, slices, and chops. We worked really closely with the choreographer, Nileeka Bose. And there was a detail in the script that they do the dance quite shit-ly. None of the girls know what they’re doing, and Ria wants to make Salim uncomfortable. It was really fun to pay homage to this iconic Bollywood number but in a way that feels true to this film.

RA: I remember watching you do it in rehearsal. I was blown away. I remember Nida saying, “Can you not make it as good? I just don’t know if Ria would be as good at dancing as you are.”

What was the biggest challenge of shooting this film for you both?
PK: The stunt stuff was all very new to me, but I felt really passionate about doing as much of it as I possibly could because of how important that stuff is to Ria. Now, I’m not a stuntwoman. I only started learning martial arts when I got the part for this film. There was one day in particular where Ria has this redemption moment and she does a big kick; it was the second-to-last day of the shoot. We were filming on a hill, so it made it harder because that’s not how we rehearsed it. I was on a wire, and it was freezing cold. I couldn’t quite get my legs straight.

After the scene wrapped, I went back to the greenroom and started crying because I felt like I’d done the worst job in the world. Ritu came up to me and was like, “I want you to remember that you’re not a stuntwoman.” My stunt double, Erin Rose, has years and years and years of martial-arts experience. Ritu was like, “You know what’s justice to Ria? She gets the best person for the job. Somebody who’s capable of doing that bit justice. This is not about you.” I’m so thankful that you had that conversation with me. It reminded me to let go of my ego when it comes to how we feel about our characters and what we want to do for them.

RA: I had just been there when I was doing my first few stunts for Umbrella Academy. It was 4 a.m., and they’d left my stunts until that time. It was really hard in those circumstances to be able to get it.

It was hard playing Lena when she’s passive; I try not to be like that in life. She doesn’t listen to the people who love her. She’s not listening to Ria; she’s sleepwalking through this wedding. That was a hard thing to yield to — but it’s what was needed. The story is the little sister saving her big sister, and that was at times tricky for me. But it’s a matter of believing in the whole story, and I’m proud of that.

Do you remember what felt different about filming your last scenes together versus your first ones? 
PK: The first scenes we filmed together were at the Eid soirée.

RA: In those first days, like any relationship or any friendship, you’re curious and you’re getting to know each other, and we’re also in this euphoric, giddy feeling of doing this movie we love with some people we love. We’re pinching ourselves. I feel like this is a role that I’ve worked ten years to get. By the end of the shoot, we’ve had days and days of hanging out together and crying and laughing and dancing and singing, so there was just more depth in our relationship. I felt like I could just be myself. I had such genuine care for your well-being. During the last scene we filmed, we were just holding each other’s hands.

PK: Taking moments together.

RA: Taking it in together.

PK: The last day of the shoot was the scene where the sisters have their burgers. We shot that in front of the London skyline. At that point, we both felt like we lived our dreams, and we got to do it together. You’re the other person on this journey who truly understands feeling lucky to have learned so much, to have explored so much through these characters. And then there’s also that bittersweetness of, This is ending now. Now I have another sister in my life. That didn’t end.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Arya’s idea was very similar to Manzoor’s We Are Lady Parts, in which the lead singer of the all-girl, all-Muslim punk band is named Saira. Arya played Saira in the original We Are Lady Parts Channel 4 comedy short released in 2018.
Polite Society’s Khan-Fu Sisterhood