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Polite Society Depicts Sister Fights As They Are: ‘Brutal, Violent, and Hideous’

Photo: Focus Features

Nida Manzoor’s Polite Society is a hard film to classify. At its heart, it is about a relationship between two very close sisters. The younger sister, Ria, is dead set on becoming a stuntwoman. The older sister, Lena, was an aspiring artist, but she has given up that dream and gotten engaged to an eligible doctor. Ria, hell-bent on preventing the marriage, enlists the help of her friends. You can imagine the usual beats of this story. Romance, betrayal, reconciliation. But a few minutes in, Polite Society ditches the tropes and becomes an action film with Jackie Chan-level fight sequences. From then on, Polite Society refuses to stay in one lane. “It turns into a joyful kung fu Bollywood epic,” says Manzoor. The many influences she’s drawing from are clear throughout the film: Bollywood, Quentin Tarantino, spaghetti westerns, Yuen Woo-ping, the Rush Hour movies. Maybe less obvious, says Manzoor, is the influence of All About Eve. 

In the latest episode of Into It, Manzoor describes how hard it was to get a movie like this — silly, violent, and full of South Asian teen-girl angst — made, why it took ten years to do so, and how nobody is asking Quentin Tarantino what he’s doing to “give back.” Manzoor also teases the return of her critically acclaimed show, We Are Lady Parts, which she says is coming back early next year. Read an excerpt of that conversation below, or listen to the full episode of Into It wherever you get your podcasts.

How long was Polite Society in the works? I read somewhere that you began writing this a decade ago.
You know, the world has changed so much since I first conceived of the idea. When I was pitching it early on, I had some execs asking me to make it a white family instead so it had more appeal, and I really didn’t want to do that. Or they’d say, “oh, can it be more about a forced marriage?” They wanted more trauma in it as though Muslim women must endure trauma to have a story to tell. And again, I did not want that. There was also snobbery towards the action genre as though it isn’t high art and isn’t worthy of being financed and supported.

When my show We Are Lady Parts was a success, Tim Bevan at Working Title said, “Do you have a movie? Let’s make a movie.” All of a sudden Polite Society was back on the table, which was so cool because I now had the experience to do it justice.

Seeing young women express personal family drama through fight scenes felt refreshing and made perfect sense. Why don’t we see more of that?
I’m so glad that it worked for you. Action has historically been very male dominated, and women have been largely excluded from that genre. Anytime you see a woman in an action film, it’s not usually the most complex portrayal, so it doesn’t feel like it’s for you. I grew up studying martial arts, loving action sequences, loving Jackie Chan movies and was really desperate to see someone like me at the heart of an action movie. It’s such a ripe ground for exploring womanhood and femininity.

That sister fight was so cathartic to shoot, so I wanted my sister there. She watched it, and we were crying together. This is what it feels like to fight with your sibling who knows how to cut you down, how to get to your pain points. And so it was a no-brainer that this fight had to be the most brutal, violent, hideous thing ever.

What were the biggest references to other films in Polite Society?
I didn’t go to film school, so my way into cinema was through classic action films. I went via Tarantino into Hong Kong kung-fu, into the work of Yuen Woo-ping, and the Rush Hour films. I saw comedy and action together for the first time watching Jackie Chan films, and I was like, this is exciting. This is brilliant. This is something I want to see. Another film which is probably not an obvious reference, but I always came back to, was All About Eve. The wit and timing in the rhythm of the comedy and the dialogue was so inspiring to me, as was seeing strong women. Betty Davis’s character is so complex. Finally, I would have to go with Bollywood.

I felt a musician’s touch in the directing of this film, but I’m wondering, was there a particular way that your experience with music appears in Polite Society?
Music for me is so important and so integral. There’s musicality in comedy and in action. Finding that rhythm is some of the most exciting parts of filmmaking for me. I got to collaborate with my brother [Shez Manzoor] again. He scored We are Lady Parts and he scored Polite Society with Tom Howe, another great composer. So much of the tone comes through the music. The needle-drop moments needed music to set the tone and set the genre. I had a massive Polite Society playlist, which I was constantly listening to, to get into the mood of the film when I was writing. Music for me is such a key way of getting into the headspace of characters. Music is a character in the film.

You’ve said that you want to bring more cinematic qualities to TV and especially shows featuring people of color. What does that look like? 
It’s about the intentional use of camera, and using the full gamut of filmmaking in service of a story. When am I going into a closeup? With some television it’s just your mid shots and your wide shots and that’s fine. But how can you utilize all of the filmmaking tools at your disposal to tell a story? That’s exciting to me. And you know, this is a South Asian teenage girl leading an action movie, a studio film, and just the fact of it existing on the big screen, it’s just something I wish I’d seen as a teenager. The very fact of creating this genre movie and using everything to tell the story, all the tools of filmmaking, the big orchestral score, using the crane shots, using all the toys of cinema to say, “you belong. This is your story. Cinema is for you as well.” It meant everything to me.

In terms of showing people of color more holistically like you do in Polite Society, do you think it’s getting better overall? Or does it still feel like some nice surprises in a landscape that’s still pretty shitty to us?
I still think it remains to be seen if this is a phase. I can’t quite say this is lasting change yet. I certainly am seeing new stories, new voices, new films that are embracing genre about underrepresented groups coming into the mainstream, which is exciting. But I also hear from my own peers who are, you know, writing their own TV shows about Muslim women who are being told, listen, like they want me to recreate your show. I hope that Polite Society does business not just so I can work again, which I would very much like to, but also just to demonstrate to producers, execs, and studios that our stories are for everyone.

Sometimes I ask, what would Chad do? And Chad is just like my hypothetical hetero white man of privilege in the industry.
I’ll watch art made by white men who were free of any burden. Spinal Tap is my favorite comedy. These are white men having a good time. I’m like, I gotta just channel that.

A lot of times these primarily white institutions will ask for more from someone like you than they would ask from a white director. How do you deal with that? 
Absolutely. They ask what you are doing to give back. And I do believe in mentorship, but are you asking Quentin Tarantino what he’s doing to give back? Who’s he mentoring? I feel so lucky, constantly feeling grateful, which is cool. But then at the same time I’m like, wait, why am I nervously grateful? You can’t please everyone, so pleasing myself is my North star.

Into It with Sam Sanders

Polite Society’s Sister Fights Are ‘Brutal and Violent’