Though she’s the only writer credited on it, filmmaker Nida Manzoor had a very special writing partner on her debut feature “Polite Society.” The British-Pakistani creator of “We Are Lady Parts” told IndieWire that she co-wrote her film with her younger self — literally.
“I wrote the script over 10 years ago, and it basically got passed on everywhere,” Manzoor said in a recent Zoom interview with IndieWire. “It wasn’t until the success of ‘Lady Parts’ that it sort of became something viable again — for the first time, actually — and it was weird. I really had so much self-doubt around it, because it had gotten nowhere [because it was] just hard to define.”
It’s a question she got used to hearing from potential producers: “How are we going to sell a film that we can’t define?’”
“Polite Society” follows a pair of sisters — Ria (Priya Kansara) and Lena Khan (Ritu Arya), an aspiring stuntwoman and artist, respectively — who are unexpectedly torn apart by a romantic entanglement. When elder sister Lena starts dating, and eventually gets engaged to, a seemingly eligible young man (Akshay Khanna), Ria is determined to dig up dirt on his family and save Lena from what she believes is certain doom (read: a traditional life). Martial arts becomes the vector for Ria’s teen angst, with vicious fight scenes peppered throughout the film as she processes her emotions.
“[I was] getting notes from people who don’t care for action, so I’d taken out the action,” Manzoor said of her early days pitching. “When you’re new in the industry … I just thought of it as an extension of school, like the adults know what’s right and you’re the kid and you do what they say. So I was doing all these ridiculous notes, [and] in hindsight, it was being pushed away from my tone and my voice, and anything that I bring to the table is being stripped out of it to make something miserable about forced marriage — like what the hell?”
Manzoor credits the film’s screen journey to a lot of things, including production company Working Title giving her different kinds of notes (notes like, “Make it more weird!”). After cutting her teeth on “Lady Parts,” Manzoor returned to “Polite Society” with more confidence and experience after “finding my voice again.”
“We Are Lady Parts” follows a punk band comprised of Muslim women, with original music Manzoor co-wrote with her siblings and Benni Fregin. The pilot premiered on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in 2018 with a six-episode season on Channel 4 and Peacock in 2021.
By then, Manzoor also had the luxury, she added, of living in “a post-‘Scott Pilgrim’ world,” something that directors who came before her (namely, Edgar Wright) didn’t have when it came to a genre-mash of this caliber. “Polite Society” is an action-comedy — but it’s also a family drama, high school romp, revenge fantasy, sci-fi thriller, and so much more.
“That was a constant question: ‘How are we going to do this? How are these worlds gonna sit together?,’” she recalled. Spectacularly, as it turns out.
With Working Title, Focus Features, and many of her “Lady Parts” collaborators on board, Manzoor was in good hands to get “Polite Society” off the ground — but she needed a star who could carry the film’s tonal tornado on her shoulders and make it look easy. Priya Kansara does all that and more — also in her feature debut.
“A director once told me 70 percent of directing is casting and I believe that,” Manzoor said. “When I cast, it’s the most rigorous, hellish thing for any actor, because I do so [many] long sessions and chemistry reads. It took us ages to find Ria. I was like, ‘We don’t have a film. I can’t find anyone who can do the comedy, the vulnerability, the teenage angst but also the heightened over-the-top action tone and the physicality.’”
With Kansara embodying her alternately irascible and inspiring lead, Manzoor felt instant relief, even before the film was finished. She found herself thanking the young star on set for her talent and dedication, but also for carrying Ria Khan forward. “I’ve been living with this bloody psychotic character in the head for over 10 years and then a brilliant, kind, generous actor comes and just totally just gives her everything to it and is so talented,” Manzoor said. “I just felt free when I cast her and I felt free every day on set.”
Kansara took the responsibility to heart, treating Ria very much as a real person. She wrote letters to the character during production and even while on break from filming, checking in because she “wasn’t seeing her all the time.” In a joint interview with costar Ritu Arya, who plays older sister Lena, Kansara and described the film as “bonkers” — but both actors emphasized their immense trust in Manzoor to execute the vision.
“It’s too hard to compare it to anything,” Kansara said. “I don’t even know how to tell you what this film is. And just through that, knowing that we’re working on something so fresh and original, I felt like it was such an exciting thing.”
Arya had a better sense of what she was getting into, having worked with Manzoor on her “Lady Parts” short film. “Although it was such a weird and unique script, it wasn’t anything unexpected from [Manzoor],” Arya said. “Her tone is so funny and eclectic, and yes, of course it was going to be a few different genres jumbled together.”
Sisterhood is the essential core of “Polite Society,” rooted in Manzoor’s own relationship with her sister Sanya, one of the most important and “visceral” relationships in her life. “It’s gone through so many shifts, and it’s unlike a romantic relationship,” Manzoor said.
But she also loves action movies and wanted to combine these two aspects, to “use the action genre, which is so traditionally male and macho … to explore femininity, sisterhood, rules, expectations, and norms.” The action externalizes Ria’s inner turmoil, but also shows these women in full command of their bodies. A fight between the sisters is one of the film’s “bloodiest and brutalest, because there’s something about your sister knowing what can hurt you the most, and those words hurting more than anything.”
Arya, a middle child with two brothers, tapped into “this unconditional love and this huge, huge irritation — somewhat rage, when you’re in an argument with them” for her performance. She also described “this pressure to have my shit together, and this shame that I can feel when I don’t,” both of which strongly drive Lena’s storyline.
Manzoor and her stars share “the South Asian girl fuckin’ work ethic,” a fierce dedication to the task at hand, thanks to years of conditioning, both internal and external. Among its many strengths, “Polite Society” breathes life into those anxieties — and knocks them to the floor.
“There’s something about seeing women, especially as a South Asian woman and as a woman from a Muslim background, it’s like the rules and norms and expectations [are] kind of strait-jacketing you,” Manzoor said. “There’s something that’s so cathartic to just blow it all apart and be really violent and kick someone through a door — that just felt healing.”
Focus Features will release “Polite Society” in theaters on Friday, April 28.