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‘Matrix’ in a Lehenga: Two Brown Breakout Stars Pack a Punch in Nida Manzoor’s Action Thriller ‘Polite Society’

‘Matrix’ in a Lehenga: Two Brown Breakout Stars Pack a Punch in Nida Manzoor’s Action Thriller ‘Polite Society’

  • British Indian actors Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya form a “Khan Fu Sisterhood” in this over-the-top film that critics are raving about.

A Hollywood summer arrived early in multiplexes with a bang and a flying kick. Literally. British Pakistani director Nida Manzoor’s debut feature “Polite Society” is being hailed as an over-the-top Matrix-like action thriller, that too in a lehenga. A “bonkers” of a film. 

“A chemical combination of trust, talent, and “post-‘Scott Pilgrim'” Hollywood made ‘Polite Society’ into one of the year’s most entertaining debuts,” gushed Indiewire. “Wire-fu or no, what a relief to enjoy a film that moves without the weight of having to justify its own existence,” opined a venerable critic of The New York Times.

With breakout British Indian stars Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya, “Polite Society” is a film “about hard-won sisterly love, with loads of “Matrix”-style martial-arts battles and shades of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and horror films such as “ Get Out,” says The Washington Post, adding that it is thoroughly entertaining “with Bollywood dancing and jokes about periods and flying spin kicks in beautiful embroidered desi fabrics.”

Plot-wise, the film “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,” according to Indiewire. “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.” A “Khan Fu Sisterhood,” as another critic encapsulates.

The expectations for the film are at an all-time high, particularly in the context of the rising profile of South Asian culture in mainstream Western societies. As a cultural touchstone, “Polite Society” is expected to have a wider impact than Gurinder Chadha’s “Bend it Like Beckham” had some 20 years ago.

The film and the stars got a big shout-out at the film’s New York premiere from fellow South Asian stars Riz Ahmed and Hasan Minhaj. And to cap it all, there was Malala Yousafzai in attendance. She thought the film was “clever and captivating” and reportedly praised director Manzoor for her “complex portrayals of South Asian Muslim women” and complimented Kansara and Arya for their “dynamite” performances.

As a cultural touchstone, “Polite Society” is expected to have a wider impact than Gurinder Chadha’s “Bend it Like Beckham” had some 20 years ago.

The reason for all this commotion is the talent of the two main stars and the director of the film. When the pandemic broke out just three years ago, Priya Kansara, a fresh university grad, was working a communications job at a pharmaceuticals company in London. She was living with her joint family consisting of her parents, granddad, a younger brother, aunt, uncle and two cousins. Chasing her childhood dream, Kansara attended three years of night classes at an acting school. 

After quitting her job against the wishes of her skeptical family, she auditioned for every commercial and open casting call. “You’ve got to hustle,” Kansara told the Post. She got her first break appearing in season two of Netflix’s “Bridgerton,” followed by another Netflix series, “The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself.” In the summer of 2022, Kansara was named one of Screen International’s “Stars of Tomorrow.” Today, she marvels at seeing her posters plastered all over London.

Ritu Arya, who began acting in her teens, has a degree in astrophysics from the University of Southampton and was trained at the Oxford School of Drama. Her Wikipedia entry says, following a series of roles in short films, Arya played the recurring role of Dr. Megan Sharma in the British soap opera “Doctors,” for which she was nominated for a British Soap Award for Best Newcomer in 2017. She had a guest appearance in the series “Sherlock” in 2014, and later had a recurring role as the android Flash in the series “Humans.” 

In 2019, Arya appeared in the film “Last Christmas,” which was a commercial success. The following year, she had a recurring role in the Netflix series “Feel Good” and guest starred in the series “Doctor Who.” However, it was Netflix’s original series “The Umbrella Academy” that got her wider notice and led to “Polite Society.” Apart from acting she is also a musician and a member of the band KIN. In addition to playing in the band, she is also a songwriter.

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Lastly, the architect of the epic thriller — Nida Manzoor. She is best known for directing two episodes of “Doctor Who” and creating the critically and commercially successful comedy series about a punk rock band consisting of Muslim women “We Are Lady Parts.” Manzoor is a Pakistani Muslim raised in Britain.

Raised in a musical household, she saw herself as a “brown girl Bob Dylan” before she moved on to screenwriting. She graduated from University College London with a degree in Politics in 2011. Manzoor’s family expected her to become a human rights lawyer, but she convinced them to allow her to pursue a career in filmmaking.

Her Wikipedia entry says Manzoor’s first directing role was on the first series of “Enterprise,” released in 2018. The same year, she was also commissioned to make a pilot episode of “Lady Parts” which would become “We Are Lady Parts.”

A Washington Post feature says Manzoor had been trying to make “Polite Society” for a decade. “It had been inspired by a moment when she was 14, and her cool older sister, Sanya, now a musician and spiritual coach in Berlin, tripped Nida onto the wood floor during a sparring session in front of their entire karate class. The pain and humiliation, coupled with being really mad at her sister, made her want to do an action movie about the uniquely fraught experience of being a teenage girl, when your body feels like it’s attacking you, and everything seems like it’s the end of the world.”

“It’s all so horrendous and gory and violent,” the Post quotes Manzoor as saying. “You’re going through all kinds of insane, painful body changes of, like, getting boobs. I mean, the goriest thing I’d seen was my first period, and it hurts!” It’s just as well, as it has led to a film that has opened globally and is rocking.

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