waxing, periods and sisterhood, polite society is the surreal action movie with a heart
Polite Society’s Priya Kansara and Nida Manzoor sit down with woo to talk about the film, representation, power, and more
image Parisa Taghizadeh / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC
words Rhys Thomas
Polite Society is the energetic comedy-thriller debut feature film from Nida Manzoor, creator of the acclaimed Channel 4 series We Are Lady Parts. The film stars Priya Kansara in her debut feature film, as Ria. Her older sister Lena, is played by Ritu Arya.
Ria and Lena live in west London, near Shepherds Bush in a Muslim household. They swear, they drink, they love their parents. All the normal stuff. Lena is in a bit of a depressive phase, having dropped out of art school because she didn’t think she was good enough. In the movie, she’s trying to do art, destroying the art, slumming around in an oversized hoodie, eating whole chickens, smoking, and laying on her bed. It's all very relatable.
Ria is a bundle of energy who has dreams of being a famous stunt woman called Eunice who doesn’t reply to her emails. At school her teachers say she should be a doctor, and don't take her seriously. But she doesn’t give up, and her sister is very encouraging – even if Ria has to drag Lena out of bed to help her film stunt videos for YouTube.
Then, Lena meets a guy at an Eid party, a romance develops and they are engaged within months. He had been actively looking for a marriage. Initially, Ria (who thinks men are trash) is just annoyed that Lena is settling instead of following her dreams, but eventually a far more serious reason for her to halt Lena's marriage comes to fruition. Soon, it's up to Ria and her friends to save the day.
Polite Society is really a film about sticking together, caring for people even, and believing in yourself. It’s about sticking by the people you love, even if what they’re saying is unbelievable. It’s also about sticking to what you know the truth to be, and trying your hardest, never giving up.
If that sounds too wholesome though, don't worry. It’s also incredibly trippy. And deranged. And actually… a bit dark at points (the more serious themes at play in the plot are arranged marriage, and secret surrogacy; there is also a subtle but very real display of caste system tensions). Visually, there’s a bit of a Scott Pilgrim and Kill Bill vibe about it. Classic real-life blends with action movie vibes, big stunts, slow motion shots, violence, blood. It’s all there, and it’s a really unique, entertaining watch.
We caught up with Priya Kansara, who stars as Ria and Nida Manzoor, the director in the build up to Polite Society being screened to the world.
What is it about the film that appealed to you, Priya?
Priya: Everything! It's such a rollercoaster of a film. I really connected to the love story between the two sisters, and felt it was an important story to show.
Do you have a sister?
Priya: I grew up in a joint household so my cousins are very much like my sisters. I grew up watching a Lena/Ria relationship, it felt like Nida literally lifted them from my life and put them on the page, so that was really wonderful to see and be part of.
Were you more like Ria or Lena in that dynamic?
Priya: I think I might be a mix of the two, but I probably am more like Ria.
What's your favourite thing about Ria?
Priya: How she doesn't care what anybody else thinks.
You've said before that you're very proud of the fact that you chose to persist with acting when you could have settled for a different job in life. Is that tenacity something you have in common with Ria as well?
Priya: I mean, yeah! I knew that I had to do what would make me happy. And I've always wanted this – you could have asked me when I was four years old, and I would have said, I want to be an actress. I think Ria has that attitude from an even younger age than when I made that decision, so I feel really connected to her in that way. And I definitely understood her want and passion to do something that felt out of the box, or unknown.
When you say unknown, is that because you grew up outside of this world?
Priya: Yeah! Literally everyone in my family is in IT or accounting. Nobody in my family is an actor. I don't know anybody that has taken a job like this or done anything even remotely similar. It was completely unknown territory for me. Sometimes it feels like I’m not walking down a well trodden path, I’m kind of creating it as you go. And that can be terrifying, because it's like I'm giving up all security and safety to do this. But I know that this will make me happy. So we'll just figure it out as we go along, really, which is both empowering and absolutely terrifying, all at the same time.
How intense was learning martial arts for this role? How intense was learning martial arts for this role?
Priya: It was really intense because I was learning everything from scratch, in a fairly short timespan. But it was really fun to push myself physically, doing so also helped me to get into Ria's mentality and body as well.
And having to learn all of these things while trying to prepare for your first major starring role, how was that mentally?
Priya: I've never learned as much as I learned within that time frame. I was constantly assessing my attitude, the way that I approached things, ensuring that I was putting myself out there and really giving everything a try, but also making me learn when to let go. For example, I remember there would be days where I'd get really frustrated with myself, because I didn't feel like I was doing the stunt right. But ultimately I learned to realise I'm not a stunt woman. My job is as an actor, and if the stunt double will make parts of Ria look better, I am doing justice to the character by letting them do that. Learning to give control to others and being as collaborative as possible all the time was such a huge learning curve.
How did you decompress on set?
Priya: One of the most important things for me, as an actor, is to learn the separation between work and my personal life. Making sure that I'm not bringing it home, you know? I used to give myself a certain amount of time on the weekends to prepare for the week and outside of that I wasn’t allowed to think or do anything related to the film. I also set daily things that I needed to do for myself, little things: getting enough sleep, having a cup of tea in the morning and making sure I spend five minutes just enjoying that cup of tea. I also do a bit of morning meditation. It all helps me to feel grounded and energised. I think I had one day off from this film the entire time, and it was so physically demanding. On the weekends, I'd come home a shell of a human being. All of my energy was like taken out. But it was so fulfilling. Being able to decompress was incredibly important.
Nida, why are happy endings important in films?
Nida: I don't think they always need to have a happy ending, but this film represents south Asian women, and Muslim women. So often our stories aren't joyful. It's about trauma, it's about misery, so I was like no! I really want to make a film that has so much joy and heart in it, and is a good time at the cinema. I grew up loving event cinema. I remember Jurassic Park coming out, the spectacle and the joy and the fun of going to see it with my friends. I wanted to recreate that.
How did it feel to be able to bring these characters to the screen?
Nida: So fulfilling. It's fun to see an actor like Priya and a character like Ria on screen doing action. We're so left out of the action genre as women of colour. Also, it's really fun to see the nuances of the family dynamics within a South Asian family in an action movie, through a comedy lens. For me, a lot of the fulfilment came from seeing those small moments between families, but also seeing a period scene in a big grand action movie. Also, when have you seen an action movie that has a woman getting a period in someone else’s bed?!
Pryia: And waxing, represent.
Were there any particular scenes that captured the idea of family for you?
Nida: I always think about the sister fight, even though it was probably the most brutal fight, it was one of the most cathartic scenes because I felt like it really allowed me to work through some shit. So like, my oldest sister and I are extremely close but we've been the best of friends, but the worst of enemies. There's a very specific relationship that you have as siblings, the love is there but also the hate is there, and it's beautiful. So I wanted to see that and honour that.
Nida, why was it important to have this balance between kind of darkness and lightness?
Nida: The lightness brings the audience in. Comedy is such a tool for disarming audiences and making them empathise with the character, and then it's fun to bring in the darkness to make a point or to say something more. The film is about sisterhood, and it's joyful, but it's also representing women's agencies – in doing what we want, but also in our bodies. Especially when Roe vs. Wade is going down in the US, and issues around abortion rights, it feels important to talk about what it means to be a woman today and having that agency in cinema, whether it’s comedy or drama.
Who do you hope watches this film?
Nida: It’s a cliche to say everyone, but everyone! Really though, it was an ode to my teenage self as a brown girl, not seeing myself on screen. So it's really exciting for me to think that other girls from our backgrounds get to see that any genre belongs to us.
Priya, do you have any affirmations? Ria says "I am fury" a lot.
Priya: No but it's actually something that I'm starting to do more. I'm starting to build my self esteem. Sometimes what I do is I'll list three things that I was proud of that day, even if it was as simple as like, making dinner. Also, sometimes I'll be in the gym, and I'll be like: Ria would go for another 10 minutes! I should do what Ria would do!
Polite Society is in UK cinemas 28th April_
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