Rude thoughts crowd the mind while watching British television director Nida Manzoor’s feature debut, a well-meaning and would-be subversive movie about a wannabe feminist heroine. Polite Society is set among the British-Pakistani community and has the conformist parents, rebellious daughters and community secrets that we have come to expect from this kind of film.
Ria (Priya Kansara), a teenager with the temperament of someone younger, is horrified that her beloved older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) has agreed to an arranged marriage with the dashing doctor Salim (Akshay Khanna). Almost everyone agrees that Salim is a catch for Lena, an art school dropout – everyone except Ria, who senses that something isn’t quite right about Salim and his smothering mother Rahila (Nimra Bucha).
A martial arts exponent with a shaky command over her skillset, Ria’s fears are dismissed as badly wired hormonal circuitry. With only her loyal friends Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) by her side, Ria seeks to literally punch above her weight.
Ria’s clumsiness for much of the 103-minute movie proves infectious. Nida Manzoor’s screenplay thrashes about in ungainly fashion, moving from cringe comedy to laugh-out-loud scenes. The literal-minded ode to sisterhood falls woefully short in the one department where Manzoor could have rewritten the rules of a predictable game.
Rahila’s tendency to mollycoddle Salim and her exaggerated superciliousness – which should have been enough to set the alarm bells jangling – mark her out as a Disney villainess. Since this is Ria’s coming-of-age saga, Manzoor devotes her energies to a fantastical rescue mission … at a lavish South Asian wedding. At least this occasion provides a fun recasting of the song Maar Daala from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas (2002).
The self-conscious hamminess and knowingly jejune humour has its inspired moments. While Priya Kansara tips over the edge ever so often as the perennially hysterical Ria, her friends are far more convincing. Ella Bruccoleri is hilarious as Alba, who is ready for anything without quite knowing how to go about it. Bruccoleri’s gobsmacked expressions nail the film’s anything-goes tendencies, which sometimes work in its favour but mostly misfire badly.