The spark of the idea that ultimately became Polite Society – an immensely fun and original action comedy about two sisters navigating cultural and parental expectations – was first ignited by writer-director Nida Manzoor over ten years ago.
“My favorite thing about making film and television is the opportunity to bring marginalized communities into mainstream genres – action, sci-fi, comedy,” says Manzoor, who is best known as the creator, writer, and director of the acclaimed series, We Are Lady Parts, about a Muslim female punk band. The series has been celebrated for its electrifying humor, fusion of styles and nuanced, complex characters.
“Occupying areas of storytelling we are so often invisible in. I love writing comedy. It’s my go-to form of expression when I put pen to paper, my most natural form of storytelling. I feel comedy is the most disarming of all the genres. If done well it can make us warm to characters from different backgrounds deeply and immediately.”
Polite Society follows Ria Khan – played by Priya Kansara in her first leading role – a girl navigating the challenges of adolescence while never losing sight of her dream to become a stuntwoman. Ria idolizes her older sister Lena, portrayed by Ritu Arya, who has recently dropped out of art school. “I wanted to make a film about two sisters that grounds the sister love story because I don’t think we really get to see that in a lot of films,” explains Manzoor. “I drew from my own relationship with my sister. It’s such a close, intimate and loving relationship but when you fight with your siblings, that kind of fighting can be the most brutal.”
This visceral feeling of emotional battles between siblings provided an incredible amount of fertile ground to tell a story and allowed Manzoor to pay homage to the action genre while simultaneously grounding the story in the specific nuances of sisterhood and friendship.
Manzoor wrote the first draft of the script of Polite Society in her early 20s, but it took the years that followed for her to find the perfect partners to bring the film to vibrant, action-packed life on screen.
“It’s been a long road but I have now been able to make the feature film of my dreams,” shares Manzoor.
One of those collaborators was producer Olivier Kaempfer, who came on board with his company Parkville Pictures to help develop the project early on. Kaempfer immediately fell in love with the project and brought BFI on board as early development financiers.
“I first came across Nida in 2016 when I saw her short, Arcade, which is still one of my favorite shorts to this day,” Kaempfer recalls. “It immediately felt so different and fresh compared to so many other shorts that I was seeing. She was a filmmaker I wanted to meet and ideally develop a feature with and that feature became Polite Society. Nida is quite rare in that she has very bold and original ideas but she can also execute them. She was very much our creative leader and she has the vision that we’re all behind so it’s been fantastic.”
The filmmaker had loved collaborating with the gifted creative team on We Are Lady Parts, and as the feature film script evolved, many of them enthusiastically signed on to bring her latest vision to life, including Working Title’s Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner who produce the film.
“We really loved the TV show and thought that Nida had a very original voice for writing and directing characters that we weren’t really aware of,” says Bevan. “I asked her what else she was about and the script of Polite Society, which she developed with Olivier, landed on my desk.”
Bevan was delighted by the early draft but suggested expanding the world even more. “We said, ‘We’re interested in doing Polite Society but we don’t want to do it as a tiny, little movie,’” he remembers. “We wanted to do it as something much bigger, making it more genre-driven and including elements that would make it cinematic, unexpected, and generally a lot of fun to watch. So, we all worked on the script and upped the fight sequences, came up with the plot twist, and generally made it even madder.”
Manzoor hoped the film would feel like an ode to all the films that had shaped her, but she also wanted to see something on screen that she hadn’t experienced before. “I wanted to make this film for many reasons but predominantly so I could see a South Asian teenage girl as an action hero,” she shares. “I grew up loving the spectacle of action movies but feeling extremely left out, so this film is for my teenage self. South Asian characters are often relegated to shop owners and terrorists, token friends to the white leads. It meant everything to me to center the film around a South Asian girl – who is flawed and funny and kicks ass.”
Other members of the We Are Lady Parts team were equally excited to board the film including series producer John Pocock, who serves as a producer on Polite Society. “I was really keen to work on Polite Society with Nida after doing Lady Parts together,” he says. “I read it and thought it was so exciting and different. There was a lot of comedy, fight sequences, and drama. What a great project to work on!”
Also reuniting for the film were Lady Parts’ production designer Simon Walker, costume designer P.C. Williams, makeup artist Claire Carter, and editor Robbie Morrison, along with several cast members.
Director of photography Ashley Connor had not previously collaborated with Manzoor, although she had worked with Kaempfer on another film and the producer instinctively felt that Connor and Manzoor could create something visually spectacular together. “I’m very invested in telling stories for young women, and seeing this kind of heroine is really exciting to me,” says Connor of her attraction to the project. “The film is intelligent and doesn’t speak down to its audience. There’s a desire to change the ways and means by which we produce content, make films and TV shows, and somebody like Nida and her process are at the forefront of that change. She’s creating sets that have different energies on them, different motivations, and different means of collaborating and working.”
Priya Kansara remembers being struck by the script immediately. “I thought, ‘This is the craziest thing I’ve ever read!” she says. “It was so fresh and I’d never read anything like it before. The beauty of this film is that it has so many references and so many nods to different types of cinema and through Ria, I got to experience all of that. It was like doing seven movies in one because I got to do the stunts and the fighting, I got to dance, ride bikes, scale buildings and be torture-waxed and play all the way from funny to incredibly emotional. It was really fun to have such versatility in one project.”
Nida Manzoor is a British filmmaker who wrote, directed, and created all the original music for her series We Are Lady Parts, which premiered on Peacock/Channel 4 in 2021. The series is an anarchic and irreverent musical comedy following an all-female Muslim punk band, told through the eyes of a geeky Ph.D. student who is reluctantly recruited to be their lead guitarist. The show was renewed for a second season. We Are Lady Parts has been nominated for a Gotham Independent Film Award, and an Independent Spirit Award, and has won a 2022 Peabody Award and the 2022 BAFTA Award for Best Comedy Writer.
Manzoor’s debut feature with Focus Features and Working Title, Polite Society, premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The boisterous and original action comedy follows a British Pakistani teenager (and aspiring stuntwoman) who attempts to save her older sister from a semi-arranged marriage by performing an elaborate heist.