How 'Polite Society' Uses Bollywood Elements to Explore Identity and Belonging

Close up of Ria in fighting stance in movie Polite Society
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Directed by Nida Manzoor, Polite Society is a film that portrays the story of two South Asian sisters, Ria (Priya Kansara) and Lena (Ritu Arya), whose close relationship is threatened when the latter falls in love with a wealthy doctor named Salim (Akshay Khanna). Set in the backdrop of predominantly Pakistani neighborhoods in London, the film is full of ambitious comedy, plenty of actions throughout the narration, and a scientific twist that the audience does not anticipate. 


A Multi-Genre Approach to An Endearing Story of Sisterly Love

The film begins like any other modern tale: Ria is young, funny, and passionate about martial arts. All she wants to do is become a world-renowned stunt woman like her beloved icon, whereas Lena is a struggling artist who just dropped out of art school and moves back home with her parents. When Lena meets Salim, who she is infatuated with and willing to marry, Ria feels threatened by his presence and unable to cope with her sister letting go of her professional ambitions for a man. Ria then partners with two of her best friends Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) and Clara (Seraphina Beh) to plan traps to stop the wedding festivities. This leads to a series of exaggerated and unrealistic events that challenge their sisterhood and put Ria in a compromising position. 

At the heart of the film is an endearing story about two sisters’ love for one another and how they try to reconcile the obvious trials and tribulations that come with adulthood and change. It’s also an ode to family and sticking up for one another even when trust is displaced. Though Manzoor utilizes a number of approaches in the film, including elements of martial arts, romantic comedy, family drama and scientific fiction, it’s her ode to the Indian Film Industry (colloquially known as Bollywood) that is perfectly executed.


Sisterhood, Cultural Identity, and the Complexities of Modern Relationships

From costume and jewelry design, to musical selections, and even the names of the characters, the prevalence of Bollywood is strong and a way for unfamiliar audiences to become acquainted with the customs, traditions, and diversity among the South Asian community. What’s also interesting is the way the characters are unapologetically proud of their heritage and do not shy away from showcasing their identity. In fact, in one scene during Lena's wedding day, there’s even an elaborate dance segment before the actual ceremony is conducted. This musical number is commonplace in many South Asian weddings, and typically happens at the ‘sangeet’ or the pre-event before the big day. 

In another example, Manzoor explores the intersection of class, culture and socioeconomic status, which is a typical theme in many Bollywood films. This is best demonstrated by the dynamics between Lena’s future mother-in law, a snobbish, wealthy woman, and the family. The mother-in-law constantly judges the working-class family and not so subtly offers condescending commentary that shows the class divides between them. As with many Bollywood movies that focus on the concept of “log kya kahenge?” which translates to “what will people think?” multiple scenes provide the audience an insight into the way Ria’s family focuses on pleasing others before prioritizing their own interests. In fact, Ria even lashes out at her mother who is defending Salim’s family over believing her when she tries to gain her support in preventing the wedding festivities from happening. All Ria’s mom wants her to do is conform to societal standards which means finish schooling, find a “reasonable” job and marry an eligible suitor. Any deviation from this plan would characterize her as “fussy” and “impolite”, which as the title of the film suggests, is opposite of the cultural expectation.

In addition to the film’s use of Bollywood, Manzoor also successfully uses British humor and British slang to set the stage of the character evolution of both Ria and Lena. Given how prevalent South Asians are in the United Kingdom, the fusion of Bollywood and British humor is an important choice to show how the characters reconcile two distinct cultures that each contribute to their respective identities and ultimate life choices. Perhaps this depiction is also important to show the challenges faced by South Asian women onscreen and how to accept different parts of their background.

Polite Society’s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2023 in Park City further reinforces the need for such films in the realm of contemporary cinema. Overall, Polite Society kicks off as a captivating portrayal of sisterhood, cultural identity, and the complexities of modern relationships, and is complemented by a lighthearted and entertaining approach that leaves the audience curious for more South Asian representation in media.

Polite Society premieres in theatres on April 28th! See it at Regal. 

See Polite Society at Regal

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