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How martial arts and sisterhood inspired the new movie 'Polite Society'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In the movie "Polite Society," British Pakistani high schooler Ria Khan knows exactly what she wants to be in life.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POLITE SOCIETY")

PRIYA KANSARA: (As Ria) I am going to be a stuntwoman.

CHANG: Now, her parents are hesitant, but her older sister, Lena, is totally on board.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POLITE SOCIETY")

KANSARA: (As Ria) She helps me with all my training.

RITU ARYA: (As Lena) You are going to be such a great stuntwoman.

CHANG: But then enter her sister's impressive new boyfriend.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POLITE SOCIETY")

KANSARA: (As Ria) But lately, she's been seeing this guy.

CHANG: I mean, he's really hot. He's a doctor. He has a really great relationship with his mother, Raheela. So everyone is thrilled when he and Lena get engaged - that is, everyone except Ria.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POLITE SOCIETY")

KANSARA: (As Ria) Now, I'm not being dramatic, but these people are evil.

CHANG: And Ria is going to use all her power and fury to stop her sister's wedding. Nida Manzoor wrote and directed "Polite Society." And when we sat down to talk about the movie, she told me that her own sister is her best friend - well, at least most of the time.

NIDA MANZOOR: We could be the best of friends, but the worst of enemies. Nothing hurt as much as fighting with my sister. There was a sort of real brutality and cruelty that we could, you know, exact on each other.

CHANG: And no fight is quite as brutal in "Polite Society" as Khan versus Khan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POLITE SOCIETY")

ARYA: (As Lena) What did I tell you about staying out of my life?

KANSARA: (As Ria) Oops.

CHANG: I mean, you portray the especially brutal way sisters can fight with some of the fight scenes. Like, the most destructive fight scene in this whole movie was between the two sisters.

MANZOOR: Yes. Yes. And I needed that. It - needed it to be that way. I wanted the sister fight to be the bloodiest and the most brutal. You know, we shot it handheld to feel really visceral and spontaneous. And, yeah, it was exactly that. I wanted to show a fight that could encapsulate what it feels like when you fight with your sister - who knows exactly the words to say to cut you the deepest.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POLITE SOCIETY")

KANSARA: (As Ria) He says he loves you and he doesn't even know you.

ARYA: (As Lena) He thinks you're kind.

MANZOOR: You know, they know it more than anyone 'cause they've grown up with you, seeing all your little, you know, shames and all the things that, you know, cut you down. So they have the tools to really hit you where it hurts.

CHANG: But I trust that you've never thrown your sister through a wall or something...

MANZOOR: No.

CHANG: ...Or created a hole...

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: ...In the door with her body (laughter).

MANZOOR: Not yet. But, you know, we still have all our life ahead of us. Who knows?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POLITE SOCIETY")

KANSARA: (As Ria) I am kind.

CHANG: It wasn't only that one fight between Ria and Lena that stood out. Ria - she gets into lots of fights at school.

MANZOOR: Yes.

CHANG: And these fights - they unfold in, likewise, these over-the-top exaggerated action sequences, which were really fun to watch. But it did make me wonder - like, what are you trying to say about the anguish of a teenage girl? Because Ria is always fighting, right? Tell me why.

MANZOOR: There's just something about being a teenage girl - and even a teenager, which is so - the feelings are heightened. The emotions are big. You're finding your friends. You're finding your voice, your place in the world. There are all these really small violences that you're feeling. And I just felt the action genre is the perfect tool to externalize those small violences we felt growing up. And, you know, during those puberty years, you can disconnect from your body. You go from being a child to then being objectified by society. And I certainly felt this sort of disconnect as I sort of - I lost my sort of selfhood in my body. So I was excited to use the action genre because it's such an embodied genre and to center a teenage girl who's fully in her power, which, for me, was incredibly cathartic because I felt like I lost something along the way in those years, you know?

CHANG: Yeah, I totally could relate to that. Let me ask you - did you grow up watching a lot of martial arts movies?

MANZOOR: Yes, I did.

CHANG: Oh.

MANZOOR: A heavy diet - a heavy diet of martial arts. You know, my favorite were Jackie Chan movies. I watched them - you know, those - the ones he did in the U.S. - the Western ones - were sort of my way into Jackie Chan, watching those "Rush Hour" films.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUSH HOUR")

JACKIE CHAN: (As Agent Lee) Agent Carter is very passionate about finding your daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASHING)

CHRIS TUCKER: (As Agent Carter) Which one of y'all kicked me?

MANZOOR: My mind is exploding. It's, like, this incredible art form. I've never seen someone use this beautiful martial arts mixed with comedy. And those were two of the things I was loving. I was there studying martial arts, enjoying martial arts. But also, being such a fan of comedy and seeing Jackie Chan's work was the first time I'd seen those things come together.

CHANG: Wait a minute - you studied and trained in martial arts growing up as well?

MANZOOR: I did. I did.

CHANG: Oh, cool.

MANZOOR: I mean, I did karate into my teens, so I - you know, I love doing katas, where you sort of - it's, like, all about the form and how it looks. And then - so I'd love watching action movies and sort of trying to re-create fight scenes. It was all just part of my - yeah, my childhood.

CHANG: Other choices that you made in this film that stood out to me - I was also so struck by the way you represented British Pakistani identity in this film. Like, with Ria and Lena's parents, they're actually pretty open-minded about letting their daughters find their own paths. One's an artist. One wants to be a stuntwoman. You know, there's gentle nudging. But often, in movies about immigrant families, there's this trope of the really strict, domineering parent. And you avoided that trope. How deliberate was that?

MANZOOR: It was incredibly deliberate. And, you know, it's - I remember when I was trying to make that film early on. That was one of the notes I got back. They're like, can there be more forced marriage? Can they - you know, can we see the parents just be a bit more strict? You know, using trauma is the only way we can understand them?

CHANG: Yeah.

MANZOOR: You know, I was - so I really pushed back against that. You know, our existences are complex. You know, my parents - they love us. They support you. There's warmth there. But then they worry in there, you know? So it had to be that nuanced way of being. And I'm so glad you picked up on it because it was so important for me to see the parents kind of occupy these sort of, yes, this very nuanced space of loving and supporting their children, but also being worried for them and, as you say, nudging them in a certain direction. This film is joyful because our stories can be more than just sad and traumatic. They're full of joy and nuance.

CHANG: Hmm. One of the conflicts in this movie is about a woman's ability to choose what to do not only with her life, but with her body. And, you know, I noticed all of the main characters - both the heroes and the villains - they are women. What did you want to explore around that, by casting women as both the heroes and villains?

MANZOOR: You know, it's been the women who've uplifted me the most in my life, but who've also cut me down the hardest. There's something about the pain of a woman critiquing another woman that hurts more when - than when a man does it.

CHANG: Yeah.

MANZOOR: Like, you're part of - you should be on my team. It just cuts deep on a whole other level. And so for me, I'm most interested of seeing women - you know, the matriarch who upholds the patriarchy. And, you know, it's so exciting as well to explore, like, as you say, a female villain. The dark feminine is so beautiful because it's something that we have had to quash. We've had to deny. Getting to show the light and the dark sitting together was really so exciting for me.

CHANG: Nida Manzoor directed the new film, "Polite Society." Thank you so much for sharing this time with us. I so enjoyed this.

MANZOOR: Oh, thank you, Ailsa. It was so much fun to chat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Vincent Acovino
Mallory Yu
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.