How Sundance hit ‘Polite Society’ turns Muslim women into action heroes

(Photo: Courtesy of the Everett Collection)

Priya Kansara strikes an action hero pose in Nida Manzoor’s breakthrough action film Kind company. (Photo: Courtesy of the Everett Collection)

When writer/director Nida Manzoor broke into British television in the early 2010s, she hoped to speak for a population that had been largely overlooked by the media: young Pakistani British women like herself who proudly embraced both cultures. But she quickly learned that she had to follow the conventional narratives about the wives and daughters of Muslim families being presented on TV from across the pond.

“Early in my career, I was asked to write about forced marriages and honor killings, as if those were our only narratives as Muslim women,” Manzoor tells Yahoo Entertainment. “It made me angry, because my truth has never been those things. I felt like, ‘I’m so over this: I want to show our stories with joy and nuance. A lot of that anger and frustration fueled by my own art — I it rocked big time.”

Manzoor’s first big hit was the acclaimed Channel 4 series, We are Lady Parts, about an all-female Muslim punk band singing songs like “Bashir With the Good Beard” and “Voldemort Under My Headscarf”. (The show is streaming in the U.S. on Peacock.) Now, she’s taking another turn at bat—this time on the big screen—with Kind companythe story of two Muslim sisters who plays a cheerful mash-up of Bollywood wedding comedy with martial arts films, body horror yarns and even a pinch of The Muppet Big Caper.

And again, it’s a project that British film companies initially sought to fit into a more familiar box. “There were some executives who were asking, ‘Can you make a white family out of this?’ or ‘Could this be a forced marriage?'” recalls Manzoor. “As if the only stories about Muslim women that can be told have to have some traumatic element. But I was always like, ‘Nah nah nah — I’m going to do something wild here.'”

Nida Manzoor on the set of Polite Society.  (Photo: Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Nida Manzoor on the set of Kind company. (Photo: Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Hitting theaters April 28 after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Kind company Priya Kansara plays Rita Khan, a teenage kung-fu superfan with aspirations of becoming a great movie stuntwoman. Her biggest fan is her older sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), whose career hopes are on hold after dropping out of art school.

In that vulnerable state, she meets and falls in love with handsome bachelor, Salim Shah (Akshay Khanna), much to the delight of her parents and perfect match hunter mother, Raheela (Nimra Bucha). Rita, on the other hand, is unwilling to accept that her ambitious sister is settling for the conventional life of a Muslim wife, and she throws a series of well-meaning, but execution-challenged capers on her own to stop the impending wedding.

Born and raised in London’s vibrant British Pakistani community, Kansara says she felt an immediate affinity with the character created by Manzoor. “There are so many similarities between my life and Rita’s,” she observes. “Her friends, her school life, growing up under family pressures — all of these things felt so similar to me. I also felt connected to Rita regarding her desire to pursue an unorthodox career and deal with the expectations of it. that society places on women I definitely felt that growing up.

“Particularly as Brown women, there are so many little violences that happen every day in our lives,” Kansara continues, reflecting on how women Kind company uses action movie beats as a source of power for Rita and Lena. “Living within those restrictions and pitting them against this massive violence through film was incredibly cathartic. Especially as young women, there’s so much visceral anger at people telling you, ‘You can be this, you have to be that.’ , you actually do want to kick someone! Being able to do that in the movie was really fun.”

Kansara and Ritu Arya in Kind Society.  (Photo: ©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Kansara and Ritu Arya in a scene from Kind company. (Photo: Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Thanks to Manzoor’s genre mash-up approach, Kind company‘S MatrixThe styled fight sequences fulfill the same function that elaborate dance numbers perform in Bollywood films: lavish spectacles that are also attuned to the dramatic and emotional stakes facing the characters. “It was exciting to use the action to talk about femininity and sisterhood,” says the director. “I feel like these things don’t come across often in action movies.”

That sense of sisterhood also carries over into the antagonistic relationship between Rita and her future mother-in-law. The two square off in the film’s climactic bout, and it becomes clear over the course of Shah and Khan’s confrontation that they are essentially fighting for the same thing: to be free from the traditional expectations that come with being a Muslim woman in the modern world. “That fight was my favorite thing to shoot for it,” says Manzoor. “The villain isn’t really the villain – she’s a woman who hasn’t had the opportunity to explore her ambition. And the hero is a young girl who’s also struggling to do so. They’re both sides of the same coin, and they can explore that through some really cool kung-fu.”

It is also no coincidence that the scene pits a Shah against a Khan. Both surnames are common in Pakistan, the former descending from royal titles while the latter owes its origins to warrior kings such as Genghis Khan. “In our film, the Khans feel inferior to,” observes Manzoor. “They feel they have to be thankful that a young man like Salim Shah is even interested in their daughter. So there’s a class dynamic to that, and that’s also why Rita is this kind of disjointed underdog character. able to depict the Shahs as royalty they also allowed for some over-the-top visuals that were really fun to do.”

Go overboard with the tone and style of Kind company it also serves as Manzoor’s direct rebuke to the trauma-focused narratives about Muslim women he was once supposed to write. “I wanted to see these women who were joyful and also funny, which feels strangely radical,” he says. “Humor is a thing that crosses cultures and disarms the audience and brings them into your world.”

It's Raheela Shah (Nimra Bucha) vs. Rita Khan (Kansara) in the climactic duel in Polite Society.  (Photo: Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection)

It’s Raheela Shah (Nimra Bucha) vs. Rita Khan (Kansara) in the climactic duel in Kind company. (Photo: Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Even as Manzoor has sought to challenge and change Muslim representation on screen, he has encountered resistance among more traditional Muslim audiences. “You’re going to have people saying, ‘This isn’t good—why are you showing it?'” He admits. “We are Lady Parts he was warmly embraced, but there were definitely people who weren’t happy. It’s one of the things I talk about now with new writers: the burden of representation and the fear of letting your community down.

“It hurts when that kind of criticism comes from your own community, but you just have to go ahead and make your craft,” continues the director, adding that Muslim women in particular face additional hurdles in telling their stories. “The burden of representation may weigh heavier. You’re socialized not to upset the apple cart, and there’s an element of fear in that. It’s all part of our experience as writers in underrepresented communities. There’s not much diversity, so it’s not a rich landscape for you to do your niche thing and when you do your niche thing, some people [from your community] he will say, “This is not my experience.” Of course it’s not: it’s a person’s experience. Kind company It’s the kind of movie I dreamed of seeing when I was a teenager, so I feel lucky to be able to do it.”

While Muslim action heroes are rife in Southeast Asian cinema, the most prominent contemporary example on this side of the globe is the Disney+ series Mrs. Marvel starring Iman Vellani as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s friendly Pakistani-American neighborhood criminal, Kamala Khan. (Vellani will reprise the role in The wonders alongside Brie Larson later this year.) Bucha also played a not-so-villain in that series, providing a direct link to her Kind company role. Both Kansara and Manzoor consider the existence of a similar show Mrs. Marvel as a step in the right direction for representations of Muslim women in Western media, although there is still a long way to go to achieve parity.

“The media really frames how people think about underrepresented communities,” Kansara says. “There are over a billion Muslims on this planet and we’ve limited our thinking about them to this very narrow range of characters that we’ve seen on screen. For someone like Nida to come and show that the community has joyful stories to tell it humanizes it. It allows people to stop confining them in this little box.”

“If this film does well, it proves that our stories are worth telling and encourages producers to take more risks,” adds Manzoor. “Seeing this kind of representation that says you can be an action hero – that this is your movie – makes you feel like you belong. You often grow up and don’t see yourself in art. This movie represents My Genre: He says we can do anything and that we deserve to be here.”

Kind company previews Friday, April 28 in theaters.

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