Polite Society: From a Bollywood dance number to a kung-fu kick-up

By Gen Terblanche27 June 2024

Polite Society: From a Bollywood dance number to a kung-fu kick-up

In action comedy Polite Society, Lena Khan (Ritu Ayra, Journalist Barbie in Barbie) drops out of her London art school and moves back home with her parents – Fatima (Shobu Kapoor, Linda Crosby in A Discovery of Witches) and Rafe (standup comedian Jeff Mirza). But she might not be home for long. Mom and dad get the perfect chance to score a dream husband for Lena when posh Raheela Shah (Nimra Busha) invites the family to a party at her mansion in hopes of finding a bride for her son Salim (Akshay Khanna), a rich, handsome, successful geneticist. It’s a parent’s dream come true! 

Lena’s schoolgirl and stuntwoman-in-training sister Ria (Priya Kansara, Miss Eaton in Bridgerton), however, is baffled, then alarmed, when she starts believing that Salim’s family are up to no good. And she ropes her friends Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) into an audacious anti-wedding heist in the name of sisterhood and freedom. For this heist they will need: chloroform, a bully-turned-getaway driver, waiter disguises, and a choreographed Bollywood-style dance number (inspired by Madhuri Dixit’s dance in the film Devdas). Let the chaos, comedy and kung-fu kicks begin. 

Raheela Shah Nimra Busha as Raheela Shah and Priya Kansara as Ria Khan in Polite Society on Showmax
(From left): Shah Nimra Busha as Raheela Shah and Priya Kansara as Ria Khan

Stream Polite Society on Showmax now.

Inside Polite Society’s family fight

Writer-director Nida Manzoor (best known for her Muslim female punk band movie We Are Lady Parts) reveals, “I grew up loving the spectacle of action movies but feeling extremely left out, so this film is for my teenage self … It was a chance for me to mix all the films I grew up on – Jackie Chan movies, Bollywood movies, The Matrix, and mash it into a wild film about sisterhood which has been so exciting.”

Priya Kansara stars as Ria Khan in director Nida Manzoor’s Polite Society now on Showmax
Priya Kansara stars as Ria Khan

Not all the fight scenes involve a flying kick to the face. “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,” says Nida. “The action in the film really represents what it feels like to be a teenage girl and how it can feel so painful and violent when you’re having fights at school or when you’re fighting with your sister. We wanted to show that with our fight sequences.” 

The sisterly love is just as intense. “Ritu is genuinely like a sister to me,” confirms Priya. “The banter and the jokes that we make on screen are very much the jokes that the two of us would make off-screen, too. This movie is a love story between two sisters. As an artist, Lena chose to do something slightly different, something that wasn’t as accepted, but she followed her dream and she went to art school. Ria admires her for doing that and really sees a lot of herself in her sister.” Ritu adds, “And in turn, Lena helps Ria with her ambition to be a stuntwoman. She’s her biggest cheerleader and champion and it’s beautiful to see two sisters really trying their best to help each other. Priya and I had a really fun time together. I adore her.” 

A kick-ass wedding

Ritu Ayra as Lena Khan and Akshay Khanna as Salim in Polite Society on Showmax
(From left): Ritu Ayra as Lena Khan and Akshay Khanna as Salim

The Shahs are really pushing out the boat for Salim’s wedding. Nida’s team, including production designer Simon Walker, costume designer PC Williams, and makeup artist Claire Carter, went all out. “The wedding sequence is the big final act of the film so I knew I wanted it to be big, over-the-top, wild, and eccentric,” says Nida. Lena’s wedding gown weighed around 35kg and Ritu reveals, “It was a lot of fun because when Lena fights all these women, she does it whilst wearing this really heavy wedding dress. I’ve never felt more badass in my life!” 

For PC Williams, though, it’s Nimra as the mother of the groom who steals the spotlight … as Raheela would prefer! “You can be really cool and fashion-forward and still have a religious background and still lean into tradition. I wanted everything she wore to feel powerful. I loved doing a monotone colour scheme where every outfit is all gold, all red, all pink, or all brown,” says P.C. Raheela’s final boss wedding outfit had to be ready for her power move at the wedding when she takes a Matrix-style leap through the air while fighting, which took close work between PC, stunt coordinator Crispin Layfield, and fight choreographer, Rob Luck.

As Ria, Priya, who did 95% of her own stunts in the film, worked with choreographer Nileeka Bose as well, to pull off her stunts and kicks in full traditional dress, along with her Bollywood dance number during the wedding. “Something that was really important to us was including Ria’s personality into the dance because she’s not a dancer – she’s a fighter – so we needed to incorporate her motive behind the dance,” says Priya. 

Priya Kansara stars as Ria Khan and Ritu Ayra as Lena Khan in Polite Society now on Showmax

Crispin adds, “Because Ria wants to be a stuntwoman, she obviously had to be trained in various forms of martial arts, so we had to incorporate all of those different styles into her character. We used a lot of Keysi, which is very close hand combat, and then we had kickboxing, karate and all sorts of other styles.” Priya trained with Rob and Crispin for three months before shooting the film, so she was deeply familiar with Ria’s struggles to polish her skills, and especially familiar with her struggle to master a jump kick move that involves a rotation of 540 degrees, which comes into play during the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style wedding showdown between Ria and Raheela. 

“It’s Ria’s signature move,” says Rob. “Ria spends the whole film attempting to do this fancy spinning kick but because she’s still learning her craft, she is not always succeeding, though she is getting gradually stronger and stronger. By the end of the film, Nida wanted her to be able to jump up, completely spin all the way round in a circle, then half again, and make contact with someone in the face. It’s quite challenging.”

Bridezillas, take note and start training!

Stream Polite Society on Showmax now.