At the heart of Polite Society, the new action-comedy from We Are Lady Parts creator Nida Manzoor, is a love story between British-Pakistani sisters Ria (played by Priya Kansara, in her film debut) and Lena Khan (Ritu Arya). Despite how integral their bond is to the film, Manzoor had her stars perform chemistry tests with everyone except each other. "We never got the chance to read together, actually," Kansara reveals.
"We met for the first time in rehearsal," Arya adds. "We both had chemistry reads with other actors for different roles, but it's interesting that Nida didn't feel the need to have us read with each other."
"I think she just trusted that we'd work well together," Kansara says,
Fortunately for everyone involved, Manzoor's blind belief in her leads ultimately proved to be well-founded. "We really did just click immediately," Arya tells A.frame. "We've both got a mentality of positivity and love, so when we came together, it felt so supportive. We were each other's cheerleaders. It never really felt hard for either of us." Their instant chemistry made it easy for Arya and Kansara to meet all the challenges that Polite Society threw their way — of which there were many.
Polite Society, which premiered during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, follows Ria, an aspiring stuntwoman, as she makes it her personal mission to save her art school dropout older sister, Lena, from marrying a man whose intentions may not be as pure as they seem. A cocktail of multiple cinematic genres and influences, the movie gave its stars the chance to try their hand at comedy, drama, fight scenes, dance sequences, and one absurdly elaborate heist.
For Arya and Kansara, bringing the genre-bending story to life felt like an opportunity that doesn’t come around often, especially as a female-led film featuring a cast of predominantly South Asian actors. "Scripts like this just haven't come my way very often, and I don't really know why!" Arya admits. "It is, of course, a huge blessing to have been a part of the film, but even if I wasn't, I'd still think, 'Thank God for this movie.'"
A.frame: The film is such a unique blend of genres. What was Nida's original pitch to you?
PRIYA KANSARA: I don't think I heard it for the first time from Nida herself. It's interesting, because throughout the audition process, you get these emails where they send you scripts and pitches. For Polite Society, it was pitched as this heist movie where this young girl wants to be a stuntwoman and she tries to go and save her sister from this marriage and a kind of impending doom. It was definitely pitched as an action-comedy, but there's really no frame of reference for this film. I've never read anything like it. It's just absolutely bonkers. Nida writes with such a sense of nostalgia and with such nuance that I just remember thinking, "This is so original. It feels really fresh."
RITU ARYA: I don't think much was mentioned about the relationship between our two characters at first, but I really clung onto that aspect of it once I read the script. I just thought, "There's so much more to be brought out of this character," and that was a process we all went through together throughout rehearsal and filming and even in the edit. Lena and Ria's relationship really became this beautiful thing at the heart of the story. It's a love story between two sisters, essentially, but I don't think that was really part of the original pitch for it. It definitely became a bigger part of the film as time went on.
Seeing the words "teenage girl stunt woman" and "impending doom" in the same sentence seems like the kind of thing that would, at the very least, definitely make you want to read the script.
ARYA: Absolutely, though, to be honest, I had already worked with Nida a couple of times. So even if a project from her was just pitched to me as "it’s about a guy and girl," I'd still be like, "I’m in!" It's Nida. I just know it's going to be wild and fun. She was really the thing about Polite Society that immediately sold me on it.
Did Nida give you any specific movies or reference points that she wanted you to watch ahead of production?
KANSARA: Oh, yeah. This movie is very densely referenced, which I think is something we all loved about it, because it's a movie for movie lovers. I remember talking to Nida and watching The Matrix, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Kill Bill, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee — just a lot of action stuff — but also movies by directors like Edgar Wright, who find a lot of their comedy in the edit and in their dialogue and references. The list felt endless. There were so many movies I watched and so many other things I could have, too. It’d be almost impossible to get through the entire list.
ARYA: I was already a massive fan of many of the films that Nida mentioned. I’m a huge Edgar Wright fan. I have a massive Scott Pilgrim poster up in my house, so I wasn’t massively surprised when Nida brought those films up. But it was fun to get to live in the action world for a little while both on set and with the movies I was watching. That was really exciting.
What did you two do to bond before you began filming?
ARYA: We have a similar sense of humor, so I think we just clicked pretty instantly. That said, I did invite Priya over for breakfast one day and I made her a really simple and terrible omelet. [Laughs]
KANSARA: It wasn't terrible! It was really nice! She's totally downplaying the omelet.
ARYA: I was like, "We can't make mimosas. I have nothing in the fridge. I don't have anything really," and Priya was like, "That's okay. I'm going to see my friends after this and we're going to go out for mimosas." I felt like a boring older sister! I did bring her a present and card when we first met, though, which was basically my way of saying, "We're sisters now." Doing all of that probably helped, but I really do think it would have been easy for us to get on like sisters even if we hadn't met or interacted with each other at all before filming began.
KANSARA: I agree. It immediately felt like we were developing a shorthand with each other — our own little language and our own way of doing things, which felt very sibling-like. It's like when you have in-jokes with your brothers and sisters that only you all find funny. Those things make relationships feel very authentic. The way that Lena and Ria dance with each other and do random things, it's clear that they're the only two people who really get why they're doing those things, but as an audience, I think you feel more connected to them because you recognize those things in your own relationships with your family members. I think we developed that on our own, because even on set we'd be doing random things and finding each other funny when everybody else was like, "Do you want to get on with the scene now?"
ARYA: I think Priya has got such a great younger sister thing about her, too, where I'll do something that no one else finds funny or interesting and she’ll be like, "Wow!" I’ll be like, "Never leave. That feels really good."
KANSARA: I'm your biggest fan!
Was there any one sequence or scene that proved particularly difficult to shoot? The scene where you two fight each other is pretty brutal.
KANSARA: Yeah, that's a nasty fight, but that one was really fun to film. [Laughs] I think it's one of the fights in the film that a lot of people have connected to the most, too. Even though it's a really brutal fight, I think we all know how intense sibling rivalries can get. Like, if you want to hurt each other, you're almost willing to take each other's heads off, you know? That’s a really visceral feeling you can have with your siblings. It was fun to bring that to life.
ARYA: I also think it works because it’s never just a fight in this film. There's always a journey and a story with each fight, and that's why it was a lot of fun. It wasn't just about doing a dance of choreography — which action sequences so often feel like — there's dialogue within that scene and it takes you somewhere. There's an emotional reason why it gets to that point where they're hitting each other, and I think that was the case with all the fights in the film. They all have their own style for certain different reasons, and I think that's what makes watching them a bit more interesting and engaging.
KANSARA: The storytelling within the choreography and within every move and how we decided to play the fights out was really cool.
ARYA: Yeah, like when I used the hair straightener to burn you during our fight. [Laughs] We’d just try things and it was really, really fun. Occasionally, I'd be like, "I want this to be even more physically intricate and more detailed," but then we'd sort of remember that the reality of what would happen is that I would just grab the straightener and I'd burn her face with it. It was all about keeping it simple and brutal like it can be between sisters sometimes.
Both your characters go through their own crises of identity in the film. As actors who have achieved success in an industry that is notoriously difficult to get into, did you relate at all to their personal journeys?
ARYA: 100%. I mean… definitely. [Laughs] For me, it’s taken 10 years to finally get a role like this. The opportunity has not been there, and maybe I haven’t been ready for it sometimes, either, but there’s been so much rejection and I haven’t been good at taking it. For the first five years of my career, I was a really mopey person. I would spend a lot of time in bed feeling sorry for myself. And even when good news came, I'd still find myself in a funk because I'd gotten so used to being disappointed. So, I’ve definitely been Lena. I've definitely been dragged out of bed and I've definitely felt like getting up and taking a shower was my biggest achievement on certain days. I know what it's like to fill that void with whatever's around and sleepwalk through it all like Lena does. The same goes for coming out the other side and not being too different from before, but still feeling like something's changed even if you don't know what that is. I've definitely gone through that myself.
KANSARA: Ria is a character who truly inspires me with her sense of self-belief and her determination to do what she wants to do. That feeling of being misunderstood and like the whole world doesn't get why you want to do something is definitely something I've felt a lot in my life. With Ria, she wants to be a stuntwoman and it doesn’t matter if her parents or anybody else thinks she's completely mad for that! It’s what she wants. For me, nobody in my family is an actor. Nobody I know has quit their job and decided they're going to take a chance in an industry like this. Despite that, I still said, "I want to do this"” and I think some people definitely thought, "Are you sure? What if it doesn’t work out? What will you do?" Even today, there are times when I think about how Ria has inspired me as a character and I'll just remind myself, "Ria would just go for it. It doesn’t matter if someone said you weren't cool, so long as you think you’re cool." That’s the important thing.
When you were making the film, did it feel like you all were participating in a film that would be this big step forward in representation? Or were you caught up more in the fun you were having on set?
ARYA: It did feel special, because I think we're ready to see more South Asian representation onscreen. I hope this film has opened more doors for that, because it's such a rich culture to get to play with and explore. And we do want to see ourselves, you know? We're mirrors onscreen, and so we get to learn more about ourselves when we're represented. We also get the chance to change stereotypes. We want to be human. We wanna be f—ked up and flawed, and make bad decisions, and fall in love, and get to see that onscreen. It's nothing more complicated than that. So, it did feel special when we were making this film, as South Asians but also as females, because there were so many women involved in it. The crew was mainly women. The cast was mainly women. That felt different, and I don't know any way to explain it other than saying that it just felt special. The film is just fun, too. It’s not political. It’s not too serious. It’s just everyone having a good time.
KANSARA: It was also very fun. There were days when we were just having the best time and there were moments I remember that felt important. Like, I remember when we shot the scene where Ria finally does her spin kick and Ritu came up to me and said, "Can you imagine how you’re gonna make little brown girls feel when they watch that scene?" I almost cried when she said that, and I’m almost going to cry right now just remembering it. But it was moments like that, where it became about taking a step back amidst all the chaos and craziness of filming and being like, "Actually, this is so much bigger than us."
If you could program a double feature for Polite Society, what film would each of you pick to pair it with?
ARYA: I'm gonna have to say Scott Pilgrim. I'm trying to think of something that isn't as obvious, but I can't! It just feels like the right choice.
KANSARA: Mine would be pretty on par with that. Again, Edgar Wright is just smashing it, so I think Hot Fuzz would be a really fun choice. That'd be a lot of mad action and craziness. It'd be pretty wacky.
ARYA: Or we could pick something really sad and serious and emotionally draining because when our film turned on it'd be, like, such an exciting jolt of energy! That would really magnify the experience to go from something somber to something like this, which I think encourages people to just lean back, eat some popcorn, and laugh a bit.
By Alex Welch