Teenage aspiring stuntwoman Ria (Priya Kansara), the star of Polite Society, has a reasonable reaction when her family arranges a marriage between her beloved older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) and a smarmy man: Ria wants to thwart the engagement and beat the shit out of the guy.
That might seem like a hyperbolic response to growing pains, with Ria turning her fear of losing Lena into an excuse for Matrix-style combat. But Lena’s mysterious fiance Salim (Akshay Khanna) and his imposing mother Raheela (Nimra Bucha) do actually seem to be up to something nefarious, with Ria and her loyal friends as the only people who can save Lena from her doom. Director Nida Manzoor weaves all this into an action-packed comedy that’s as much about kicking ass as it is about grappling with big life changes.
One of the most brutal fights in the whole movie isn’t between Ria and her foes, but between Ria and her sister. The confrontation starts off as a simple sibling squabble, but eventually escalates into the sisters smashing each other into walls and completely through a door, which disintegrates under the impact. It’s chaotic, bloody, unapologetically brutal, and absolutely over the top. (Meanwhile, Ria and Lena’s parents, hanging out downstairs, simply sigh and tell them to clean up the rubble they create.)
“It was one of my favorite scenes to film,” Manzoor tells Polygon. “I found it incredibly cathartic to write everything with these two sisters.”
Random objects in Lena’s room become unexpected weapons in the fight, from a picture frame to a heated hair straightener. Lena’s childhood bedroom is just as much a part of the action of the scene as the two girls, something Manzoor felt was especially important.
“I was also inspired a lot by Jackie Chan movies,” says Manzoor. “And what he does is really use his environment in a fight. It locates and grounds a fight scene, because he uses bits and pieces from the set. That’s why I wanted to have the hair straightener involved. I wanted to have a picture frame with the two of them there [turned into a weapon], and use the door. It inspired me to ground the fight in its truth.”
For all the combat in Polite Society, Manzoor looked back at her favorite action movie sequences. One scene she kept coming back to was the fight between Morpheus and Neo in 1999’s The Matrix, a scene she says introduced her to fight choreographer Woo Ping Yuen and the world of Hong Kong cinema. She also cites Daryl Hannah and Uma Thurman’s showdown in Kill Bill Vol. 2, where they trash a caravan as they try to take each other out, and a scene in Haywire where a fight between Gina Carano and Michael Fassbender rips a hotel room to pieces.
“[Carano] has true physicality that oftentimes we don’t see when women are cast as action heroes. They don’t always feel like they have the physical strength to do the things that they do,” says Manzoor. “I was inspired by that. I wanted my actors to do as much of the stunts as they could themselves. I wanted them to fully embody those fight sequences and have it feel true to the performer. That was important to me.”
But the fight that really sparked the sister-on-sister action for Manzoor came from Julia Ducournau’s cannibal horror drama Raw. Genre-wise, the body-horror film is starkly different from the coming-of-age comedy-action vibes of Polite Society, but both movies are about a pair of sisters, and the brutality of in Raw’s sister fight really resonated with Manzoor.
“There’s a brilliant sister fight,” she says. “It’s a kind of horror version of it, but they’re like biting each other — bleeding and biting pieces out of each other. And I remember being like, Wow, I feel really seen by this insanely violent fight. It made me feel empowered to go even further with my sister fight.”
Polite Society is in theaters now.