Polite Society‘s Irreverent Cultural Insight Sets It Apart from Arranged Marriage Movies

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Polite Society‘s Irreverent Cultural Insight Sets It Apart from Arranged Marriage Movies

Truth be told, the concept of an arranged marriage makes for a promising premise for a movie—or a TV series, as the makers of the popular Netflix show Indian Matchmaking know all too well. The fact that Netflix has now spun off a Jewish Matchmaking series also goes to show that it’s not just the South Asian version of the tradition that’s appealing to audiences and, by extension, film and TV producers. So long as marriage exists as a societal concept, how the union gets arranged will always be a source of interest—whether put together by your family or yourself. And given that arranged marriages are still the way a sizable percentage of South Asians get hitched (much to the continued astonishment of their North American peers), it’s inevitable that popular culture will continue to explore arranged marriages.

What’s Love Got To Do With It and Polite Society are two recent British films that show the possibilities on either end of the spectrum. The former is an explainer about a tradition that’s seen as peculiar to a particular community. To be fair, it is far more prevalent in South Asia, Asia and Africa, as well as other parts of the world—even though the concept of an arranged marriage is no different than a marriage of convenience forging business or political alliances. The latter, on the other hand, is a delightful send-up of all sorts of expected narratives, ranging from storytelling conventions to cultural expectations.

Written by British documentary producer Jemima Khan (née Goldsmith), What’s Love Got To Do With It is a decidedly old-fashioned narrative that still feeds—let’s be honest—the larger white imagination. In it, Zoe (Lily James) plays a documentary filmmaker with a disastrous dating life who decides to turn her lens on her best friend Kaz (Shazad Latif). He’s recently made the decision to allow his parents to search for a bride for him. No prizes for guessing what happens in the end.

Polite Society, on the other hand, offers up a fresh and completely original look at the lives of a British Pakistani family, in which an arranged marriage is a plot device. Written and directed by Nida Manzoor, this film tells the story of Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) who wants to be a stuntwoman, just like her idol Eunice Huthart—a real-life British personality who worked as a stunt double for Angelina Jolie and as a stunt coordinator on several well-known Hollywood projects such Zack Snyder’s Justice League and Maleficent

While Ria’s parents Fatima (Shobu Kapoor) and Rafe (Jeff Mirza) think her dreams are just a schoolgirl fantasy, her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) cheers her on. So when Lena decides to go on a date on a whim, and then ends up getting engaged to the handsome doctor Salim (Akshay Khanna), no one is more gutted than Ria. Thoroughly annoyed at the idea of her sister agreeing to the match, Priya decides to rescue Lena from the shackles of marriage.

Both films are British, but only Polite Society captures the zany British sense of humor, as the events that unfold veer from a coming-of-age story into kickass action sequences, even adding some social horror elements into the mix. What’s Love Got To Do With It tries to add some Bohemian charm through Zoe’s mom (Emma Thompson), a divorcee keen to set her daughter up with eligible men, but even Thompson’s charm can’t rescue the script from several groan-worthy moments.

For a film that centers on a fairly woke doc-maker who is well aware of what it means to be tagged as the white woman making docs on under-represented subjects, What’s Love Got To Do With It is bizarrely blind to its own shortcomings. The star cast also includes Shabana Azmi playing Kaz’s mother. It’s directed by well-known Indian director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, Bandit Queen). And writer-producer Khan is no stranger to the culture she writes about: She was once married to former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan, and still goes by Jemima Khan on her social media handles. 

It’s strange then that the film peddles a pretty dated storyline, updating it ever so slightly to accommodate contemporary Pakistani society. Maymouna (Sajal Aly), the young woman Kaz meets over Skype, is not exactly the demure Pakistani bride he envisioned. When Kaz’s bridegroom party (which includes Zoe and her mum) arrives in Pakistan for the wedding, several surprises are in store. However, the wedding must go on.

A famous actress in Pakistan, known for essaying complex characters with assured depth, Aly is wasted in a small role that gives her very little agency. Even though Kaz and Zoe are surprised as they get a sense that Maymouna is not quite as naïve as they had assumed, they are too busy trying to ignore the chemistry between them to fully interrogate the situation. And so, it falls on Zoe’s documentary to unveil the truth that’s staring everyone in the face. 

Do these events still happen in real life? Of course. Should there be more films about arranged marriages? Sure, so long as they can bring some new insight or some kind of movie magic that helps you overlook its shortcomings when it comes to advancing the action. An irreverent take on a cultural tradition that typically feeds stereotypes is precisely the genius of Polite Society. The film is actually about the sisterly bond between Ria and Lena, with an arranged marriage as the wrench thrown into their relationship. 

Neither sister falls into the model minority myth. Lena is Priya’s champion when she’s not moping about her own failures as an art school dropout. She’s usually up for helping Priya to “make a vid” featuring all her stunts to upload to her YouTube channel. When Priya tries to channel her martial arts prowess as her stage name The Fury, and nail a signature move that she’s struggling to master, Lena vociferously eggs her on from behind the cellphone camera. Naturally, when Lena announces her decision to marry, Ria is none too pleased. She can’t believe her sister would do something so boring, and her decision to rescue her sister is both an act of love and self-affirmation.

Polite Society isn’t without some shortcomings. There are some cliched scenes, such as the terrors of women’s esthetic services. The third act of the film, which goes harder into the social horror/thriller side of things, is less madcap and more over-the-top extravaganza that loses the plot somewhat. And yet, there are some moments in that final act that are genius examples of how cultural insight can truly inform the script. I won’t give it away, but when I watched Priya perform a dance routine for her sister’s wedding party, I applauded all the nuances it incorporated: Priya’s outfit, the now-classic Bollywood song that she whirls to and the function that the choreographed number served as a plot device.

This is not a simple case of who did it better. As written by Khan, What’s Love Got To Do With It tells a palatable enough story that feeds an audience’s expectations—a bit of cultural tourism to the big fat Pakistani wedding. I imagine that elevator pitch made it sound like a meet-cute with more than a generous dash of Meet the Parents, South Asian style. Even though Khan may describe the film as her love letter to Pakistan, it’s clear there’s a great divide between her privileged lens and the culture she holds dear to heart. Meanwhile, Manzoor is clearly writing work that defies cultural expectations. Her previous work includes the series We Are Lady Parts, which tells the story of an all-female Muslim punk band. Some of the punk energy has obviously carried over to Polite Society in her desire to focus her lens on a funny and flawed young woman with flying fists of fury, inspired by her own upbringing on Bollywood and Jackie Chan movies, as well as The Matrix and Kill Bill series. Manzoor uses the same tropes—an arranged marriage, rebelling against cultural norms—but builds an alternative narrative of what it means to live in the Pakistani diaspora.

Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com. You can find her on Twitter. Along with Bollywood, Toblerone bars are one of her guilty pleasures.

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