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Ritu Arya stars as Lena in director Nida Manzoor’s ‘Polite Society’Ritu Arya stars as Lena in director Nida Manzoor’s ‘Polite Society’ (photo: Parisa Taghizadeh/© 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC)

What does it mean to be a Muslim in the modern world? That is the fundamental question that underpins the work of Nida Manzoor, whose creativity spans music, film and television. The question may come off as heady and serious, but Manzoor approaches it with no shortage of humor and an immense sense of fun. Manzoor’s primary artistic goal is to show that the culture surrounding Islam is as three dimensional and dynamic as any other faith’s, complete with its own unique set of trials and rewards. Manzoor wants you to know that Muslims—more specifically, Muslim women—can be anything, even if that includes being a total failure.

The key lies in Mazoor’s ability to craft relatable characters. Take, for instance, her debut feature, “Polite Society,” an action-comedy set in the insular world of upper-crust Pakistani-British immigrants. The film stars a pair of rebellious South Asian Muslim sisters as its leads: Lena, a painter dissatisfied with her art, and Ria, who refuses to give up on her dream to become a stuntwoman. Both still live at home, their parents not exactly pleased at the direction their daughters’ lives have taken. When Lena agrees to an arranged marriage, Ria feels like her sister is giving up on her passion and plots to sabotage the engagement by any means necessary.

Nida Manzoor’s primary artistic goal is to show that the culture surrounding Islam is as three dimensional and dynamic as any other faith’s.

“Polite Society,” which has been receiving stellar  reviews from both audiences and critics, is emblematic of Manzoor’s methodology: tackling cultural issues not by addressing them head on but by commenting through character-based humor. Ria may be a trained martial artist, but she is largely in over her head when it comes to infiltrating the upper-crust spaces that Lena has found herself in, which leads to a lot of hijinks. Meanwhile, Lena begins to learn that rebelling for the sake of rebelling might not be the best idea, especially if you find yourself happy within your cultural space. This naturally leads to conflict between the stubbornly progressive Ria and the more traditionally inclined Lena.

Manzoor has written and directed her first film with aplomb and style. Inspired by the work of filmmakers like Edgar Wright, “Polite Society” is filled with crazy action scenes and wacky dialogue. Manzoor’s interpretation of a fight between siblings is quite literal, as they engage in a martial arts battle that leaves their bedroom in ruins, just before they both begrudgingly go downstairs for dinner. Similar fights happen throughout the movie, not to mention clumsily executed heists and a silly plot to kidnap Lena from her own wedding. The film never takes its narrative too seriously, even as it always treats cultural issues with care.

“Polite Society” may be saying things about arranged marriages, the appropriation of Western power dynamics by immigrant communities and tradition overriding common sense, but at the end of the day, it is more concerned with having fun. Manzoor is that rare artist who understands the nuances of her cultural struggles and manages to communicate them through her work without allowing them to overwhelm the actual story. “It’s a joyful film about a South Asian Muslim woman,” Manzoor said in an interview with The New York Times.

In a world inundated with superhero cinema that requires a whole semester’s worth of research to keep up with and with franchise sequels that seem determined to display no individuality, it’s far too uncommon to find a filmmaker who is in possession of an actual personality and understanding of what makes movies enjoyable. As Manzoor said at the premiere of “Polite Society,” the film was “something [she] made for [her] teenage self.”

“We Are Lady Parts,” which began as a 14-minute short and eventually became a television series on Peacock streaming, is nothing short of a master class on youthful rebellion.

Manzoor was born to a Pakistani-British Muslim family and grew up in London, where she discovered a love of the arts. While she is mainly a filmmaker, having showcased her writing and directing talents on local British programs like “Enterprise” alongside more well-known fare like “Doctor Who,” her first love was music, something she shared with her siblings.

“Music was my first passion,” she said in an interview with Digital Spy.

“Polite Society” features a variety of musical sequences, but it was her previous work, “We Are Lady Parts,” that showed just how obsessed she is with the craft of songwriting. Featuring a punk band of maladjusted Muslim girls in London, Manzoor and her siblings were responsible for writing the entirety of the fictional group’s music. “We Are Lady Parts,” which began as a 14-minute short and eventually became a television series on the Peacock streaming service, is nothing short of a master class on youthful rebellion.

“Sometimes, growing up, I felt like I couldn’t show all of myself, you know?” Manzoor said. “In creating the band Lady Parts, I wanted to show this group of women who all have love for each other and their differences.”

Manzoor’s Muslim women are allowed to be rebels, artists and failures.

It is these differences that make Manzoor’s work unique. Manzoor’s Muslim women are allowed to be rebels, artists and failures. While this is certainly true of the sisters in “Polite Society,” it is in “We Are Lady Parts” that Manzoor showcases her most incisive commentary. One of the bands’ songs is titled “Ain’t No One Gonna Honour Kill My Sister But Me,” which is exactly as anti-establishment, punk rock and specifically Muslim as it sounds.

Another of the band’s songs, “Voldemort Under My Scarf,” is about the fear and distrust suffered by Muslims who wear hijabs. “Are you Hufflepuff? Are you Gryffindor?/ No I’m Slytherin, I’m f— Voldemort!” roars the song. Another of their tracks, “Fish and Chips,” talks of the band’s collective experience being “Broken by the empire, raised by MTV/ But still, it’s fish and chips for tea.” All of this is delivered with no shortage of style: one song might feature backing vocals from Muppets while another’s emotion is enough to literally conjure a tornado.

Manzoor’s songwriting is hyper-specific as that of a young Pakistani-British woman, but her work remains strikingly universal. Much of this is owed to the earnest humanity with which she infuses her characters. Manzoor does not allow their problems to be solely the result of culture and ethnicity; sometimes they’re just mad because a boy doesn’t like them back, or they’re nervous because they’re not sure they really want to get that Ph.D. in microbiology. So often, mainstream perceptions of Islam revolve around what we hear on the news. It’s not that common to hear about the everyday struggles and concerns of its adherents—many of whom are exactly as young and raucous as children of other faiths. Their worries, though sometimes unique, are not at all unrelatable.

At the same time, Islam remains an integral and inseparable part of her work. “We Are Lady Parts” may feature a punk band whose members are often irreverent and ill-mannered, but they are at their core Muslim women. Islam is never treated as the sole reason for their problems, nor is it seen as incompatible with being a woman in the world today.

When one of the Lady Parts band members is questioned as to why she wears a whole-body-covering niqab, she answers, “Well, to feel close to God which is obvs really nice in these crumbling times. But also wearing it makes me feel confident, like Queen Nefertiti or Beyoncé.” The Lady Parts’s frontwoman, Saira, describes the band as “sisters who pray together, play together, speaking truth to whoever can be asked to listen.”

Manzoor is a filmmaker who allows her minority actors to inhabit roles they don’t often get to play. “Polite Society” and “We Are Lady Parts” show that Muslim women can be anything from stuntwomen to artists to musicians.

Of course, Manzoor is careful never to get too caught up in the seriousness. At their core, her works are comedies, and she does not allow the drama to overtake her commitment to being funny. That, out of everything, may be the secret to her success.

“Polite Society” is available on digital. “We Are Lady Parts” is streaming on Peacock.

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