Let me start by saying I love “Aladdin” (1992). As a Muslim Bangladeshi-American girl, the meant a lot to me growing up. Princess Jasmine expanded the definition of beauty for me, which continues to have healing effects on young brown girls growing up in a white (sometimes supremacist) society. Even though the original cartoon was problematic, the characters in Aladdin were the only options brown kids had with regards to representation. That’s why you have so many, now grown, brown millennials today who still cherish these characters.
However, with some maturity and hindsight, I can safely say it was not a great representation. In fact, the Disney animated film perpetuated centuries-old Orientalist stereotypes. One would think that the 2019 “Aladdin” remake would right these wrongs, but it simply rewrote them. The box office success exposes America for what it is: a capitalist economy that profits off of Middle Eastern and South Asian culture (i.e. hummus, henna and harem pants) while the political system remains incredibly Islamophobic, using our tax dollars to spy on our neighbors and drone their families abroad.
Orientalism was originally practiced largely by the British and French imperial powers and was eventually exported to the US in the form of consumer goods like rugs, silks, hookahs, and jewelry. The men of the “Orient” were seen as incompetent, insatiable savages with riches and sexually promiscuous “Oriental” women to exploit. This crude image of the East elicited envy in white imperialists who wished to replace the supposedly ineffectual men and usurp their spoils.
Late 19th and early 20th century America is often historically referred to as the “exclusion era” due to the various immigration exclusion acts that limited the number of immigrants. What many people do not realize is that this extended far beyond Chinese Exclusion and applied to immigrants that came from the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” encompassing people from the Arab Peninsula to Indo-China. The duality of American Orientalism, simultaneously indulging in an exoticized image of the East through commercial goods and mass entertainment while also excluding and oppressing the people of those cultures, has led to the normalization of racial stereotypes of Eastern cultures that erases diverse identities to create a singular blurred image of the Orient.
By 9/11, Orientalism and Islamophobia became intrinsically linked, where one reinforced the other, creating a divide between embraceable, assimilable non-Muslims and threatening Muslims. The competing images of brown people are embodied in the world created by Disney’s “Aladdin,” where the fictional city of Agrabah is a harmful hodgepodge of Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures.
It’s worth noting that the story of “Aladdin” did not actually appear in the original Arabic versions of what Europeans refer to as “The Thousand and One Nights,” the collection of stories originating in Persian and South Asian societies. The earliest known written compilations of the stories are two 8th century Arabic translations of the Persian Hazar afsana. These tales have been spread throughout the East, adapting as they were retold, ultimately reaching Europe.
“Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp,” was one of many popular stories added by a French man, Antoine Galland in the early 18th century, and since has been regurgitated in various forms by European translators who eventually exported it to America. Galland’s story explicitly takes place in China, yet the culture depicted in the story resembles that of the Islamic world. While there is a reason to believe that “Aladdin” was meant to be some amalgamation of tales from the Middle East and South Asia, “Aladdin” as we know it now can largely be read as an imperial narrative built on exoticism and Orientalism.
Disney’s “Aladdin” is Orientalism
The 1992 animated “Aladdin” is so blatantly based on racial stereotypes that it almost makes me think that the people who made it did so ironically. Unfortunately, it’s not that deep. Just to mention a few of the Orientalist tropes employed: the wealthy, incompetent sheikh (the Sultan); the dark-skinned, perverted villain (Jafar); barbaric commoners; and the hypersexualized and subordinated women of the East (Jasmine).
To be clear, Princess Jasmine is royalty who lives in a society where women cover their hair and faces, yet her everyday look is a revealing belly dancing-inspired outfit, reminiscent of Western images of courtesans. Jasmine even goes on to be enslaved by Jafar and is even more overtly sexualized with her costume change into red and a high ponytail — the ultimate hairdo of the harem.
Another direct product of Orientalism is the seemingly innocuous song “Prince Ali,” which resembles an elaborate circus procession. During the exclusion era, circuses were how the West reaped its greatest profits off of Orientalism in mass entertainment based on distortions of South Asian and Middle Eastern culture. One example is Barnum & Bailey’s show, The Wizard Prince of Arabia advertised as an “Indo-Arabic Spectacle,” in 1914. The poster featured elephants, veiled women, exotic dancers, and turbaned men. They also promised circus goers “1250 Actors and Actresses, 300 Dancing Girls, 250 Singers in Weird Oriental Choruses,” and “hundreds of horses, camels, and elephants.” Sound familiar?
The only culture “Aladdin” seems to accurately represent is America’s. Obviously, Disney was never going to change the beloved, critically acclaimed musical numbers, which, for the record, I wouldn’t have wanted, either. So, why “remake” the movie, especially now given our fraught political climate?
“Aladdin” But Make It Fresh (Prince)
The live action “Aladdin” remake changed superficial plot points, but, at its core, it kept what made the film problematic. This remake could have been an opportunity to not only remove stereotypes from the film but to also embrace and celebrate the contributions of Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian Americans in the context of an incredibly divisive and hateful political climate. Instead, the remake double downed on the Orientalism. It was directed by a white man, an English one at that (read: a descendant of colonizers) whose idea of updating the film was by adding a hip-hop element to the film, giving Jasmine career goals, and further white-washing Agrabah as if its creation was not informed by the real world and its biases.
Not to mention, the remake adds a running joke about Aladdin buying Jasmine, which garnered the biggest laugh in the movie. This joke was much like when in “Crazy Rich Asians,” two Sikh guards donned in their traditional garb of dastar (turban) and kirpan (sword) frightened the two main female leads by appearing out of nowhere in the dark, which was similarly met with one of the biggest laughs in the movie in my theater. I’m just going to put it out there that certain people were laughing too hard and for too long. Both of these jokes hinge upon accepting the validity of the perceived backwardness and barbarity of brown cultures in one of those classic “it’s funny because it’s true,” moments.
Another point of comparison between “Aladdin” and “Crazy Rich Asians” is in how the press talked about these films in the lead up to their release. You could not watch a single interview of the “Crazy Rich Asians” cast without there being a conversation on representation, and what this film will mean for the Asian community, and rightfully so. Side note, colorism, and Islamophobia often exclude West, South and South East Asians from the typical Asian American narrative. The same, however, was not true for the cast of “Aladdin” (2019) wherein most questions were directed to Will Smith about how he made Genie his own, and about what it’s like to be part of a classic Disney movie. Agrabah is simply a fictional fairytale land devoid of any culture, history and, of course, brown people. Jasmine is a princess who happens to be brown for all little girls to look up to, just like how all lives matter. Nothing to be said about what “Aladdin” might mean specifically to brown children growing up in an America where Muslims, Middle Easterners, and South Asians are indefinitely detained, deported and dehumanized.
I have been an unwilling participant of the never-ending “what are you” guessing game; have had my name constantly mispronounced, misspelled by classmates and colleagues not because it’s complicated, but because they do not care to remember; and, have been chased down a street by an angry white man publicly berating me and my “people.” Yet, I also get the unspoken approval from some as being one of the “good ones” — assimilable and not aggressively ethnic. I have been made to feel both invisible and overly exposed, two conflicting symptoms of being exoticized in white society. Words, jokes, and representation matter.
Disney Should be Learning from Disney
Take a look at another Disney film that proves inclusivity pays off, Pixar’s Oscar-winning “Coco,” which depicted Mexican heritage in a way that gave the Latinx community a moment of cultural celebration. “Coco” achieved this by heavily involving people of the community in the creative process after they made an egregious mistake, trying to trademark the holiday, Dia de Los Muertos. Instead of doubling down and saying, “haters ‘gon hate,” they listened to the criticism and employed “cultural consultants,” which included one of their strongest critics, and they promoted Mexican-American Adrian Molina to co-direct along with non-Mexican Lee Unkrich. The “Coco” team also relied on several research trips and the personal stories of their Latinx team members.
The makers of the live-action “Aladdin,” however, had not responded as gracefully to criticism, making no changes to their creative team led by Guy Ritchie. Simply filming in the deserts of Jordan does not constitute authenticity or research. Disney claims that this “Aladdin” had “cultural advisors,” but all they have provided are vague statements that could mean as little as “we consulted with our craft services guy, Abdullah, and he seemed to approve.”
Maybe I’m wrong about how extensively they used consultants, but the fact that there are no definite and clear contributions from Middle Eastern and South Asian people is the problem. If there were, we would know about them because Disney’s PR would be jamming our feeds with it, trying to win those diversity points.
So, instead of using Will Smith as a way to introduce break dancing and rap into Agrabah, why didn’t anyone think to incorporate the music, dance, and attire of the cultures the story is supposedly pulled from? Of course, this would have only been acceptable if more brown people were employed and included in the creative process. They dressed Jasmine in gaudy, neon corseted gowns reminiscent of the typical western princess silhouette but with extra rhinestones.
The costumes honestly looked like how white people think brown people dress. I suppose it was to further whitewash Jasmine to ensure she does not come across as too ethnic, resembling, Allah forbid, those poor brown people we see on the news. Aladdin’s costume designer Michael Wilkinson thinks he paid his diversity dues by sourcing fabrics from Morocco, Turkey, and India to name a few. Do you know who else sources fabrics from India? Forever 21. And, I don’t think anyone would argue that fast fashion companies are hubs of cultural exchange and appreciation.
The irony is that Orientalism, historically, was a product of the appropriation of Eastern textiles, jewelry, and fashion, yet authentic, traditional craftsmanship was erased from Jasmine’s wardrobe. Let’s consider the magic that was “Black Panther.” Black Panther’s costume designer Ruth E. Carter informed her afrofuturistic designs by researching indigenous populations across Africa and by actively seeking out authentic African designs. This dedication to honoring African heritage made history, as Carter was the first African American woman to win an Oscar in costume design. To the movie executives who don’t care about being culturally sensitive or politically correct, being a more inclusive production is not only financially lucrative, it also leads to higher quality products.
Ritchie and his team would have benefited greatly from asking themselves for whom were they really making this film. And, if it turned out they didn’t care to cater to a Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian audience, then at least we’d all be on the same page. We can all finally stop pretending that loving “Aladdin” means loving brown people.
We are paralyzed in this bind where we want so desperately to love the remake that we swallow our disappointment because, well, of all the racist things in the world this seems pretty benign, as FBI statistics show that hate crimes have continued to surge since 2016. We publicly praise mediocre or worse projects out of fear that if we voice our disapproval it’ll embolden others to do so as well, and if they don’t like “Aladdin,” then maybe that means they just don’t like us. But, at a certain point, we have to call out problematic narratives that are repeated time and again, especially when “Aladdin” is the first brown person many Americans meet.
If the movie had been more intentional and inclusive at every level of production, we might have had a more nuanced and respectful reimagining of “Aladdin.” This was a chance to reclaim a narrative that was originally rife with stereotypes and lazy assumptions about Eastern cultures to empower and employ people that are frankly exhausted of having to explain and apologize for not only their heritage but their existence.
Brown People of America Unite
One has to wonder whether this movie was able to be made without much input from Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian people because these demographics have not been able to come together as a unified polity or social justice collective to make coherent and actionable demands of American society. Part of why “Aladdin” can so easily run the risk of regurgitating Orientalist tropes is because Orientalism requires a certain amount of revisionist history and erasure in a way that blurs a wide array of cultures, ethnicities, and languages into one amorphous white washed blob. Centuries of Orientalism has created this narrative that the near East is homogenous, that brown people are homogenous, that Muslims are homogenous. But we are not, which is why it might be harder for us to unite as one community and acknowledge we have more to gain together than we do apart. Depending on the issue brown people of America shift their alliances along religious, ethnic, racial and economic lines.
The fact that people are fighting to claim “Aladdin” to establish some birthright as to who is allowed to portray fictional characters of a film adaption of a story that was not even authentic to the East but was in fact a fantasy of the imperial machine just speaks to how starved brown people are for representation in art and media. We know both Disney films were not created for us or by us, they are an American narrative being sold to us about us.
All this to say, it’s complicated. It’s difficult to mobilize a disparate group of people in solidarity because minorities are often told by those in power that their interests are in conflict with each other, repurposing the imperial strategy of divide and conquer. The funny thing about the inherent racist logic of Islamophobia is that it threatens an Indian Hindu as much as an Egyptian Copt.
America presents a unique situation wherein a diverse group of people hailing from many parts of the world is racialized as one. The irony is that this sweeping paranoia presents minorities with an opportunity to create a strong bloc of solidarity against white nationalism and xenophobia. Instead of abandoning each other when politically and socially expedient, we should band together. If the communities often impacted by Islamophobia, even though many may not even be Muslim, can organize together in art, business and politics it could strengthen us all in the greater anti-racism movement. Coalition building, particularly in policymaking and advocacy work has the potential to create more nuanced and thoughtful solutions to some of our most pressing problems.
While the remake of “Aladdin” is not itself Islamophobic or racist, and a ride on the magic carpet can be a nice, albeit forgettable, escape from our troubling reality. It is, however, an inevitable outcome of a society that continues to devalue black and brown lives. We currently live in a country led by a man who implemented a still legal Muslim ban, thinks there are “very fine people” amongst neo-Nazis, and is locking migrant children in cages until they die. American capitalism continues to siphon out the culture from brown people like the oil we kill for, so that the bastardized version of eastern cultures may be guiltlessly and secularly enjoyed by the masses without ever having to confront the humanity of the foreign other, or rather the inhumanity of their own government’s policies.
The one good thing about this movie is that maybe the brown actors will now have the name recognition to pursue more meaningful projects. The greatest offense of “Aladdin” is being careless, and the brown boys and girls and gender nonconforming of this country deserve better. My overall review of “Aladdin” can honestly be summed up as, “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.”
It is the strength of both British and South Asian cinema that every few years, and with increasing regularity, a film comes along that is able to successfully and thoughtfully bridge the highs and lows of both cultures. With the recognisable cross-cultural DNA of films like “Bend it Like Beckham”, “Bride and Prejudice”and others before it, Shekhar Kapur brings to the silver screen an honest and comedic representation of East meets West with “What’s Love Got To Do With It” — an exploration of love and marriage across international norms.
Written and produced by Jemima Khan, the film draws from elements of her own experience of marrying then-Pakistani cricket star and now ex-Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and relocating to the country for 10 years.
“Particularly in the West, Pakistanis would quite often be seen as terrorists, fanatics and backwards,” says Khan, as she reminisces about her time spent in Pakistan over Zoom. “My experience of living in Pakistan was very colourful, vibrant, and fun. I always felt like the rom-com side of Pakistan was more surprising than anything else.”
A film not just about the heart, but with a lot of heart of its own, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” touches on South Asian families, culture, individuality, and marriages in the 21st century. Set in the UK and Pakistan, this is a feel-good and fun story about childhood best friends and neighbours, Zoe and Kazim, AKA Kaz. And as the narrative unfolds, new light is shone on their friendship and questions are asked about the cultural norms and practices we have grown to accept.
It isn’t your usual ‘boy-meets-girl’ tale. On the contrary, they’ve known each other forever; the fabric of their lives intertwined. Kaz is a British-Pakistani doctor of “marriageable” age, opting for an “assisted” marriage set in motion by his own desire rather than parental duress.
“I think we’ve replaced the term “arranged” with “assisted” because South Asian parents now trust their kids more to make the right decision for themselves,” said Shahzad Latif, sitting next to Lily James, who nods in agreement. “It’s still a process. Some parents may have more confidence in their kids than others, but we’re getting there.”
Zoe – played by Lily James – is a professional documentary maker living on an inexplicably fancy houseboat (bit of a stretch for somebody having difficulty funding projects, but, at this point, a crucial ingredient for London rom-coms). As a white British woman, her method of finding love isn’t one that involves parents or family.
“It was a no-brainer for me to be part of the script,” says a smiling James in response to whether any culture shocks were encountered during filming and table reads. “Pakistani culture is so rich and colourful, and it was important for me to showcase this side of the country. So no, no culture shocks per se, just more singing and dancing in comparison to British culture!”
Zoe’s camera is the vehicle through which the film examines Kaz’s “contractual love”, as she trawls dating apps while following her best friend down the assisted aisle.
Emma Thompson’s Cath plays the comedic matriarch to Zoe, eager to witness the conclusion of her daughter’s swiping days by being with someone suitable. She’s found a family in Shabana Azmi’s Aisha Khan – a more layered mum — one that is embracing both tradition and modernity. It would be fair to say that Azmi successfully sells cinema-goers on the difficulty of that struggle.
“Today’s society is slowly coming to terms with providing children the space they rightfully require and deserve to make decisions,” says Azmi, reflecting on how scripts and films have evolved over time. “Gone are the days when parents would blackmail their children into marrying the first person they come across. Just because they are their kids doesn’t mean they are actually children. They are adults with views and minds of their own.”
Kaz is then introduced to Maimoona (Sajal Aly); a shy introvert from Pakistan, unsure about the idea of moving permanently to London. She’s dealing with internal battles of her own; battles between personal desires and societal expectations.
“Maimoona may not have verbally said much, but her face said everything,” explains Aly, looking beautiful and radiant as ever. “She is torn between what she wants and what society silently shoves down at her and eventually, she goes with what the latter expects.”
The film navigates between London and a fabricated Lahore filmed in the suburbs of the British capital; a feat that comes as testament to the film’s production design. Kaz and Zoe’s jaunts across Lahore, backdropped by its magnificent architecture, set the stage for Pakistani music legends to shine, including the mesmerising voice of Rahet Fateh Ali Khan.
And if this wasn’t enough, Nitin Sawhney and Naughty Boy add further melody to the film’s music, as they talk about their experience of creating appropriate tunes such as the foot-thumping “Mahi Sona”.
“It was a great process and experience to create an appropriate language and expression of music which added elements and flavours to the film,” says the duo enthusiastically. “It’s also an ode to our South Asian heritage.”
Even though the tone of “What’s Love Got To Do With It” is distinctly feel-good, the film thoughtfully explores the unconventional ways that relationships may be built, and what multiculturalism can teach one another. Is it, in fact, more sensible to be practical about relationships? Is it possible to learn to love the person we’re with? Is love really the only ingredient needed for a successful marriage? Why was Kaz’s sister shunned for marrying outside of their culture? And do Western relationships draw more on the ideas of assisted partnerships than we realise?
A clever reference is drawn from the moment Prince Charles shattered many royal dreamers’ hearts with his dismissive “whatever in love means” comment upon his engagement to Princess Diana, thus proving that these notions may be closer to home in the West than one might believe.
James and Latif are a charismatic pair, with Zoe married to her independence and Kaz gently questioning her prejudices. The film is also a vivid demonstration of British talent, with Asim Chaudhry playing a hilarious yet questionable rishta uncle, comic duo Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen appearing as a pair of TV commissioners with a briefcase of ridiculous ideas, and Nikkita Chadha as the confrontational Baby — the film’s feisty rebel, in love with dancing.
“It’s incredible to be part of such a diverse and stellar cast,” smiles Chadha animatedly, while sipping on tea at Soho House in London. “My character is defiant and nonconformist — perfectly conflicting with the name “Baby “. I’m really excited for everyone to watch the film.”
Divorce is still stigmatised in South Asia — a theme often carefully avoided in desi films and television. Khan gently addresses it as a twist in the film – with a reminder that be it love or assisted marriage — amicable and mutual separations are a possibility.
As a complete package, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” deftly wraps up all the emotions associated with love and family in its joyful, musical, and vibrant 109-minute runtime. With its cast, music and direction, this classic rom-com is set to make you laugh, cry and, even more importantly, make you think about the multi-dimensional nature of love within and across cultures. The film is now showing in cinemas worldwide, and we highly recommend it.
Desk bound by day and travel bound all other times – Queenie thrives on her weekly dose of biryani and chilli paneer. She recently released her first book called The Poor Londoner, which talks about comical expat experiences people face worldwide. With degrees in Journalism and Creative Writing, her work and research on gender inequality in the travel industry is taught in universities across the globe. Her travels and everyday fails can be found on Instagram (@thepoorlondoner) and YouTube (The Poor Londoner).
Originally from Karachi, Pakistan and now blended into the hustle-bustle of London, Marium is a trainee technology consultant, by day and sometime also night, and also finishing her bachelors in Digital Innovation. In the midst of striving to be someone, she enjoys dreaming about the impossible (impossible according to desi standards and sometime Harry Potter impossible as well), and writing about them. She enjoys baking, decorating things and a cup of chai!
Weddings, huh? Talk about a stress fest. And for the bride, it’s like a 24/7 walk on eggshells. However, add in a paranoid and overprotective sister, and you’ve got a recipe for a completely different degree of drama. In “Polite Society,” Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) and her gang of clumsy pals take the phrase “till death do us part” to a whole new level as they plot to “steal” the bride — aka Ria’s own sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), during her shaadi reception. But with a wedding hall packed with guests, a mother-in-law from hell, and a groom with more shades of fraud than a rainbow, this heist is anything but smooth sailing.
It goes without saying but “Polite Society” comes with a cast of wacky characters, gut-busting one-liners, and an action-packed heist sequence, making it a must-watch for anyone who loves a good comedy. I mean who hasn’t dealt with some serious wedding drama, am I right?
Lead actress Kansara agrees wholeheartedly. “I definitely have!” she chuckles, as I catch up with her at Soho Hotel in London. Despite the rubbish weather outside, Kansara is a ray of sunshine with her infectious enthusiasm.
The minute I read the script, I thought to myself…wow, playing Ria is going to be one wild ride!
And wild is definitely the right word to describe her character. Ria is a British-Pakistani martial artist-in-training from London, determined to become a professional stuntwoman. Her sister, Lena, who dropped out of uni, often ends up being the guinea pig for filming Ria’s stunts for YouTube, including one lovingly dubbed “the fury.” She reveals
I’d never done martial arts before this film. The stunt training started from the day I got the role, and it was three to four times a week all the way until we finished filming. It was a seven-week period in total, and boy, was it physically demanding. Oh my God, I think I can add a whole new skills section to my CV! But on a serious note, it was so much fun and we had an amazing stunt team. They, including my stunt double, taught me so much. It was important to me to do my own stunts as much as possible, but also strike a healthy balance.
For South Asian women, who are often expected to be quiet and agreeable, all that punching and kicking on set must have been cathartic, right?
Honestly, it was like anger management at work! I got to kick and throw things around — it was the perfect balance.
What sets Kansara apart from other actors starting out in the industry is her ability to draw from her own life experiences to bring authenticity to her characters on screen. Her career began with a degree from UCL and a communications job at a pharmaceutical company. But today, her versatile range and unwavering commitment to her craft have propelled her to the forefront of British comedy, portraying defiant South Asian women we’d love to see in real life.
From my own experience as a South Asian woman, I’ve always been told to do what’s ‘proper’ and think twice before speaking up. Playing a character like Ria and putting myself in her shoes, I felt like I was doing and saying things that I wish I had done at her age. It was almost like living through her and speaking my mind about things I never did.
Without a doubt, every South Asian woman on this planet wishes she cared more about herself and less about what other people think.
Ria totally inspired me. If only I had her mindset when I was younger, my career path would have taken off way sooner instead of worrying about other people’s opinions.
The chemistry between the cast members on and off-screen is so apparent, especially the sisterhood between Ria and Lena. The wild adventures of a bride, and her paranoid maid of honour navigating through family drama, are bound to create some unforgettable moments on set.
We both confess our love and admiration for Nimra Bucha’s portrayal of Raheela, Lena’s evil mother-in-law and share a teenage fangirling moment:
I’m obsessed with that woman. There’s something terrifying yet ultra sexy about her character in “Polite Society” that’s mesmerising. I absolutely loved the dance sequence. As South Asians, we’ve all grown up watching Bollywood films and idolising Madhuri Dixit’s iconic dance moves. “Polite Society” gave me my Bollywood heroine moment, and it was a dream come true with the costumes and jewellery.
It’s definitely a unique experience for Kansara, considering her former career was worlds apart from entertainment. So, what advice does she have for aspiring actors who may secretly wish to pursue the same path, but are unsure of the next steps? Kansara advises, drawing from her character’s heist-planning skills.
I believe starting small and honing your craft is an underrated superpower. If you’re passionate about acting, make short-form videos, and build your portfolio. You never know who might be watching.
So, grab your popcorn and your sense of humour, and get ready for “Polite Society” — the film that proves that sometimes, the most polite thing to do is kick some butt and save the day. It released in cinemas on April 28th, and I highly recommend it.
For any of us who have siblings, the relationship with them can be one of the most fulfilling ones. And also one of the most bloody frustrating. No one can quite stroke the fire like someone who knows you extremely well, or sometimes not, but have a familial bond with that neither one of you chose. In “Polite Society,“directed by Nida Manzoor, sisters Ria Khan and Lena Khan’s loving, sweet, and sometimes tumultuous relationship takes center stage.
Played delightfully by Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya, respectively, the evolution of their relationship is one of the film’s greatest and simultaneously weakest points. It’s also pretty cool to see two South Asian actresses in an action-comedy movie — how refreshing it is to mention the art of choreography and praise it in regards to fight sequences vs. dance sequences for a film centered on two South Asian women — that itself shows progress.
Set in London, Ria is an aspiring stunt woman who already shows massive talent in martial arts. She looks up to her older sister Lena, who is enrolled in art school and, also holds remarkable potential in a somewhat less traditionally acceptable field. Their relationship starts off as supportive and sweet with no inclinations of jealousy or resentment that sometimes plagues sisterly bonds. But this also means that they are quite protective of one another, almost to the detriment of their well wishes for each other.
This all happens when Lena gets engaged after dropping out of art school. Ria feels betrayed. They were supposed to be on this journey together in fighting for their dreams. Ria decides that she knows what’s best for her sister and enlists the help of her friends to rescue the damsel in distress from her own wedding. Her deep animosity towards the prospect of Lena getting married is also fueled by Lena’s fiancé and his mother acting extremely suspiciously. The twist that ultimately brings the two sisters back together is both shocking and weirdly somewhat progressive in the motive behind the villain’s origin story. But the twist, unfortunately, is too ambitious for the movie as it tacks on another genre and theme earnestly, but still clunkily.
“Polite Society” tackles not only what it means to fight for one’s dreams but also what it means to have just one ardent supporter. As Lady Gaga famously said, “There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you but all it takes is one and it just changes your whole life.” Well, Ria’s Bradley Cooper was her very own sister who seemed to abandon her, and her faith in her, when she chose a different path. For Lena, the film opened up the question of marriage and the weight it bears in the life of a South Asian woman. Ria’s lack of understanding of the pressure it places on Lena is the start of the change in their relationship — the start of Ria’s coming of age and the start of Lena settling firmly into her adulthood.
Standouts from the cast include Ria’s best friends, played by Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, who commit to the story and characters with such hilarity and conviction. They add the lightheartedness and playfulness the film needs, and it is refreshing that never once do they use Ria’s cultural background as a way to make fun of her or dismiss her.
It is also heartening to see Lena and Ria’s parents being some of the most supportive South Asian parents seen on screen. At the end of the day, it is not the external family pressure that impacts the decisions made by the sisters but rather their own satisfaction, or lack thereof, with their own lives that become the driving force of their actions.
“Polite Society” is written and directed by a South Asian woman for South Asian women, and is definitely worth a watch when it releases in theaters this April.