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At this year’s Sundance, one of the standout films was writer-director Nida Manzoor’s feature directorial debut, Polite Society. Blending up genres, Polite Society is an action-packed comedy about two British Pakistani sisters, Ria and Lena Khan, and Ria’s indignant will to fight for her hopes and dreams – and her sister’s – no matter whose butt she has to kick.
Ria (played by first-time leading lady, Priya Kansara) is an aspiring stunt woman, who enlists the help of her older sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), to film her antics for her YouTube channel. While the headstrong Ria is deadset on breaking into the industry, her sister is struggling with recapturing her creativity after dropping out of art school. It’s around this time that the charming and successful Salim Shah (Akshay Khanna) sets his sights on Lena, and it seems a wedding is inevitable. Unfortunately, Ria is convinced that marriage is the last thing her sister needs, and Salim’s family, especially his mother, Raheela (Nimra Bucha), are evil.
Following Polite Society’s world premiere at Sundance, Manzoor, Kansara, and Arya dropped by the Collider Studio in Park City to discuss their film with Collider’s Steve Weintraub. During their interview, Kansara and Arya share their first impressions of the script, discuss the physical aspects of their roles like scaling buildings and learning kung fu, and Manzoor declares Kansara the next Tom Cruise for performing her own stunts. They discuss the editing process, the many different iterations of the script, how test screenings helped “land improvements,” and building up to that “batshit” third act. They also talk about the nearly-all women cast and crew, forming a sisterhood on set, and what’s next for Manzoor. For all of this and more, check out the interview in the player above, or read the full transcript below.
COLLIDER: I really want to say how much I loved your movie, and I’m so happy that it got great reviews here at Sundance and it played huge. Before we get into talking about it, I think we have to talk about the most important thing, which is, someone met Anne Hathaway.
PRIYA KANSARA: I met Anne Hathaway guys, I’m never gonna shower again. She hugged me.
That’s one of the things I love about Sundance and doing a studio is when people meet people that they’re fans of. Hopefully, she’ll see your movie, but is it weird like meeting someone like that? I don’t know how many people you’ve met that you’re a fan of and then all of a sudden you’re just meeting them.
KANSARA: Yeah, and it doesn’t happen very often. I mean, I feel lucky to work with people that I admire. So I remember meeting these guys for the first time and being like, “Oh my God, be chill. This is going to be fine.”
NIDA MANZOOR: But are we Anne Hathaway, though? No.
KANSARA: No, not really. I love you guys…
The trailer is online for the film so people can get a taste of it, but most people watching this interview won’t have seen the movie yet. So how have you been describing it to friends and family?
MANZOOR: I’ve been describing it with great difficulty because it’s a genre-bending, mad movie. But I would say it’s an action-comedy about two sisters, and it’s really their love story, and it’s they’re kind of breaking up and coming together, with a bit of heist thrown in, with a bit of kung fu in there. It’s a big blend, but ultimately it’s a film about sisterhood, I’d say.
I can’t imagine what it was like for the two of you reading the script for the first time. I watch a lot of movies, [and] I have not seen this movie before. So, what was it like for the two of you reading this for the first time, or hearing about it?
KANSARA: It was bonkers. It’s kind of mad. I was laughing a lot reading it and I think the story of the sisters, and the fact that it is a love story between them, it really spoke to me. I felt like I related to it and I understood it, and I connected to it instantly. So, I was like, “I need, I need to be a part of this. This is so cool.”
RITU ARYA: Well, I had worked with Nida a couple of times before, so even before reading it, I was like, “I know I want to be part of this.” Then reading it, it was just as crazy as I thought it would be, which I loved. Yeah, super funny, heartwarming, and [I was] really drawn to my character, excited to see what I could bring, like [to] bring her off the page. I just knew it would be such a fun shoot.
Also, because of what you guys do on screen, it’s not just delivering lines. It is a three-dimensional role in every possible way. I can’t imagine the physicality of doing the shoot and everything that went on. Can you talk a little bit about the behind-the-scenes?
KANSARA: Oh my gosh, I feel like I completed an entire CV in this job. I scaled buildings, did dances, and learned kung fu. I feel like I checked so many boxes, riding bikes and like, you name it. So it was so fun.
There was a lot of prep involved, and we did a lot of stunt and fight practice in the build-up to it. It was class around 6/7 weeks before we started shooting. So it was an immediate deep-dive into everything because I wanted to do as much of it as possible, but it was so much fun.
MANZOOR: I will say that Priya is the next Tom Cruise. She did so many of her own stunts. And on set sometimes, last five minutes of the day, we’re all like, “We gotta get the shot, we gotta get the shot.” She’s just like, “Teamwork makes the dream work,” and then gets in the wire and does a backflip and I was just like, “What is she– did she do it?” And we’re all like kind of in a shock, and she’s just incredible. I’ve got to say that, to put that out there.
What was it like?
ARYA: Oh, it was amazing. It was such a fun experience. I think the atmosphere on set was just like a playground. We were just singing and dancing and fooling around, but in a professional way. Nida just creates this amazing atmosphere that’s full of love and support, and I think that’s what was so special about it is that the cast just felt like family, and so it was really easy. It didn’t feel like work. We just came and we played with each other.
MANZOOR: Not in a weird way.
ARYA: Not in a creepy way!
One of the things that I really enjoyed about the film is your choices with editing. I liked how you cut, it wasn’t smooth transitions, and I really dug that. So can you talk about how you came up with that? Was that in the script, or did you figure all that out in the editing room?
MANZOOR: Some of it was in the script, some of it I’ve got to give credit to my editor, Robbie Morrison. I’m sure he’ll watch this, he loves Collider. I think a lot of it we found in post and it just took fine-tuning [like] with any comedy. So much of it was editing, recutting, putting it up in front of audiences, seeing if it lands, [and] going back to the drawing board. Yeah, it was a process.
This film has gone through so many iterations. It’s been 10 years since I wrote the first draft to now, so it’s just been constantly evolving. I’ve been able to gain skills as a comedy writer and improve my skill set. So I feel like I’ve been able to hone in on how I want the film to play, but also working with incredible collaborators [that are] not only actors who deliver the lines with amazing timing, but also just the crew across the board. It makes my writing look good.
ARYA: And I think, also, with the crew and [a] majority of the cast, there were so many women on set that something felt really special about that too. It’s like the team that you brought in, it just felt like so much empowerment for us, and it created like a sisterhood onset as well.
That’s one of the things I was so excited to see is that you don’t generally see this this kind of film being made with women kicking ass like that. That’s one of the reasons why I thought it was such a special film. One more editing question, if you don’t mind, how did it actually change in the editing room in ways you weren’t expecting?
MANZOOR: Oh man, so much. And I actually really appreciate doing test screenings. It’s not like I’m trying to pander to audiences, but it was finding out where things were landing, where I could improve, where I could bring audiences with me. Because oftentimes, it was like needing a music cue to help the edit, or having to edit [and] go into slow motion to really stylize a moment so it didn’t feel too brutal.
You know, a lot of the editing was actually to finesse the tone, as well as finding how things landed. But you know, a lot of the comedy, some of the biggest laughs, were unintended, which I don’t want to admit. But sometimes it’s just out of your hands.
ARYA: It was really weird watching it yesterday night, and the audience [was] laughing at bits I thought were like quite heartwarming, and I’m like, “What is this, what’s going on?”
KANSARA: “This is really intense.”
I’m curious which scenes these were, but I want to ask, because I believe it’s in the trailer, but you guys are eating a burger in a scene. I love talking to actors about eating scenes because they can be challenging because you have multiple takes, and do you actually chew the food? Do you swallow the food? Like are you hungry?
ARYA: I’m a huge fan of eating scenes. I’m like, “Get me the food. This is the best excuse just pig out.” Yeah, and I love watching actors eat onscreen. I’m like, “Yes, bite that burger.” I think even with that cheeseburger, you were like, “Really go for it.” And then we did, and she was like, “Tone it down, that was disgusting, I feel sick.” So, I think she used the toned-down version.
KANSARA: I think the first one was a little too gross for her.
MANZOOR: I was like, “You guys, no. Reign it in, reign it in!”
You touched on the tone a little bit. It starts in a certain way and you’re building toward what this film becomes, and it’s one of the reasons why I dug it is that it doesn’t follow the conventional structure. It moves to its own rhythm, which, of course, you have to find. In the editing room and when you’re making it, it’s not easy. The third act becomes more… I’m trying to talk without talking spoilers.
MANZOOR: Yeah, you know, the third act is where I wanted everything to be like batshit. Like, we kicked it up, we turned it up to 11, and I knew I had to build to that point. So it’s always just trying to make sure each act, each moment, we’re just pushing it more, we’re just pushing it more. So by the time we get there, the audience is sort of primed for insanity. And again, like you say, you know, it just took a lot of work in the edit to find it. It was there on the page, but really in the edit, with the help of the music, with the help of the stylized costume, with the help of just everyone, like the design, everything working together to just kind of push it to that final act.
You also have titles. I’m curious, was that always in the script? How did you decide you wanted to do that?
MANZOOR: You know, the titles weren’t in the script. I knew I wanted the film to feel like a tale, to feel like some sort of fable, but like an insane one. When we started putting the titles in, the chapter headings, it just added a sense of comedy, a playfulness. Again, it helped lighten the tone, helped set the tone, and that was something we found in the edit. And actually, writing those titles was one of the most fun… a whole wall in the edit suite was just like insane titles.
This is like your first real big role. I’m sure you had some inclination of what making a movie like this would be about, or what it would be like, but what ended up surprising you about the process and being a lead in a movie like this?
KANSARA: Oh my, everything was so new to me. I don’t know if I found anything super shocking. I really tried to look into it as much beforehand and reach out to people for advice, and see what I could gain from outside, just to prep myself as well as I could.
Also, I think the credit of feeling comfortable really just goes to the crew and production, and all the cast. I just felt so supported, like nobody made me feel like I had to worry, or that there was so much pressure on my shoulders to have to deliver, and be “number one on the call sheet,” like, “what does this mean?” Nobody ever made me feel like that, and it just was so easy. I do what I love every single day. So you just come in, you have the best time, and you don’t mind working crazy hard. It doesn’t even feel like you’re working, just like playing. But I really was so determined to be a sponge. I felt like it was the only way to kind of eliminate and counteract the imposter syndrome that I was feeling the entire way through.
I remember sitting in the table read, and it was the first time I was like, “Oh my god, I am the least experienced person in this room and I so desperately want to feel that I’m on a level playing field with all of my peers, I want to be able to deliver for them.” And I just knew that the only way that I could do this was to use this opportunity and learn from all of these incredible people. I admire their careers and their talent, so what a better situation to learn it? So cool.
MANZOOR: And I got to say, you know, Priya is number one on the call sheet, is a new actor, but whenever she walked on set, she just lifted the entire crew, entire cast. She would say “hello, good morning” to the grip, to the sparks, just would speak to everyone, and it made everyone raise their game, and made me raise my game. You know, all these grizzled, tired film people are like, “Ugh,” and then Priya’s a grateful, joyful presence and we’re like, “Come on guys, we’re lucky to do this job.” It was just a reminder that like, “Hey, we don’t have to be moody and sad.”
ARYA: Also, can I just say she was so super confident. Like you’d never think that you were the least experienced person. It was like we were learning from you too. It was amazing.
KANSARA: Such a love fest. I’m here for it.
I read something – and this could be very wrong so I apologize –I read that you were working at a pharmacy and then decided that you wanted to go to acting school. Is this true or not true?
KANSARA: It’s like sort of… not really. I worked in healthcare, like communications, I worked with pharmaceutical companies. So I think the pharmacy thing was like a derivation, but yeah, I studied science. I did a normal office, 9-6, Monday to Friday, you know? But you could have asked me when I was four years old, “What do you want to be?” And I would have said I wanted to be an actress, and it’s the one thing that I’ve kept constant in my life, even if it was like an after-school thing or like, you know, joining clubs or whatever.
So, I studied acting part-time in the evenings for three years, whilst I worked for three years. And then, finally, I was like, “I don’t know why I’m not doing the thing that I want to be doing,” and seven months later I got the call, so that was pretty cool.
It’s amazing actually because acting is a lottery sometimes, you know what I mean? I’m curious for you, what this experience has been like when you compare it to [The Umbrella Academy] and other things you’ve worked on?
ARYA: I think I’ll always do the same sort of like work, whether it’s a low or high-budget movie, or a play, or whatever. So for that it never feels different, but for this, like I said, it’s the team that’s behind it and the energy just felt so special and easy. I think you can feel that in the film, so I think that’s really the takeaway from it. That was different about this one.
You obviously hit a home run with this, and I’m curious if you have other scripts. What are you thinking about in terms of what you want to do next?
MANZOOR: Oh, mate, I mean, I’ve got We Are Lady Parts Series 2, which I’m doing next and I’m very much enjoying. But you know, I just had such a blast doing genre, doing action. I want to do more action movies. I want more cool women of color at the center. Like I’ve got this big historical epic I want to do set in ancient Iraq.
Yeah, so I have big ideas which I’ve been putting in the drawer because no one’s going to give me the money to make this film. Let’s just keep that there. Now I’m like, “Guys, guys, guys! Somebody throw money at me!” Yeah, and you know, just plugging away and hoping to get to do more cool movies with great people.
Special thanks to our 2023 partners at Sundance including presenting partner Saratoga Spring Water and supporting partners Marbl Toronto, EMFACE, Sommsation, Hendrick’s Gin, Stella Artois, mou, and the all-electric vehicle, Fisker Ocean.
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