April 17, 2023
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It’s hard not to feel pure joy and delight when talking with writer-director Nida Manzoor and listening to her describe everything from her childhood film and TV influences to all the big ideas she’s cooking up for the future.
Joy and delight are certainly at the center of her two biggest projects so far: “We Are Lady Parts,” her buoyant Peacock comedy series about a group of young Muslim women who form a punk band — and now, her debut feature film “Polite Society,” which premieres in theaters on April 28.
In the film, protagonist Ria (Priya Kansara) is a British Pakistani teen aspiring to be a stunt performer in movies. Her parents are about to marry off her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) to, as Ria describes him, “a rich Mr. Darcy wanker.” To try to stop the wedding, Ria and her friends stage a heist. As that description suggests, “Polite Society” is a fun, bold and inventive blend of genres: everything from action to modern-day Jane Austen to coming-of-age, and much, much more.
Manzoor’s assured feature directorial debut feels like the kind of movie only she could make. It’s also the culmination of her years of writing and directing in TV, across many different genres, from small, intimate comedies to the legendary BBC sci-fi series “Doctor Who.” In fact, Manzoor, 33, wrote the first draft of “Polite Society” more than a decade ago, when she was first trying to break into filmmaking in her early 20s. But as she soon discovered, at that time, “nobody wanted to make a crazy genre film with a bunch of South Asians in it,” especially from a newcomer.
“I suppose I didn’t see how my film would ever exist, in a way, because I thought: to do a fun action comedy, it’d have to star, like, Ryan Reynolds,” she said. “It couldn’t have a South Asian teenage girl. I was like, ‘Maybe these two things can’t come together.’”
Even now, she’s in a bit of disbelief that it finally got made. “For a long time it was like, ‘Oh, I just don’t know if the industry is going to do it.’ And then, like, ‘Shit, the tides have turned,’” she said. “Even when I watch ‘Polite,’ I’m like, ‘How the…?’ There was a point where everyone in town had said no to ‘Polite Society,’ and it really knocked my confidence.”
The film was greenlighted thanks to the success of “We Are Lady Parts,” which premiered in 2021. She wrote the show after feeling demoralized by some of the offers she was getting, like being asked to co-write a project with a white male writer “and just be the brown person who can give that point of view and the rubber-stamping of his stuff.” Similarly, she was demoralized by the one-dimensional portrayals of Muslim women on screen, such as stories with “a misery porn vibe,” which bore no resemblance to her life.
“I’d just been asked to do lots of really annoying shows, being asked to write dramas about Muslim women being oppressed, long-suffering,” she said. “The annoyance of having been asked to write all this stuff that wasn’t my experience of being a Muslim woman made me create ‘Lady Parts.’”
As with “Polite Society,” when she started pitching “We Are Lady Parts,” she met a lot of resistance. “‘We Are Lady Parts’ got turned down basically everywhere, except for one place, and that was Channel 4 and then Peacock,” she said. “It was a lot of people being like, ‘I don’t think we can do this. Is this offensive? Are people going to get upset?’ A lot of stuff where it was like, ‘No, we don’t want to take the heat from something like this. This could have a lot of heat.’ And it was just really stressful. I’m like, ‘This is just a Muslim woman expressing joy!’”
That sense of joy and the delightful combination of genres in Manzoor’s work make total sense, given her childhood of watching a range of work, including sitcoms, Hong Kong kung fu movies and four-hour Bollywood epics. She says she’s always been drawn to big spectacle movies, where watching them feels like an event.
Growing up, Manzoor consumed a voracious diet of movies and TV that shaped her sensibilities. She tuned in to “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Simpsons” and British classics like “Fawlty Towers” and “Blackadder.” Born in London, she spent 10 years in Singapore due to her dad’s job in business, and then moved back to London in her teens.
“In Singapore, I was watching these amazing Singaporean sitcoms that I became obsessed with. And my dad was a big action movie fan, so we’d always be watching action. I remember watching ‘Die Hard’ and lots of Jackie Chan movies: the ’90s ones, like ‘Rush Hour’ and that kind of thing,” she said. “It was just a kind of real hodgepodge, a mishmash of stuff. I think it all just shaped the kind of stuff I love.”
She studied politics at University College London, and her parents hoped she’d become a lawyer. But her real passion was writing and directing short films in her spare time: “I just thought: ‘I just don’t want to be a lawyer. I just don’t. I can’t.’” After graduation, she was determined to figure out how to become a director. Her first job was as a runner for a post-production company in London. While she remembers the job as “pretty rough,” including doing menial tasks and “dealing with badly behaved execs,” she loved being around creative people, which fueled her to keep going.
She charted a path of applying for grants and contests in the U.K., where much of the arts are supported by public funding and publicly funded institutions like the BBC and the British Film Institute. The script for her first short film, “Arcade,” won a BBC screenwriting competition in 2013. Centering on two girls playing in an arcade, the film was shot in a day. Her dad drove the van with all of her equipment, and her mom made food for the crew.
“It’s still one of my favorite things I’ve done. I was just trying to be like, ‘This is my tone: very distilled, heightened genre comedy,’” she said. “And in many ways, people do look at that short film as like, ‘Oh, we’ve got you from that.’ And those short films were things that I think really helped me get to make the stuff in my voice, and sort of find it as well.”
Manzoor dreamed of getting “Polite Society” made, but had a lot of frustrating conversations with executives who thought it was too this or not enough that.
“I realized a lot of people I was developing ‘Polite’ with weren’t into it and were trying to push it into being a bit more serious. I’m like, ‘Why won’t you let it be silly?’” she said. She even remembers people telling her: “‘My influences are too male.’ I’m like, ‘Who has been making cinema?!’”
She put the script aside, finding more of an opening in TV. After the success of her short films, she got jobs writing for several BBC kids shows, where she loved the collaborative nature of the writers rooms. Her short films also opened up opportunities to direct TV pilots. Many of those jobs weren’t in her own voice. But she found that working on other people’s stories was a great learning experience: figuring out how to manage different styles of comedy or how to land on the right tone for a given story.
In 2017, Manzoor directed the pilot of “Enterprice,” a BBC comedy series created by and starring Kayode Ewumi, inspired by elements of his life as a young Black British man from South London.
“It was his show, and I was bringing the visual language for the world. So I learned so much from seeing what he needed,” she said. “I learned a lot in the art of collaboration, so when it came to making my own thing, of seeing where I can bring collaborators and trust them. And he was really trusting, which I also found really amazing — like, ‘This is his story, and he’s trusting me to direct it.’”
When “Enterprice” got picked up to series in 2018, Manzoor directed the first season. In 2019, she landed a huge gig: directing two episodes of “Doctor Who,” which aired in early 2020. She again approached it as an opportunity to build new skills, particularly given the scale of the long-running time travel series. “I really saw it as, like, ‘I’m going to learn some shit. I’m going to learn about the machine.’”
Being on the set of such a monumental show helped her combat her impostor syndrome by simply “being good at the job.”
“There’s huge crews, crews of hundreds, big visual effects — I hadn’t done big visual effects — aliens, a really ambitious schedule,” she said. “I learned a lot more about having the kind of annoying dance that sometimes you have to do in proving yourself, if you are a young, female, person of color. I feel like sometimes you’ve just got to prove yourself in a way that a man, a white man, a middle-aged man doesn’t.”
“Doing that show gave me confidence, like: ‘I can do this. I’m good at the job.’ It’s not that I need to swagger around and shout. I can still be me. I’m quite a quiet, introverted person, so I don’t need to pretend. And doing that made me realize: I can be me and direct.”
During that time, Channel 4, which had broadcast the pilot of “We Are Lady Parts” in 2018, greenlighted the show for a full series. It premiered in 2021 to major acclaim, including winning a Peabody Award and a BAFTA TV Award for best comedy writing.
The show was produced by Working Title, the company led by veteran British producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner. Bevan asked Manzoor if she had any movie ideas, and finally, she dusted off her “Polite Society” script. To her pleasant surprise, Bevan encouraged her to lean into the boldness of her vision, unlike those frustrating rejections years earlier.
She has come a long way since she was 21, when she wrote the original script on free screenwriting software on her computer. This time around, she ended up rewriting much of it, incorporating what she had learned in the intervening years.
The script she wrote at 21 “was biting off too much and wanting to do too much,” Manzoor said. “I feel lucky that I got to be more experienced, especially with tone. Tone is hard, but it’s the most fun thing. You get to twist it and turn it and move it and play with it, and ‘Lady Parts’ helped me find that.”
Manzoor has plenty on her plate right now, including writing the second season of “We Are Lady Parts.” Beyond that, she wants to continue making the kinds of movies she loved growing up: big spectacle movies, but with “women of color at the heart of them.” She also wants to make a musical someday, “something like Anxiety: The Musical.”
“For a long time, I felt like, when you’re outside the door, it feels impossible to open the door,” she said. “And now, I feel like I’m in, which is incredibly exciting.”
At the same time, there’s always that anxiety of whether that progress is here to stay and the fear that it could all go away at any moment.
“What if this is a dream? What if someone pulls my pants down, and it was all a big joke? Because it still feels so new that we are even allowed to take up space in this way, and to have a voice in this way, and to not just be pandering to stereotypes. It’s all very new,” she said. “I feel like I’m in. But I’m still like: How do I stay here? And if I relax for 20 minutes, will it all be gone? Like, ‘Sorry. You left, so you’re now out.’”
She hopes to become the kind of filmmaker who produces decade after decade of hits, a career longevity that historically has only been afforded to white male directors: the Steven Spielbergs and Martin Scorseses of the world.
“Will I get to be like Scorsese in my 70s and be popping out massively long movies, and everyone loves it? I want to be that. I want to be an old filmmaker. I don’t want to just be gone,” she said. “So I still harbor slight anxiety, whilst also feeling extremely lucky to be here.”