Priya Kansara spent her pandemic becoming a South Asian action star

Priya Kansara, star of “Polite Society.” MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Mary Inhea Kang

NEW YORK – Two years ago, as the pandemic came and waned and came again, Priya Kansara found herself feeling lucky that she was already living back at home with her parents in London, and had been since she completed university. It was perhaps the most inopportune time to decide to quit her communications job at a pharmaceuticals company and pursue her dream of becoming an actress.

The TV, film and theater industries were in disarray. Productions were barely functioning; auditions were taking place on tape. And for a British Indian kid who had studied molecular biology, there’s a whole other layer of courage and defying cultural pressure that comes with leaving a stable job in health care for the vagaries of showbiz – especially when your whole family is under the same roof, and you can feel them questioning your decision every day. But at least she wasn’t paying rent.

Cut to what may be the greatest pandemic transition story ever. Now she’s the star of “Polite Society,” a raucous, Edgar-Wright-meets-“Kill Bill” genre-mashup action-comedy about a pair of British-Pakistani Muslim sisters, in which she plays a teenage aspiring stuntwoman – and did almost all of her own stunts. The film’s writer-director, Nida Manzoor, affectionately calls her “the next Tom Cruise.”

“I wanted to try everything,” Kansara, 26, tells me while perched in a leather armchair in the cafe of New York’s Soho Grand Hotel, in between premieres and photo shoots. “Our stunt coordinator, Crispin Layfield, was like, ‘I know most actresses don’t do this, but if you want to be chucked into the wall, we can try it.’ And I was like, ‘I’m down, let’s do this!'”

There was only one stunt Layfield didn’t let her do, in a scene near the outset of filming when her character gets in a “wire-fu” scrap with the school bully. “I did not throw Priya into a cabinet, even though she was desperate to be thrown into a cabinet,” says Layfield. “I had to draw the line. I said: ‘Look Priya, we can’t throw you into the cabinet and injure you at the beginning of the film. We’ve got lots of shooting to do.’ And so she accepted that, and we had the double do the cabinet, but Priya still ran up the wall and did the whole rest of the fight.”

Kansara is 5-foot-2, with a grin so wide it would put Jim Carrey’s to shame and a natural ease in talking to strangers that probably freaked her parents out when she was growing up. But it’s great for doing endless press junkets. Even staying at a hotel as opulent as the Soho Grand “is beyond anything I could imagine in my life,” she says, but this is her life now. She’s wearing a black-and-orange patterned vintage dress her stylist picked out and her personal Doc Martens, which she had swapped with the Louboutins that were hurting her feet. Driving through Times Square on the day we met, she says, she couldn’t resist asking the car to pull over so she and co-star Ritu Arya could take a picture.

Priya Kansara as Ria Khan in Nida Manzoor’s “Polite Society.” MUST CREDIT: Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features

Going from an office job to landing a lead on any movie would have been major, but “Polite Society” is, in a lot of ways, Kansara’s story. Like writer-director Manzoor’s previous project, the British TV hit “We Are Lady Parts,” about an all-female Muslim punk band, “Polite Society” is about young women trying to both embrace and buck against tradition to follow their artistic dreams. Kansara’s character, Ria Khan, spends all of her time practicing stunt moves for her video channel and will do anything to stop her older sister, a painter played by Arya, from giving up on her art and marrying a handsome doctor whom Ria thinks is “a smarmy wanker.”

At its heart, “Police Society” is a movie about hard-won sisterly love, with loads of “Matrix”-style martial-arts battles and shades of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and horror films such as “Get Out” – with Kansara at the center of it all, complete with Bollywood dancing and jokes about periods and flying spin kicks in beautiful embroidered desi fabrics. Seeing it is a full-on theatrical event; it played like a funny, feminist MMA fight to the very vocal audience I saw it with at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

It’s telling, though, that critics often have been evoking the early 2000s soccer comedy “Bend It Like Beckham” when grasping for cultural touchstones to explain the kind of appeal “Polite Society” might have – a movie that came out 20 years ago and made a bigger superstar of Keira Knightley than the lead, Parminder Nagra.

In 2023, though, the distributors are clearly betting big on this movie with three virtually unknown Brown women at its center, giving it a global wide release. When Kansara takes the Tube, posters of her and Arya doing karate poses in an anarkali and a lehenga (traditional, long South Asian dresses) are plastered everywhere. Hasan Minhaj and Riz Ahmed came to the New York premiere, then shouted it out on their Instagrams and bought out theaters in New York and L.A. for fans to see it free. (“It’s an absolute banger. … I’ve never seen anything like it before,” said Ahmed.) Malala was at the London premiere, calling the film “clever and captivating,” praising Manzoor for her “complex portrayals of South Asian Muslim women” and hailing Kansara and Arya for their “dynamite” performances

“Oh my God. I was like: ‘Have I won a Nobel Peace Prize? Like indirectly, because I’m in the same room as her? Is that a thing?'” says Kansara.

If you had asked her as a kid, Kansara would have told you she wanted to be an actress. But coming from a family where she had a joint household with her parents, immigrant granddad, younger brother, aunt, uncle and two cousins – and where everyone was in business, science or teaching – it just didn’t seem like a pursuable occupation. “I didn’t feel that the industry was a place that felt accessible to me,” says Kansara. “I come from a community, and even within my circles of friends, where that’s just not a traditional career path.”

So, she studied science and did university plays and Bollywood dance shows on the side – even dancing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe a couple of times. When she entered the workforce, she had to squeeze in acting classes in the evening, which she did for three years, auditioning for every commercial and every open casting call she remotely thought she could get. “You’ve got to hustle,” says Kansara. “I went for it because I really wanted this.”

Kansara didn’t reach an “Office Space” kind of breaking point with her job, per se. “It was more of a personal breaking point, actually, with so many things going on in family and life. And I think I realized how many people took covid as a bit of a wake-up call,” she says. “You’re sitting at home working stupid hours at your desk, and it’s like, all I’ve done today is go from my bed to my desk to the kitchen, back to my desk again. And none of this is how I want to spend my life, you know?”

In April 2021, she “plucked up the courage” and gave notice – but only after she had signed with an agent she met through acting class, and felt like she had saved enough from three years of working that she would have a financial cushion to fall back on if it took ages to book a job.

Priya Kansara, star of “Polite Society.” MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Mary Inhea Kang

The cushion wasn’t all that necessary, though. She landed a part as a debutante on the second season of “Bridgerton” – which featured two British Indian sisters at the center of the series – off her first audition as a full-time actor. Then came a small part in the Netflix fantasy series “The Bastard Son & the Devil Himself.” And within seven months of leaving health care, she got asked to send in a tape for “Polite Society.”

By the time Kansara read, Manzoor actually had been trying to make “Polite Society” for a decade. It had been inspired by a moment when she was 14, and her cool older sister, Sanya, now a musician and spiritual coach in Berlin, tripped Nida onto the wood floor during a sparring session in front of their entire karate class. The pain and humiliation, coupled with being really mad at her sister, made her want to do an action movie about the uniquely fraught experience of being a teenage girl, when your body feels like it’s attacking you, and everything seems like it’s the end of the world. “It’s all so horrendous and gory and violent,” says Manzoor. “You’re going through all kinds of insane, painful body changes of, like, getting boobs. I mean, the goriest thing I’d seen was my first period, and it hurts!” Once “We Are Lady Parts” became a phenomenon in Britain, her longtime passion project was immediately greenlit.

Despite huge open casting calls, though, she couldn’t find her Ria. The movie hinges on whether you want to spend 100 minutes with that central character, and the actor needed to be able to dance and fight, and be funny plus warm enough so that the audience would root for her even when she’s being annoying and making bad choices – plus be South Asian.

Kansara had actually read for a smaller part but soon got asked to audition for the lead, and was almost immediately given the role. “I remember crying so much when I got the part. It was like the maddest thing in the world,” says Kansara. “I think I was hoovering the house in my pajamas, and I’m like, This is the most unglamorous life ever. And I pick up this phone call, and it’s, like, within that phone call – it felt like my whole life changed.”

“Finding Priya was honestly the moment when I realized I had a film,” says Manzoor. “Here’s someone that we hadn’t seen before, and she just feels like a movie star, the way she lights up the screen. So I was just beyond excited. Every day on set, I was just thanking her constantly. It was almost a bit weird.”

Kansara had been cast just six weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin, which was the exact amount of time Manzoor had set aside for her lead actress to learn martial arts – which Kansara had never done before. Training three or four times a week with Layfield and fight arranger Rob Lock began immediately. “She just had this keenness,” says Lock. Showed up early. Never complained about her bruises (or “war wounds,” as they called them). Like Ria, she was determined to do a flying spin kick, no matter how many times she fell. When (spoiler!) she finally did, everyone got emotional. “She has the insane kind of South Asian girl work ethic, which I would recognize,” says Manzoor.

One fight scene everyone remembers is when they were up against the clock on a Friday evening with five minutes left on the day. They needed to get a shot of Ria running up the wall and doing an insane backflip over a deranged “auntie” who’s attacking her at a wedding – in a traditional desi costume while wearing tons of special-occasion jewelry.

“We were just so up against it, and Priya’s like, ‘Get me in the harness!'” says Manzoor. First take, she ran straight into the wall. Second take, her head got caught on something, and it wasn’t usable. Third take, with 30 seconds to go, she nailed it. “We lost our minds,” says Manzoor. “It was just, it was such a badass moment. And I was like, ‘Yes, you’re an action star!'”

“I think I shocked myself on it because I started celebrating before we yelled, ‘Cut,'” says Kansara. “Sometimes women don’t recognize how much physical strength we have in ourselves. And I’m really strong.”



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