Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society brings a witty, incisive and dark edge to our favourite 90s fashion-fest!
Both Polite Society, and the 90s cult classic coming-of-age romantic comedy Clueless, are fresh takes on Jane Austen’s Emma – as they explore social mores through the overconfident yet inexperienced eyes of young women – learning to navigate the world of gossip, social hierarchy and courtship, and realizing that youth, wealth and beauty will take you far but cannot rearrange individuals to your liking.
Clueless follows the well-intentioned Cher Horowitz, the most popular and beautiful girl at Beverly Hills High, as she and her friend Dionne attempt to ‘makeover’ an awkward new student to fit into the ‘popular crew’.
In Polite Society, a dark comedy of manners – beautiful, bored South Delhi heiress- Ania Khurana seeks excitement in her Prithviraj Road cocoon – the way Cher Horowitz did in Beverly Hills High School. But the Polite Society of Lutyen’s Delhi is a lot harder to manipulate than the ‘popular kids’, teachers and ‘loadies’ of Beverly Hills.
Is Ania Khurana the millennial Cher Horowitz, or, as Cher would say, “UGH, AS IF!
Ania and Cher both share the massive privilege (and burden) of endless choices.
‘It was not unusual for Ania to contemplate drastic hypothetical choices in this way. The comforts of her own life meant that she was seldom called upon to discriminate or restrict: in the Khurana household, they usually ordered four of everything.’
Ania and Cher both have admirable charitable instincts.
“Excuse me, but I have donated many expensive Italian outfits to Lucy… And as soon as I get my licence, I fully intend to brake for animals, and I have contributed many hours helping two lonely teachers find romance.”
‘Along with her acts of mercy at Dr Bhatia’s hospital, Ania also paid occasional visits to a shelter for stray cats and dogs in East of Kailash. There never seemed to be enough time to contribute to the paperwork or help with the cleaning or feeding, so she pitched in by taking selfies with the most photogenic inmates, which were admired by her many thousands of followers on social media. The shelter was grateful for her efforts as each post inevitably led to substantial publicity and at least a couple of animals finding their way into caring homes.’
…and their philanthropy takes the form of finding love for the ‘hymenally challenged’ women they feel sorry for.
“Of course, there was always Miss Giest. Something told me not to discount Miss Giest. Well sure, she has runs in her stockings, and her slip is always showing, and she always has more lipstick on her teeth than her mouth. God, this woman is screaming for a make-over. I’m her only hope.”
‘While Ania loved her bua’s presence in the house, finding in her someone even more indulgent than her father, she was stricken by what she saw as the tragedy of Renu’s life. A firm believer in the elemental nature of soulmates, Ania felt that it was never too late.’
The ageing suitors they find for them, Mr Hall and Colonel Sushant Singh Rathore- both look like ‘genial frogs’! (We’re totally buggin’ out over this startling resemblance).
‘On one of her missions, Ania was delighted to meet a trim man with a face like a genial frog, who managed a buoyant air in those most funereal surroundings. Colonel Suraj Singh Rathore.’
Ania and Cher are drawn to Dimple and Tai’s piteous adorability.
“Dee, my mission is clear. Would you look at that girl? She is so adorably clueless. We’ve got to adopt her. Don’t you want to use your popularity for a good cause?”
‘In some ways, Ania’s initial interest in Dimple’s affairs could be placed on the same spectrum of charitable instincts as the one that led her to the animal shelter. When Dimple stared in confusion out of her large brown eyes, Ania’s heart gave a little flip.’
Friendship means making sure your impeccable social credentials uplift your friend’s social status too. Because social upliftment is the best kind of philanthropy.
“As far as everyone’s concerned, you’re the most popular girl in your school. The fact that you hang with Dee and I, well… speaks very highly of you. If you strike while the iron is hot, you can have any guy that you want.”
‘But over time she had become genuinely fond of Dimple and didn’t see why the girl shouldn’t reap the rewards of a superlative Delhi social life just because of her unfortunate beginnings. These handicaps could be overcome, provided one had an excellent instructor.’
Ankit, the owner of Tip-Top Fashions, a resident of Lajpat Nagar and part-time boyfriend of Dimple, is almost as tragically undateable (according to Ania) as Travis Birkenstock is (according to Cher).
“Loadies generally hang on the grassy knoll. Sometimes they come to class and say bonehead things, and we all laugh, of course, but no respectable girl actually dates them. You don’t want to start off on the wrong foot, do you?”
‘He had a lovely face, but more than that, he was respectful and honest; she owed the family many kindnesses. Besides, their business was doing so well; in fact, they were opening a second branch of Tip-Top Fashions soon. But poor Dimple, it would all be such a terrible waste.’
And finally, Mr Knightley-Dev Gahlot and Josh.
They’re both earnest about their work, responsible and a little bit boring (according to Ania and Cher respectively) besides being almost part of the family and pouring waaay harsh sarcasm on Ania and Cher’s charitable efforts. But sometimes, love is more familiar than you think it is.
‘He dresses funny. He listens to ‘Complaint Rock’. He’s not even cute…in a conventional way. I mean, he’s just like this slug who hangs around the house all the time. And he’s a hideous dancer. Couldn’t take him anywhere. Wait a second. What am I stressing about? This is, like, Josh. O.K. O.K., so he’s kind of a Baldwin.’
‘The same jacket day after day, the satchel with a broken zipper, the fraying above the shirt pocket, she was convinced it was all an affectation, a way of indicating to the world that their owner concerned himself only with matters of sublime worth and not mere flummeries. They had practically grown up in each other’s houses, and she could almost predict his every gesture.’