Pakistan is having a moment on the international stage. It began a few years back when Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy won two Oscars for her short documentaries. This snowballed when Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani and British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed won nominations, Emmys and an Oscar for projects geared towards their heritage. It got bigger, when Pakistani singer and composer Arooj Aftab found her way on to President Obama’s Spotify list and ended up winning the Grammy for Best Global Music Performance. Then we got the news that Humayun Saeed was playing the role of Dr Hasnath Khan in the popular Netflix serial The Crown. However, the cherry on the top came with the six-episode Disney series Ms. Marvel.
The show is based on a Pakistani-American teenager, Kamala Khan, who discovers she has superpowers after receiving a magical karra (bracelet) from her nani.
Superhero movies and the Marvel Cinematic Universe are an overwhelmingly popular and very mainstream genre. Seeing someone of Pakistani heritage fighting off villains, with a story rooted specifically in the events that encompass Partition and the creation of Pakistan as a separate nation from British India have been a revelation. It was a running joke with South Asian and Muslim actors that the kind roles they are too often offered were third terrorist from the left or angry Muslim man. Post the terror attacks of 9/11 and the Iraq war, Muslims have been projected as the quintessential “other” by the western media. They may be on screen, but the story is always framed in a way that shows their religion or culture as outside the “norm”, a problem that has to be dealt with. They could be refugees, victims or villains, but never comfortable in their own skin or as part of the larger world community.
Ms. Marvel bucks that trend, showing us a normal, mostly happy young girl who, like most first-generation immigrants, has to negotiate between her parents’ more traditional, protective attitude and life as an American high schooler in New Jersey. Pakistani-Canadian actor Iman Vellani is a natural, handling this debut with ease and carrying the mantel of a brand new super hero without a crease in her dupatta-like cape. The teenaged angst and aspirations were an easy capture, but the smooth, very believable way she transitioned from confused girl to superhero was her biggest win.
Kamala’s friends are a wonderful exposition of the cross-cultural array of what it means to be Muslim, Pakistani and American. Kamala’s best friend is Bruno, an Italian-American geek headed for MIT and, whether she realises it or not, her main support. Then there is Nakia, her Arab-American friend whose hijab isn’t a plot point; instead of oppression, her focus is running for the masjid board against some entrenched older uncles. Kamala’s parents are also good people trying to raise their daughter with humour and love.
Kamala’s brother Aamir personifies this seismic shift towards normalcy the most. Saager Shaikh plays Aamir, whose religiosity and tendency to sermonise does not turn him into a moral policing monster, though it does lead to some sarcastic exchanges with Kamala’s less religious father.
This is a much-needed upgrade in the portrayals of Muslim men who are relentlessly shown as violent, controlling and abusive across the board for western TV audiences.
This has, in turn, left those whose only interaction with a Muslim has been through a screen a little dazed. Apart from obvious racists who have rejected the show outright, some more open-minded folks are happily surprised to see it is possible to be a Muslim and have a happy family. This is why not just representation, but positive representation matters so much, allowing hearts and minds to rise above stereotypes of fear and mistrust on a personal and even more importantly, socio-political level.
To their credit, Marvel allowed their new heroine to wear her ethnicity with the ease that she wears her American identity. Like most American serials, a host of writers worked on this project but there was a significant Pakistani factor because creators and writers like Bisha K Ali, Sana Amanat, Samira Ali and Fatima Asghar were working on the project. Acclaimed director Obaid Chinoy has been once again praised for the way she shot the scenes of desperate people running for the last train to Pakistan raising awareness about this difficult time.
Indian actors Farhan Akhtar, Rish Shah and a contingent of Pakistani actors, including Fawad Khan, Mehwish Hayat, Samina Ahmed and Nimra Bucha, were cast to give the show even more authenticity. Ms Marvel has done a stellar job of showcasing Pakistani talent and creativity before an international audience and the scenes of Khan and Hayat as Kamala’s great-grandparents have won both actors new fans.
Despite all of these efforts there has still been some controversy. In attempts at inclusion, Kamala’s “Pakistaniat” has been played down by some by calling her generically “brown”, “South Asian” or even “Bollywood,” causing some to complain of erasure.
Episodes four and five caused an angry buzz on social media as a line from Nani and no mention of the Muslim League was misleading — “My passport is Pakistani; my roots are in India. And in between all of this, there is a border…. People are claiming their identity based on an idea some old Englishmen had.” When independence from British India was shown, there was a barely a token nod towards Mohammad Ali Jinnah during a news reel from the era nor any mention made of the Muslim League’s push for a separate homeland, which led to some misinformed articles from westerners unfamiliar with Partition to write reviews with the idea that the British arbitrarily thought up Partition.
This distortion of the facts will forever remain a missed opportunity but the furore they stoked has pushed many to research this issue more closely.
Issues with history aside, Ms Marvel has been a win for the massive Muslim diasporas living in the West who recognise and understand many of Kamala’s struggles. For Pakistani talent it has been a boon, giving international Marvel audiences a chance to enjoy a wonderful selection of music, art and creatives from a side of the world they don’t normally see through a softer lens. Despite what was left unsaid, Ms. Marvel’s use of the classic ‘Ko Ko Korina’ as a bomb in the action-packed finale was a brilliant metaphor for the cultural explosion Kamala Khan has created.