From its sensitive discussion of partition to easy bouncing between languages, Ms Marvel is shining a light on the experiences of a diaspora usually ignored in Western culture, says writer Varisha Tariq.
A Muslim South Asian girl as a superhero? In some multiverse, there’s a teenage me squealing with joy at Disney+’s newest Marvel show, Ms Marvel.
As an Indian Muslim woman who has grown up watching Marvel movies, I’ve waited a long time for this representation, and in the character of Kamala Khan, it has been worthwhile.
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An American-Pakistani teen growing up in New Jersey, Kamala always has one foot at home and one in fantasy land: doodling a life away from the ordinary and dreaming of becoming a superhero like her idol, Captain Marvel. Those dreams are made real when a bangle inherited from her grandmother unlocks Kamala’s inherent magical powers through her great-grandmother, Aisha, a djinn from another dimension who fell in love with a human.
As an Indian Muslim, my first reaction to watching the show was of scepticism; would a Western audience tolerate this much south Asian-ness? Yet at no point has it felt that the show has to compensate for its cast or its culture.
Not only is this show centred around a Muslim teen – Iman Vellani does a terrific job as Kamala – but it also boasts a very talented, diverse female-led crew and a cast drawn from across the diaspora, with Kamala’s best friend, Bruno, as the only white character. There is nothing token about this representation.
A Muslim cultural focus is a prospect that usually makes me wary. In the past 20 years, Muslim representation in Western films has often been as terrorists, to such an extent that when there is Muslim culture on screen, my heart drops before I allow myself to feel elated. As a result, we tend to feel safer when our identities are hidden, as if we are afraid to draw too much attention to ourselves. What if loving our religion would be interpreted by the world as being an extremist? The scenes shot in the mosque in episodes two and three felt so intimate, as if I was sharing responsibility for how the audience might feel towards a mosque and its people.
Similarly, djinns were part of the horror stories Muslims grew up listening to. When Kamala was revealed to be part-djinn I wondered if these cultural stories might be used to caricature Muslims? I burst into relieved laughter when Bruno responded to Kamala saying that she might be part-djinn with, “And tonic?” This mishearing made it into an inside joke. It’s so rare for us to be addressed directly, and in such a warm, joking manner, as a conversation happening between the show and us.
That conversation has been handled with such flair. Like many viewers, I’ve really appreciated Ms Marvel’s airy refusal to subtitle basic Hindi and Urdu words like acha, beta, chalo and arey. It was about time globalisation accommodated our South Asian terms! If I can pick up Gilmore Girls references despite not having seen half the shows they spoke about, we should expect Western and, specifically, white audiences, to also be able to pick up Asian words and references through context. And there is always Google to help us through.
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I had, it seemed, internalised a narrative where South Asian stories are only valuable if they are being validated by the Western audience, thinking that show needs to have ‘balance’ to be watched by audiences of other races; something which I put down to my own experience of being marginalised. But the show’s recent focus on partition made me realise differently.
While understanding more about her superpowers, Kamala learns that her great-grandmother, Aisha, the bangle’s original owner, disappeared in disgrace sometime during the partition of India and Pakistan. In 1947, before the British were to leave the soon-to-be independent India, a border was drawn splitting northwest India into two parts: India and Pakistan. A move that was supposedly done to give Muslims their nation to prevent communal tension resulted in violence that took thousands of Hindu and Muslim lives.
The stories of partition have kept us up at night. I was afraid that the narrative on the show would not be able to do justice to something this delicate. This could have been a one-sided conversation. The stakes are so much higher because we are sharing this story with the world, especially generations that have no clue about the catastrophe that unfolded. But Ms Marvel highlighted that separation by a border cannot erase similar identities.
A lot of it has to do with showrunner Bisha K Ali, the British-Pakistani writer who leads a diverse writing team. In choosing her to lead this flagship series, Marvel has given rise to South Asian stories that have depth, nuance and originality: and allowed the right people to tell them.
The cast is similarly rich, featuring actors with Pakistani heritage, as well as key players from Bollywood: Farhan Akhtar, who plays Waleed; Zenobia Shroff, who plays Muneeba Khan, Kamala’s mother; Mohan Kapur as Yusuf Khan.
As a viewer, the globalised approach of this show makes me feel a part of this content. I had always felt alienated from the Western content I was consuming, but not any more. I felt seen. It’s also interesting to see how the music blends Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and English, which is a spectacular reflection of how the diaspora converses with the world in multiple languages.
And of course, music can form connections deeper than language. In episode two, when Kamala’s brother Aamir married his fiancee Tyesha Aamir, a remix of the song Tere Bina from the hit 2007 Bollywood movie Guru is playing. It is such a romantic song, played when they are both saying, “I do,” that you don’t need to speak the language to feel the intensity of their love for each other. Even when the show is playing electronic or contemporary music from India, irrespective of your identity, the beats and the rhythm will draw you into our culture.
So often we erase our identities to blend in, especially when from a marginalised community. This is why Ms Marvel gave me a jolt. This is a show that doesn’t hesitate to show how big a role your heritage plays in your life.
Marvel’s cheerful, kind show is bolder than others and unapologetic about rooting itself into its South Asian-ness.
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