Since its June 8 premiere, Disney’s “Ms. Marvel” has audiences and critics (including this one) buzzing about its stunning South Asian representation. Not only does the show center a Pakistani-American Muslim teen, but Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) is completely at peace with her hyphenated identity. She loves Bollywood movies and food from the local halal cart, she brings her friends to Eid parties and listens to fusion artists like Swet Shop Boys. Her cultural confidence is mirrored in the show’s production: From music to artwork to language, “Ms. Marvel” is a work of love.
“That comes from many of the people involved in the creative process being from either a Pakistani background or Muslim background — they could directly relate to or were open to learning,” head writer and showrunner Bisha K. Ali told IndieWire. “So all of that felt very natural as we were writing it, as I was putting it all together. The fact that it came out the way it did is a testament to that creative team behind it. It’s lovely to see and I’m so happy to see people responding to ‘Oh my dad does that,’ or ‘My mum does that too!’ That’s been really joyful to see that celebrated.”
As with any minority representation in Western media, the depiction alone invites scrutiny, often from a show’s core audience. Ali faced immense pressure, but said she’s learned to trust her instincts.
“The key thing is that the intention [is] all so pure from every creative choice that we’re making and are coming from a place of love,” she said. “Even if someone might feel that we messed up in a certain way, I hope that that’s still really clear to everybody.”
Talking to Ali, it’s obvious she shares Kamala’s sensibility and cultural self-assuredness. Conversations in the writers room are what led to the show’s collection of featured art and music by South Asian artists, and to Kamala and Kamran (Rish Shah) arguing about their favorite Shah Rukh Khan movie in Episode 2 — Ali’s is “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.”
“That’s classic,” she said. “I don’t understand how that isn’t even in the script. Why? What’s wrong with us? We also had these three massive screens and I would repeatedly make [the writers] watch the dance sequence ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ to start the day — to the extent that one of the execs, for Christmas, hoping I would stop, bought me the red bomber jacket.”
“Ms. Marvel” features emerging and eminent South Asian artists across the board, including throughout the soundtrack and even images in the background. Ali is still geeking out about nabbing Pakistani actors Fawad Khan and Mehwish Hayat to play Kamala’s great-grandparents (with the help of fellow executive producer Sana Amanat and Marvel casting’s Sarah Finn).
“I can’t get my brain around it,” she said, stifling excited giggles. “I wish people understood how peak this is and how incredible it is that we got those two. It blows me away. Also Farhan Akhtar, what a delight. I don’t want to say we got lucky, because it took hard work to get such a great cast together, but also: Man, did we get lucky with this incredible cast!”
In the South Asian community, “Ms. Marvel” stunned viewers by not only citing but eventually setting scenes during India’s Partition, the mass migration caused when exiting British colonizers drew up arbitrary boundaries for Hindu and Muslim nations.
“‘I don’t fit in because of my religion’ or ‘I don’t but because of my race, and therefore how do I assimilate?’ or ‘How do I put those things together?’ — that really wasn’t something that I was interested in telling,” Ali said. “Rather than us versus them, let’s look at the ‘us.’ Let’s look at who we are and do I know myself and do I know what ‘us’ even is? What that means for me in this family, what that means is community, and what that means in the world that I occupy.”
Those questions led Ali to visiting Partition, a time that “has huge ripples and repercussions generationally.” It’s something she and many others were aware of growing up, but that parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents don’t necessarily discuss freely, and which those outside the Indian subcontinent are largely unaware of.
“We get to see so many different elements of Western history put into mainstream media as a matter of course,” Ali said. “It’s all part of the lexicon, we understand what they’re talking about when referencing different historical points, but people don’t understand what we’re talking about when we reference this. In our communities, we know about it, but it hasn’t got any of the ubiquity that Western history has. Our histories are just as important as anything else and should be part of the public imagination, too.”
At the same time, tackling a tough topic on a teen superhero show could never be the central focus — especially on Disney+. Ali’s task was to respect and portray the era within those boundaries, including actual footage and audio at the top of Episode 5 which cites blood trains, violence, and burning.
“We don’t show anybody enacting violence on anybody else with the exception of what our story is doing, and that was really important,” she noted. “The shock and the violence and the loss and the grief of what happened between Najma [Nimra Bucha] and Aisha [Mehwish Hayat] can be analogous to some of that, but we never wanted to say that we even have the scope or the ability to portray the level of the truth of how horrific Partition was.”
(L-R): Mehwish Hayat as Aisha, Fawad Kahn as Hasan, and Zion Usman as Young Sana in “Ms. Marvel.”
Patrick Brown / Marvel Studios
The key to that turned out to be Kamala’s superpower as well: Family. Ali’s writers honed in on the relationships between four generations of women in Kamala’s family and untangling how Partition, the Clandestines, and one mystical bangle impacted their lives forever.
“Kamala’s superpower is inherited literally from her great grandmother, but it’s also the healing of that intergenerational trauma is really where superpower comes from, and it’s her coming of age,” Ali said. “Partition is so complicated. We can’t tell the story of every single religious group, every single individual, but we can tell the story of this one family. That was our way of speaking to or even hinting towards the larger pain of this huge thing that affected so many people.”
The family dynamics offered rich relationships between Kamala and her mother Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff), Muneeba and mother Sana (Samina Ahmed), and flashbacks to Sana’s mother Aisha (Mehwish Hayat). It gave Ali an opportunity “just to see Pakistani women in their wholeness,” to explore their complexities, flaws, and strengths.
“I just want each of these women to be fully drawn as much as possible,” she said. “That moment when they will get together at the end of Episode 5 always hits for me where I’m like, ‘Yes! You did it.’ This is the whole point. This is what you were born to do and this is what you’re a part of. You’re not fighting against these people. They’re not your weakness, they’re your strength.”
Ali’s own great-grandmother ended up taking in six children who were lost during Partition, who made the crossing but got separated from their families. Ali’s grandmother was a caregiver in their home, watching over the children while their parents went to work. Ali channeled her emotions and questions about their history into “Ms. Marvel.”
“There’s just so many stories that I wish I knew more about,” she said. “I wish I had what Kamala gets: More answers and more of this connection with these women in her life. It’s kind of hopeful in that way for me.”
Read more of our interview with Ali right here.
“Ms. Marvel” is now streaming on Disney+.
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