It all started with Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy winning two Oscars for her documentaries and when Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani and British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed won nominations, Emmys and an Oscar for projects, which further paved the way for Pakistan towards international stage. It got bigger with Arooj Aftab finding her way on to President Obama’s Spotify list and ended up winning the Grammy for Best Global Music Perormance. Then it was declared 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.
This mini-series is based on a Pakistani-American teenage girl Kamala Khan discovering her super powers after receiving a bangle from her Nani (maternal grandmother). Superhero movies and the Marvel Cinematic Universe are an overwhelmingly popular and very mainstream genre. Muslims across the world are mostly presented as refugees, victims or villains, but never comfortable in their own skin or as part of the larger world community. Mostly the roles offered to South Asians are of terrorists or an angry or violent Muslim. Post the dreadful event of 9/11 and the Iraq war, Muslims have been presented as the quintessential “other” by the western media.
Ms Marvel has finally changed this trend showing us a happy normal girl who has to negotiate between her parents’ more traditional, protective attitude and life as an American high schooler in New Jersey, like most first-generation immigrants. Pakistani-Canadian actor Iman Vellani is playing this role effortlessly with ease without a crease in her dupatta-like cape. Her biggest win in series is her smooth transition from confused girl to a superhero. Kamala’s friends are a wonderful depiction of cross-cultural community and exposition of what it means to be Muslim, Pakistani and American.
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 and her main support is Bruno, an Italian-American geek headed for MIT. Then there is Nakia, her Arab-American friend whose hijab isn’t some kind of plot or target and her focus is more on 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 sibling Aamir whose religiosity and tendency to sermonise does not transform him into a moral policing monster, however it does lead to some sarcastic exchanges with Kamala’s less religious father.
This is a truly necessary redesign in the depictions of Muslim men who are tirelessly displayed as rough, controlling and harmful no matter how you look at it for western TV crowds. Positive portrayal matters a lot, permitting hearts and brains to rise above stereotypes of fear surprisingly, and mistrust on a personal and even more significantly, at socio-political level. 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.
Once more Ms Marvel has wonderfully exhibited Pakistani ability and imagination before a global crowd and the role of Khan and Hayat as Kamala’s extraordinary grandparents have won the two entertainers new fans. Acclaimed director Obaid Chinoy has been once again commended for the manner she shot the scenes of desperate people running for the last train to Pakistan raising awareness about this difficult time. 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.