Ms. Marvel is a lesson for both Indians and the rest of the world to acknowledge Pakistani Muslim identity on screen. Streaming on Disney Hotstar, standup comedian and screenwriter Bisha K Ali’s show has a 96 per cent critic rating and an 83 per cent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes – there’s no denying its popularity. But it means a lot more than what the viewers and critics think. The show gives the world its first Muslim superhero, who is also a woman. That does a lot for children and adults watching the show alike.
The show’s biggest strength lies in how it treats the much-used first-world buzzword –‘representation’. Instead of a generic South Asian identity that hinges almost entirely on being Indian, Ms. Marvel looks at the life of an immigrant Pakistani Muslim family in New Jersey and ticks every box. The protagonist, Kamala Khan, played by the 19-year-old Pakistani-Canadian actress Iman Vellani, captured the essence of the show—to finally give a loud and proud voice to Pakistani children, especially girls, that is denied to them in most Western films. In most Hollywood movies and series, the Muslim family has no voice – they are either living in fear under the dark cloud of terrorism or seen as suspicious. Ms. Marvel breaks that wall – there’s Eid, Tesher’s song Jalebi Baby, teenage problems, Shah Rukh Khan fandom and even mention of Partition.
It’s not only eye-opening for the US, but also for Indians who stereotype Pakistanis.
Pakistani Muslim identity
In Netflix’s Never Have I Ever (2020), we saw the story of a first-generation Indian American teenager Devi, played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. The quintessential Indian show created by Mindy Kaling had Devi struggle with her ‘firangi’ problems as a desi American. For the first time, we had a flawed, Indian teenager, who wanted to be more than a topper.
Ms. Marvel has done the same and more for the Pakistani Muslim identity, especially since India and Pakistan get conflated when it comes to Western representation. There is not much distinction between the two nations in the minds of the Western world, something Ms. Marvel corrects, without being politically or culturally incorrect. From Pakistan’s version of Partition of 1947 to the picking up of Bollywood love, everything is dealt with in a manner that surpasses expectations. One doesn’t dilute the other, simply because they are narratives we usually don’t get to see in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
If Indians had Devi, Pakistanis now have Kamala – it’s a great way to learn more about the culture of our closest neighbour without prejudice.
For decades now, the only phrase you would hear on television and movie screens that were associated with the Muslim community is ‘Allah Hu Akbar’ being used in the context of violence instead of reverence. But with Ms. Marvel, you hear ‘Bismillah’, ‘MashAllah’, InshAllah’ as everyday terms that Muslims use. Be it the vocabulary, or putting in of kajal, practices that are commonplace are shown as such instead of being exoticised as rituals or extraordinary events packaged for a Western audience.
It is encouraging to note that first with Black Panther (2018) and now Ms. Marvel, Marvel Studios has made conscious choices about representation. It slipped a notch with Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings (2021), but its latest offering has managed to get the production company back on its feet. The experience of being seen and heard by Muslims all over the globe is unprecedented.
The idea that a superhero can dance to bhangra may seem unusual to the Western audience, but for us, it is the most normal thing. Take a look at what’s happened recently. Instagram saw a troupe of men from Norway dance their way to viraldom with Shah Rukh Khan songs. Be it India or Pakistan or the rest of the world, SRK is an emotion, and even a superhero cannot escape that. Kamala Khan says her favourite movie is Baazigar (1993).
The global Muslim woman
While Muslim men have been typecast as terrorists or side-kicks of the ‘righteous’ Western hero, Muslim women, especially from Pakistan, have been wholly absent. In 2020, we had Nimrat Kaur play Tasneem Qureshi, the head of the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI on Homeland. And in 2022, we have a teen superhero, that’s progress. Although it’s been slow, directors, producers and writers have finally started to take notice of how they might be playing into or inadvertently perpetuating stereotypes that have contributed to an increase in anti-Asian racism.
While crackdowns on the hijab have been rife, be it in France or closer home in Karnataka, we have a teenager in Ms. Marvel explain what the attire means to her. The choice for a teen in the United States is explained without extra frills and bows.
— Hadeed Butt (@mhadeedbutt) June 15, 2022
From the stories of Kamala’s mother, Muneeba, to her female best friend Nakia, Muslim women have found a voice in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and they do not have to shout to be heard. Even Tyesha, a black Muslim woman and the fiancé of Kamala’s brother, finds space, diversifying the narratives linked to a Muslim identity.
From being scared of Djinns instead of ghosts as a kid and complaining about the infrastructure of the women’s ‘side’ of the mosque, Kamala’s culture, heritage and beliefs are not sacrificed to make her appeal to global audiences.
Instead, the show defiantly and colourfully lets Kamala claim her space, listen to artists like Riz Ahmed, Ritvik and Raaginder, and wear her family heirloom bangle that helps her take on the role of Ms. Marvel. It’s a win for the show, the cast, and the audience.
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(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)