Sometimes, someone can come out of nowhere and do something amazing.Kamala Khan
Marvel’s new TV offering Ms Marvel aspired to bring in a new flavour to its cinematic universe and for the most part, it has got it right! And in a way that very few people expected it to be – a coming of age story about a Pakistani American superhero where they have gotten representation of the characters spot on.
The show follows the origin story of Kamala Khan, played by Iman Vellani, a 16-year-old superhero nerd, who often posts fan theories on Reddit, is a talented artist, and struggles to get through regular teenage problems – all of this while navigating trying to be a superhero.
What makes the show special is that for the first time, we are seeing a Pakistani Muslim superhero protagonist on the screen, and that is just one of the many reasons why this show is a must watch – whether you are a superhero fan or not.
Before we deep dive into the vibrant world of Kamala Khan, fair warning: Spoilers ahead!
Pratishta, Parampara, and Anushasan
Pakistani characters have almost always been stereotyped as terrorists in Hollywood, or those living under the weight of the political repercussions of 9/11. Their identity has always been homogenised with an Indian identity, which itself is diluted, typecasted, and frankly, frustrating for the Indian audience to watch.
In the few instances where South Asian representation has gone beyond the trope of Apu from The Simpsons, it has always been by a South Asian filmmaker. Before Ms. Marvel, it was Netflix’s Never Have I Ever which portrayed an Indian American teenager Devi, struggling to deal with ‘desi’ problems, that had managed to get Indian representation right for once.
In the superhero world, Muslims have hardly had screen space. Except for Kamala Khan, there are hardly any mainstream Muslim superheroes. So, to have a Pakistani Muslim superhero, and present it to a world which is used to seeing Pakistani Muslims on the screen as something that is so far away from the racist stereotype, is a bold move.
...and the show does it effortlessly without fetishising or exoticising it in any manner.
How? Because it doesn’t try so hard. It is in not trying to go overboard with the characters’ race and ethnicity. It is in portraying the Khans, her family, and social circle as an ordinary immigrant family, while not ignoring their rich and proud heritage. This is what makes representation in the show an extraordinary affair.
It’s this crossover from being the other in the room to being the room, that’s the best way to describe it. Not just on set, but behind the scenes, too. We were basically run by strong Brown women, and that’s the way we like it.Zenobia Shroff, who plays Kamala's mother to VARIETY
Khan lends a loud and proud voice to Muslim and Pakistani children, especially girls, and gives them a role model. While most western shows have shown Islamic chants and traditions in a negative light, this show does the exact opposite. Khan and her family say ‘Bismillah’ before doing anything important – like taking a driving test – or Khan’s father quoting the Quran to say that ‘If you save one life, you save the world’.
To have a Muslim character that isn't always carrying the weight of the political environment is so refreshing. A fun, positive, and adventure-seeking character is what Muslims want to see, and so do general audiences.Sue Obeidi, director of the Hollywood Bureau for the US Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) to BBC
But beyond that, there’s a general celebration of Pakistani and Islamic culture – Eid celebrations are like a carnival, the characters love Bollywood and especially SRK (Shah Rukh Khan), and they dance to Bhangra. Things like these are very normal to the Indian and Pakistani audiences.
But the show does more than just getting the characters right. It also manages to effortlessly tie Khan’s superhero abilities to her heritage. The bangle which belonged to her great-grandmother and grants her powers, has a backstory embedded in the partition. Her ancestors have all been affected by partition and subsequent violence, and have a story to tell.
The show tackles many social issues via other Muslim characters, especially Nakia, played by Yasmeen Fletcher, a hijab-wearing woman who is running for a place in the mosque board. She is vocally proud of wearing the hijab, which she treats as a choice and nothing else. She even complains about how the women’s section in mosques is much smaller compared to its counterpart.
The latest episode which shows Pakistan and its culture, doesn’t fall into the stereotypical trap either. It addresses the conservative mindset of the country, without stereotyping it.
'Bade Bade Desho Main, Aisi Chhoti Chhoti Baatein Hoti Rehti Hai'
This subhead is merely a testament to Kamala and the whole show’s SRK fandom, even though Khan believes that Baazigar is the best SRK movie and not DDLJ. Beyond the SRK fandom, the show also gives us an accurate, passionate, and whole-hearted female fandom and geekiness which has mostly been dominated by boys until now.
But what this show also stands for is a very relatable, light-hearted coming-of-age show. Khan, besides navigating being a superhero and trying to save the world, also having to deal with regular teenage problems that every Asian must deal with.
Khan is socially awkward, clumsy, not a rebel without a cause (because let’s face it, most Asian children can’t afford to be), tries to keep her parents happy, upholds family ideals but also tries to sneak out and go to an Avengers convention when her parents don’t allow her – something every teenage kid does in India and Pakistan.
She also tries to feel accepted at her school, keep her grades up, while having to hide her superpowers from her parents. Her walls are a chaotic concoction of Marvel posters, and her T-shirts scream Marvel fangirl.
Khan’s character and her experience is one that almost everyone in India and Pakistan can relate to, because most of them have been through similar ones.
Despite being a superhero, Khan isn’t immune to her mother’s nagging, who “only wants the best for her,” an idea which Khan might not necessarily agree with. She wants to know about her whereabouts, wary of the company she keeps, often scolding her if she is caught doing something wrong, but also consoling her later.
Meanwhile, her father has been portrayed as a warm, fuzzy, supportive character, instead of the stereotypical stern kind. He is supportive of her creative mind, dreams, and fancies.
One of the most heart-warming scenes in the show is when her father dresses up as the Hulk to go with her to the AvengerCon.
Her brother, who is an otherwise traditional Muslim man (the Sharmaji ka beta types), is the bridge between Khan’s parents’ expectations and her own dreams.
The show certainly runs the risk of losing all these elements to the larger context of being a superhero as the plot progresses, but many can rejoice that this has been a major milestone in terms of accurate representation of Indians and Pakistanis, and hope that this sets a precedent for more to come.