Ms Marvel Does Representation Right

Pop Culture

Ms Marvel Does Representation Right

Illustration: Arati Gujar

In a scene from Ms Marvel, Kamala lands in Karachi, on a covert visit alongside her mother. She is greeted by chaos, rambling sights and a cascade of remarkable architecture that is used to establish the historic value and the stunning eloquence of a city that has endured much. It’s not acutely ground-breaking, but the sequence of floating images does establish Karachi as a city to visit, and not one to just dread. We have all been there, watched portrayals of sub-continental characters with hair-raising, fearful stories of the sweltering nightmare places they come from. There is thankfully, none of that in Ms Marvel, a show that though I approached with hesitance, grew to like and appreciate unlike anything I had previously.

Ms Marvel follows the journey of a 16-year-old American-Pakistani girl Kamala Khan who gains powers like her favourite Marvel superheroes (chief among them Captain Marvel). I first heard about the show in the second week of June from my nerdy husband who was going gaga over the fact that one of the biggest film studios in the world had decided to create series featuring a Muslim Pakistani superhero. I didn’t get excited at first; scenes of Muslims portrayal as greedy, cruel and barbarous savages or goons with rifles or swords from previous American movies came to my mind, and I immediately abandoned the thought of watching the series.

We have all been there, watched portrayals of sub-continental characters with hair-raising, fearful stories of the sweltering nightmare places they come from.

But one day, I heard a soundtrack of Coco-Corina blaring from my husband’s speakers. Knowing that my man is not much into Pakistani or Indian music, I got curious and stepped out of the kitchen to check on him. A shot featuring beautiful labyrinths of shops in New Jersey,  amidst the playful lyrics of Coco-Corina greeted my unprepared eyes.  “Mere khayalon pe chai hai ek surat matwali si….Nazuk si sharmili si masoom si bholi bhali si” – words reminiscent of the Golden Age of Pakistani cinema.

Disney+ is sadly not available here but we found a way of watching this show (the less said about the process the better). The series begins with a 16-year-old superhero superfan, Kamala Khan, essayed by Eman Vellani, who wants to go to Avenger Con but her parents won’t give her permission. Together with her geeky friend Bruno Carrelli (Matt Lintz) they come up with a plan which, though it fails, lands them at Avenger Con nonetheless. Once they reach there, Kamala wears a bracelet, a family heirloom that activates her latent powers, enabling her to build force fields, throw energy fists and even enlarge herself.

Once they reach there, Kamala wears a bracelet, a family heirloom that activates her latent powers, enabling her to build force fields, throw energy fists and even enlarge herself.

As the show advances, it is revealed that the bracelet belongs to her great-grandmother Aisha (Mehwish Hayat), who was from the Noor dimension, and it is by harnessing the energy of this dimension that the powers of the bracelet are activated.  Aisha had to give up on her prized possession when other Noor-wielding clandestines like Najma (Nimra Bucha) wanted to grab it from her to go back to their home dimension. These are the basics, but where Ms Marvel really scores is its representation of sub-continental tropes. For the first time, I saw a Pakistani nuclear family featuring a desi caring amma, a Mr-Bennet-esque father, an overzealous daughter and an obedient son. A family eating “paratha” and speaking words like “Ammi”, “Bismillah” and “InshaAllah” which are mostly associated with Urdu vernacular. This, in a show created for an international audience.

In Ms Marvel’s world the parents are hopelessly desi and big advocators of the “Raja Syndrome” – son can do anything but daughter needs permission. Nosy aunties who like to gossip about others, and the unsolvable, age-old masjid mystery of dude-where-is-my-chappal? casually permeating the lives of people. The mix of traditional Pakistani scores playing in the background, the discussions about SRK, all make the show a bit more lived in than any other representational vehicle has accomplished thus far.

The mix of traditional Pakistani scores playing in the background, the discussions about SRK, all make the show a bit more lived in than any other representational vehicle has accomplished thus far.

Obviously not everything is clean and quirky with the series. Some of the effects and visual design is passe, and I’m still divided over that portrayal of the partition being symbolised by overcrowded train stations and a sweltering Fawad Khan looking flawless through it still. That said Ms Marvel ticks many boxes, some of them happily unanticipated in terms of the representation, of not just a Pakistani character, but a family. Hopefully, it’s a trend that continues.

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