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Many Pakistanis dig the cultural nods on 'Ms. Marvel' but are mixed on casting

Screenshot 2022-06-29 125815.jpg
Iman Vellani via Instagram
Iman Vellani stars as Marvel cinematic Universe's Kamala Khan aka Ms. Marvel.

What do people in Pakistan think about Ms. Marvel?

The new original TV show, which features Pakistani American teen Kamala Khan — the first Muslim superhero to headline her own comic — debuted in cinemas in Pakistan on June 16 and aired on Disney+ on June 9.

The show follows 16-year-old Kamala as she finds herself imbued with superpowers emanating from a bangle passed down by her grandmother. Played by actress Iman Vellani, Kamala — a huge Marvel fan herself — is just a regular teenager from Jersey City, N.J. with insecurities, crushes and bullies struggling to find her place in the world. That is, until she transforms into the kind of comic hero she's always looked up to, with powers that allow her to heal, shape-shift and stretch her body at will.

Pakistani pop culture experts and young people in the country weigh in on the show, from the casting to the cultural references to its portrayal of Pakistani women.

An inspiration for young Pakistani women

Many say they like Ms. Marvel because it breaks stereotypes about how Pakistani women are portrayed on the screen.

"We usually see only one type of woman being shown on TV [in Pakistan] – the battered woman, the damsel in distress," says Islamabad-based pop culture writer, Zoya Rehman.

Many of Pakistan's biggest TV shows and movies depict women as victims. The protagonist of the 2020 drama, Pyar Ke Sadqay, was shown happily reconciling with her cheating husband. And Humsafar – a 2012 drama that enjoyed popularity from Lahore to Toronto – depicted a protagonist who was cast out of her home and onto the street by an evil mother-in-law.

Ms. Marvel, on the other hand, features women characters who show tremendous courage in the face of hardship.

In the second episode, for example, Kamala's best friend Nakia decides to run for the board at her local mosque after a string of events convince her to take charge. The women's section of the mosque is in disarray — the water taps are broken in the washroom; the speakers don't work. And the mosque's resident shoe thief, who had stolen 21 pairs that month, snagged Nakia's Versace shoes while she was praying.

But Nakia would have to face off against Uncle Rasheed, a longtime board member and the best friend of Kamala's father.

"We never see [Pakistani] girls attempting to break the control that [men like Uncle Rasheed] have in our communities," says Hafsa Ali, a 24-year-old graduate student from Islamabad. "It was so inspiring to see a character actually attempt to wrest some of it back."

Not to mention Kamala herself, who triumphs over the bad guys while still being very much an average Pakistani girl, says Saniya Ahmed, a 19-year-old student from Karachi.

"I think it's so cool that teenage girls can watch Ms. Marvel and think, 'We want to be her, and she also looks like us, is a Marvel fan like us. ' "

Viewers love the cultural and religious nods

"The portrayal of a Pakistani household is just right," wrote Ozan Khan, a lifestyle editor for The Correspondent PK, a digital news organization in Pakistan, on Twitter. "Some references [are] very relatable."

At home, Kamala's father watches TV highlights of old cricket matches, a sport that people are fanatical about in Pakistan. Aunties (or as Kamala and Nakia call these nosy community women, "illumin-aunties" — because they see and know everything) gossip about family members and spy on their neighbors. And a cover of the 1966 Pakistani pop hit, "Ko Ko Korina" plays in the background while Kamala and her mom shop for her clothes and jewelry for her brother's engagement in Jersey City's South Asian markets.

Many Muslim Pakistanis love the religious touches on the show, too. "It's the most positive representation of Pakistanis and Muslims out there right now," wrote Zunaira Inam Khan, a Pakistani social media influencer, on Twitter.

In the show, Kamala says Bismillah before starting her car. It's an Islamic term meaning "in the name of Allah" in Arabic and is said before beginning doing anything — eating, traveling, even before leaving the house. And she fights off a group of djinn – spirits in Islamic and Arab mythology – while wearing a heavily embroidered kurta, a traditional Pakistani tunic.

The show touches on a painful part of Pakistan's history

In the second episode, the show references a subject that is sensitive for many in South Asia: the Partition of British-ruled India in August 1947 into two independent countries, India and Pakistan — which was created as a homeland for South Asia's Muslims. Termed by historians as one of the greatest migrations in human history, the event displaced nearly 15 million people and killed nearly a million people.

It's significant that this event is mentioned on the show, says Ahmer Naqvi, a pop culture writer in Pakistan. "The Partition, and particularly the violence and upheaval associated with it, is not commonly mentioned in Pakistani mainstream [culture]," he says, due to the "extremely painful" nature of the event.

In the episode, viewers learn that Kamala's maternal family was among the millions of Muslims who crossed over to Pakistan during the Partition. They found their way onto the last train to Karachi, but the family got separated in the process. Kamala's grandmother, Sana – just a toddler then – miraculously managed to get back onto the train and into her father's arms.

For 22-year-old Manahil Cheema, a college senior from Islamabad, this part of the show is deeply personal. Her own family took the last train leaving for Pakistan during Partition too, and she grew up listening to stories about Hindu, Sikh and Muslim neighbors who lived in harmony right up until the border was drawn and communal violence broke out.

Kamala gets her powers from a bangle that belonged to her great-grandmother Ayesha, who disappeared during the Partition. When Kamala's father and brother talk about the horrors of Partition with Kamala, the bangle starts lighting up.

"I like that [Marvel] delved deep into our history to [create an] origin [story for Kamala's] powers, rather than anchoring it in a random freak accident like a spider bite," she says, referring to how other Marvel characters, like Spider Man, get their superpowers. "It shows that Marvel made an effort to learn about our history and where we come from."

Mixed views on casting

But our sampling of interviewees did voice criticisms. Some wish that more of the cast had Pakistani heritage. While many of the actors identify as Pakistani (Iman Vellani, the actor who plays Kamala, is Pakistani Canadian, while Nimra Bucha, Samina Ahmed, Mehwish Hayat are regulars in Pakistani TV and film) -- the actors who play Kamala's parents, Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur, are Indian.

Shroff and Kapur "don't seem like Pakistani parents, quite honestly. And the fact that they are Indian actors is indicative of that," says Rehman.

"When Shroff spoke, I could hear inflections of a Mumbai accent. She didn't sound like a Pakistani mother."

Indian actors from the Bollywood industry dominate South Asian representation in TV and film, wrote @ShabanaMir1 on Twitter. So why did the parents have to be played by Indian actors? "[Disney+], we have a ton of great Pakistani actors," she tweeted.

Even so, Rehman doesn't think it's a big deal. After all, she says, the show isn't about the parents. "Ultimately the show is about Kamala, and Vellani plays that role spectacularly. She's such an expressive actor and she really takes on the role of Ms. Marvel with aplomb."

Zuha Siddiqui is a journalist based in Pakistan.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Zuha Siddiqui