South Asian women find their missing superhero in Ms. Marvel

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“It’s not really the brown girls from Jersey City who save the world,” says New Jersey-based Kamala Khan — a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenager — in Marvel’s new superhero series, “Ms. Marvel,” as she realizes that she has access to the superpower of harnessing cosmic energy.

Khan’s statement reflects the fact that, until now, millions of South Asian women grew up without a superhero to call their own.

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Marvel’s latest miniseries is set between the eastern US city and Pakistan’s Karachi, where our young superhero first discovers her powers. But teenager superheroes also have to struggle with fitting in at home and in school — especially when they’re first-generation immigrants with protective parents.

Directed by Belgium filmmakers of Moroccan descent Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, Indian-American director Meera Menon, and Pakistani-Canadian journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the series attempts to dispel caricaturized portrayals of South Asians in Western popular culture while giving the young superhero a unique origin story.

Iman Vellani, who plays Kamala in the series, was already a Marvel fan when she chanced upon “Ms. Marvel” comics at a local bookstore.

“I saw a girl who looked like me. She was Muslim and Pakistani and a superhero fanatic; and I was Muslim, Pakistani and a superhero fanatic, so it worked out quite well,” she said in an interview with Cosmopolitan Middle East.

While the comic books weren’t about her “religion or her culture or her ethnicity,” they drove her identity.

So when one of her aunts forwarded her a casting call from a WhatsApp group, the “Ms. Marvel” fan decided to apply. The next day, she got a call.

Conquering stereotypes
“Ms. Marvel” isn’t a show full of heavy accents and cultural tropes. While enjoying Shah Rukh Khan trivia with a potential love interest, Kamala doesn’t devolve into the so-called “Apu from The Simpsons” accent that was often linked to South Asians, or likewise people who trace their ancestry to Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Instead, Kamala is a regular teenager walking the tightrope between being American at school and Pakistani at home. This is a duality that she shares with nearly 5.4 million South Asians living in the United States.

As she secretly struggles with her newfound superpowers, Kamala tells her local mosque leader: “I just thought it would be cool to have a superhero who actually fights for us.”

At her brother’s wedding, the ceremony is wrapped up by a call to god: “Allahu akbar.” The use of this phrase, which literally translates to “God is great,” marked a step away from the demonization it has faced in Western popular culture. Here, it is used to mark a joyous occasion, with bright smiles and warm embraces.

The filmmakers’ subtle nods to the nuances of South Asian culture — from shoes getting stolen from places of worship, to parents and grandparents getting their faces too close to the camera while on a video call — reached a wider audience, even those outside the Marvel universe.

Partition story in every home

“My passport is Pakistani, my roots are in India. And in between all of this, there is a border. There is a border marked with blood and pain,” Kamala’s grandmother — or “nani” — tells her against the backdrop of the Karachi sunset.

“People are claiming their identity based on an idea some old Englishmen had when they were fleeing the country,” she adds, referring to the Radcliffe Line that demarcated the border between India and Pakistan as two centuries of British colonial rule came to a hasty end.

She and millions of others crossed the border, leaving behind the land they called home.

Marvel fan Manreet Khara, 28, an educationist in Chandigarh, India, also recognizes her own family background in “Ms. Marvel.” Her grandfather is the eldest of four siblings, the youngest of which was born after the family crossed over from Pakistan’s Punjab to the Indian state with the same name.

“We grew up hearing stories of our grandparents’ home. With the partition, we inherited this generational trauma that shaped our being,” Khara tells DW. “There is a deep pain of a broken culture.”

When Kamala is transported to 1947, to a railway station where the last train to cross the new border is ready to pull out, she gets to experience the pain of partition firsthand.

“Here, we saw generational trauma be the source of the superhero’s origin story, rather than other, more immediate forms of injustice. The subject of this trauma wasn’t Kamala herself, but a family, a culture,” Khara tells DW.

Highlighting South Asian musical talent

Music is one of the main pillars of the show. Kamala’s background score is an amalgamation of all her identities — ranging from The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” to Shae Gill and Ali Sethi’s latest chartbuster, “Pasoori.”

While her parents jam to Nazia Hassan’s “Disco Deewane” and Jon Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” young Pakistani artists like Hasan Raheem, Talal Qureshi and Pakistani-Canadian Khanvict set the tone for the series’ pivotal moments.

South Asian-origin sensations like the Swet Shop Boys, Ritviz, Rajakumari and Tesher add a new-age touch, while older hitmakers like Asha Bhosle, Lata Mangeshkar, S.P. Balasubramaniam and Abida Parveen make the soundtrack timeless.

“I got goosebumps each time the songs played. These aren’t just songs I know — they’re on my timeless playlist,” Khara says.

‘Pervserse rehashing of trauma’

Suhasini Krishnan, a 28-year-old New Delhi-based media professional, finds the partition trauma to be a storytelling cliche — even though it is also part of her own family’s fate. Her uncles and aunts saw the horrors of partition as they moved from “East Pakistan” — now Bangladesh — to today’s India.

“The same old pitfall of diversity plotlines is that the only South Asian diaspora experience that they can front is the partition experience,” she tells DW, referring to the portrayal almost as a “perverse rehashing of trauma.”

Her criticism is shared by many, who say that the region should not be reduced to a nostalgic notion or a homogeneous mass.

“This type of nostalgia is also dangerous. We are culturally very different, even within the same country. To deny ourselves this heterogeneity is also a loss of identity,” Krishnan says.

Regardless, “Ms. Marvel” has taken a step toward making several South Asians, especially in the diaspora, feel seen. This is undeniably a step in the right direction, according to “Ms. Marvel” stans.

The last episode of the miniseries will be released on Disney+ on July 13. An upcoming film, “The Marvels” (2023), will reprise characters from the series, including Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan.

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