She’s Pakistani American, loves Shah Rukh Khan and manages permission from her protective parents to be ‘distracted’ from her studies for a party but only if 'Abbu' takes her. That’s Kamala Khan, Marvel’s latest superhero whose very name emblemises a composite South Asian culture and identity.
Ms Marvel, a high school student dealing with teen angst and pains growing up in Jersey City, made her debut on OTT on Wednesday. Pakistani Canadian actor Iman Vellani plays the first South Asian superhero of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and hopes the series is a “good start” for more such stories.
“It’s so wonderful and it truly sets the example for other studios and other people to kind of tell their own stories because obviously Ms Marvel cannot represent every single South Asian Muslim person, but it’s a start and it’s a good start,” the actor said in a recent global roundtable interview.
An avid gamer, the cleverly named Kamala, synthesising in her moniker various identities of region and religion, is a Captain Marvel fan with an overactive imagination. She feels she doesn’t fit in at school and sometimes even at home until she gets superpowers like the heroes she’s always looked up to.
The series, which also references Partition, has already caught the attention of Marvel’s South Asian fans, particularly those living in India and Pakistan, for its numerous Bollywood and Shah Rukh Khan mentions, its positive focus on Islam as a religion and the familiar areas of conflict between parents and their children. There is a smattering of Hindi - the father goes ‘Chak De Phatte’ at one point -- plenty of love and food too.
The references to South Asia are many and detailed. Kamala, for instance, believes ‘Baazigar’ is Shah Rukh’s best movie till date. There is also this dialogue - “There’s no such thing as a bad Shah Rukh Khan movie.”
At a recent press conference for the show, the creators were asked about the possibility of Shah Rukh being a part of the show.
Vellani responded to the question with one of her own, “Can we afford him?”
Bilal Fallah, director and executive producer on the show, said, “Well, if he wants to, we gonna shoot again.”
The series features Indian actors Mohan Kapur and Zenobia Shroff as Kamala’s affectionate but overprotective parents - Yusuf and Muneeba Khan. They want their daughter to spread her wings but find themselves at odds with her and her ambitions.
Muneeba’s family also carries the scars of Partition of the subcontinent and hides a major secret.
In keeping with the South Asian appeal of the show, Pakistan’s Fawad Khan and India’s Farhan Akhtar have been announced as cast members but don’t make an appearance in the first two episodes provided to critics.
Actor-director Akhtar shared a post on Tuesday to praise Marvel for its “conscious inclusiveness” and celebration of diversity.
“This post is in appreciation of creators, the directors and all those in front and behind the camera, who collaborated to make Ms Marvel what it is... It’s in appreciation of Marvel. I’m proud to be part of their conscious inclusiveness. This show is a celebration of diversity and it certainly will bring joy and pride of self-identity to millions of girls and boys of the sub-continent (sic),” the actor said.
According to Vellani, it’s admirable that a big franchise like Marvel is creating space for characters like Kamala and Shang Chi, the Simu Liu-led hero of ‘Shang-Chi And The Legend of The Ten Rings’, MCU’s first Asian superhero.
“I didn't even think that being in Hollywood or being in this industry was something I could even dream of, because I never get to see myself in that light. I just didn't think those two things went hand in hand.
“My entire family … they're very academic. My brother's an engineer. My mom's a nurse practitioner. My dad's an accountant. So, I was like, am I supposed to be the lawyer or something? But here I am, like going for the arts and it's just wonderful that there's even space for people like me to kind of exist,” she said.
Vellani said it feels “super weird” to be an MCU fan and then see her face on giant billboards. “It’s super awkward and weird and I am kind of like disassociating myself from it, but it is what it is.”
Oscar-winning star Brie Larson, who plays the role of Captain Marvel in the franchise, and will reprise her role in the upcoming film ‘The Marvels’, also featuring Vellani, has been a huge help for the young actor in dealing with the instant fame that has come her way.
“I was asking her if it ever becomes normal seeing your face that big on a screen or billboard or on posters…It’s just so unnatural for any human to get that amount of attention. She was like ‘Honestly, it never gets normal. It feels like it’s always happening to someone else’. Just hearing that from her was very comforting…”
Kamala is maybe the first Muslim superhero but Vellani said she does not feel any pressure in that direction. She is more worried about how the show is judged by the “picky” Marvel fandom.
“I was honestly feeling more pressured on the fan culture side of things. I really do think we did a wonderful job in organically incorporating diversity and culture into Kamala’s story in a way that uplifts her hero’s journey. We use religion, faith and culture to guide and be her moral code so I wasn’t really worried about that. Honestly, to be a nerd and represent other nerds… that was scary.”
Based on the comics created by Bisha K Ali, the series started streaming in India on Disney+Hotstar from June 8 in English, Hindi, Telugu and Malayalam.
Besides Vellani, the series' cast includes Matt Lintz, Yasmeen Fletcher, Saagar Shaikh, Rish Shah, Nimra Bucha and Travina Springer with Aramis Knight.
The directors are Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, Meera Menon and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been behind some of the most successful superhero films. These include ‘Iron Man’, ‘The Avengers’, ‘Ant-Man’, ‘Captain America’, ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ and ‘Black Panther’.
[With Inputs From PTI]