“It’s not really the brown girls from Jersey City who save the world”, says Kamala Khan in the first episode of Ms Marvel – the Disney+ Hotstar series which marks the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Pakistani superhero. Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, known for acclaimed, social justice documentaries such as Saving Face, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, and A Journey of a Thousand Miles, helms the superhero series’ fourth and fifth episodes. Also read: Ms Marvel: How the Marvel Cinematic Universe show gets Partition right while so many others fail
The fourth episode sees young Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) journey from Jersey City to Karachi to learn more about her newfound powers and her lineage. By examining the stories of Kamala’s great-grandmother (a being from another world, responsible for Kamala’s abilities), the show delves into the trauma of Partition as well.
Over Zoom, I spoke to Sharmeen about recreating Karachi, the show’s massive ambitions, and what it does for representation.
What was the most surreal “I can’t believe this is actually happening” moment you had on set?
When we were standing on the platform there were close to a thousand extras on set in the scene where we’d gone back into 1947. When Kamala was walking on the platform, listening to these snatches of conversations, there was a moment when all of us on set couldn’t believe that we were able to recreate Partition and tell this story to this generation. For that time we were filming her walking through that platform, we really were transported into 1947. Each one of us felt the pain of what those families were going through and it felt like we were bearing witness to history.
Speaking of being transported, the fourth episode takes place entirely in Karachi, and it’s clear you’ve recreated Karachi in a studio space. What was the biggest challenge in recreating the feeling of such a distinct, bustling city?
When I think about Karachi, which is my home city, I think about its loud buses and trucks, the colour, the markets, and the textiles that are sold. And just the quirkiness of having a Chinese dentist next to a clock shop and dupattas being sold and people haggling. I just wanted all of that to come alive. I wanted Kamala to go on this adventure of exploration and take the audience with her, most of whom were probably going to see Karachi for the first time. And I wanted them to see Karachi the way I see Karachi. That’s why the choice of music we used, the trucks on the street, the look of the Chinese restaurant she walks through – all of it was very deliberate. All of that was brought in and created to make it look and feel like Karachi and i think we have managed that.
The show really tries to do a lot over its six episodes. There’s the young adult coming of age story, the responsibility of depicting Pakistani culture and examining Partition, and then of course the Marvel superhero-ness aspect. Was there ever a fear of balancing all those aspects and not having one thing drown out the others?
What I wanted with this show was I for everyone to fall in love with Kamala Khan’s family and, in falling in love with them, you’d want to eat the food they’re eating and use the slang they’re using and listen to the music they’re listening to. We wanted to introduce the richness of our culture and our lives which, outside our immediate world, few people are aware of. We wanted to draw them in through weddings and festivals, and that’s all we’ve tried to do. I’ll give you an example – when Kamala first comes to Karachi, the food that she’s trying and the directions she asking for, all of that is introducing you to a place and a culture and a people in an organic way, and I hope we’ve been able to do that.