Ms. Marvel: A brown girl from Jersey City

Well, I never thought I’d hear a 1940s Hindi film song by Suraiya playing over the Marvel Studios intro, but here we are, and I’ll admit it makes me a bit emotional. Not that I look to Hollywood/Disney to fully represent my Indian cultural heritage, but to have those two separate streams of my pop culture interest intersect in such a visible way is surprisingly moving. It’s so different from random samplings like “Chaiyya Chaiyya” at the beginning of Inside Man, or ScarJo watching a 1960s (’70s? – it’s been a while since I saw Ghost World) Hindi film song to show that she’s quirky. Those moments just annoy me because they lack any cultural context. “Tu Mera Chand” at the beginning of Ms. Marvel episode 5 connects to Kamala’s personal and cultural context, and that lends emotional weight.

I’m an Indian woman who lived in Jersey City for 12 years, so of course I watched Ms. Marvel. I only read the first 3 issues of the comic, partly because (embarrassed to say) I didn’t really know anything about Captain Marvel at the time. I enjoyed the show so much more than I expected! Iman Vellani is charming, Zenobia Shroff (Muneeba aka Ammi) is a damn treasure, and Mohan Kapur’s (Yusuf aka Abbu) comic timing elevates even the smallest moments.

When it focuses on Kamala and her family, the show is so specific and funny and true. An incomplete list of the moments that made me laugh out loud in recognition:

  • Muneeba totally ignoring Bruno’s polite “no thank you” and instantly producing the neatly-stacked dabbas of food for him to take home, complete with less/more spicy options. My high school friends used to say that no matter what time they came over to my house, my mom was putting food on the table, and she always had some that was “not spicy, just for you.”
  • Bruno, about his kurta at the Eid celebration: “Is it too bright?” Muneeba: “I don’t understand the question?” with that hilarious lilt in her voice. We are not afraid of bright colors.
  • Nakia: “I also have pads; I know your mom is weird about tampons.”
  • Nakia’s shoes being stolen at the masjid. The show could’ve gotten even more specific – Kamala could’ve said, “Well, that’s what you get for leaving both shoes in the cubby!” I asked my dad about the single chappal in the cubby at the mandir a few years ago, and he laughed and said “Oh, some folks only leave one shoe in the cubby and carry the other one with them, so that no one is tempted to steal their shoes because who wants a single shoe?”

After the first few episodes, I found myself wishing that Ms. Marvel wasn’t part of the MCU, that it could just be its own thing about a desi girl navigating different, unexpected facets of her life, sort of like (I swear I made this reference before a panelist said it on Pop Culture Happy Hour) Never Have I Ever with emerging superpowers.

Sure enough, the show wobbles a bit when it has to connect to the MCU. I mean, it’s a hoot to have Farhan Akhtar (!!) pop up, but the show loses some specificity and emotional truth once we get into Clan Destines, Red Daggers, Damage Control etc. The flashback episode about Aisha and Hassan (Khoobsurat hottie Fawad Khan!) is lovely – their relationship is beautifully sketched, like a mini-movie – and I give the show credit for tackling the emotional trauma of Partition, but it loses some energy when it has to move pieces into their MCU places.

Overall, though, I think Ms. Marvel sticks the landing better than WandaVision and far, far better than Loki, which became practically inert at the end. It gets back into a grove once the action returns to Jersey City and Kamala’s community there (Bruno and Kamran’s halaal/haraam baseball caps – LOL). I teared up when Muneeba presents Kamala her made-in-Karachi superhero outfit, literally stitching various parts of Kamala’s identity together, and I gave a little cheer for Kamala’s “Embiggen.”

P.S. Thank you, Abbu, for explaining why we pronounce Kamala like the Urdu “kamaal” – wonder/marvel, instead of the Hindi “kamal” – lotus.

I was telling my bestie that the show explores, without being didactic, how questions of inexplicable borders, finding a new home, and creating a new identity are all part of Aisha’s story as a Clandestine, Sana’s journey as a muhajir (migrant in her new country of Pakistan), Muneeba’s life as an immigrant in the US, and Kamala’s navigation of her identity as a Pakistani-American girl and her discovery of her superpowers. Great job of showing, not telling, Ms. Marvel!

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