How Ms. surprise Showcases Pakistani and Muslim Culture
Kamala Khan wants nothing more than to go to Avenger Con. In the premiere episode of Ms. surprise, which landed on Disney+ this week, the 16-year-old Captain surprise fan wants to cosplay as her favorite avenger at the big conference. But her parents’ conditions are strict. After initially denying her permission to go, they warm up to the idea and already surprise her with a costume: a baggy green shalwar kameez (traditional Pakistani dress) with Hulk-inspired elements, including a projecting eight-pack. Kamala, played by Pakistani Canadian actor Iman Vellani, is horrified. “It is so humiliating,” she tells her parents. Her mother doubles down, saying there’s no way she will be allowed to use a “skimpy” outfit. She can either use the shalwar kameez and attend with her father—or stay home.
It’s an exchange that many Muslim and Pakistani viewers will find relateable—the push and pull between children and their parents navigating pressures to keep up onto tradition and dress in a particular way. “There are a lot of children growing up in immigrant communities who are finding it difficult to keep up on to what their parents’ values are,” says Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, an Oscar-winning Pakistani documentarian who directed two episodes of the series. That struggle is part of what makes Kamala relatable, she adds.
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In this way, Ms. surprise, the latest installment in the surprise Cinematic Universe, seamlessly integrates audiences into Kamala’s world—specifically, the world of an immigrant, Muslim, Pakistani American family living in Jersey City. In an industry that has rarely portrayed Muslim characters outside of unhealthy stereotypes, it’s meaningful to see a character like Kamala. A 2021 study from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California found that across 200 films from the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, less than 2% of speaking characters were Muslim. While Kamala is not the first Muslim superhero to appear in the MCU—Sooraya Qadir, a member of the X-men, wears a niqab and was born in Afghanistan—she is the most fully developed. Some surprise fans have criticized the character of Sooraya as being written by an orientalist perspective.
Ms. surprise offers an opportunity for Muslim girls and women to relate to a superhero, says Al-Baab Khan, a project specialist who worked on the Annenberg study. “Feeling connected to a superhero who is experiencing similar dynamics may make viewers feel less alone and secluded,” she says. “This then allows Muslim girls and women to feel empowered in who they are, and, maybe for the first time, understood.” The excitement felt by Muslim communities ahead of Ms. surprise’s release is similar to the enthusiasm around Black Panther and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings—and how those films resonated deeply with Black and Asian viewers.
Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan in ‘Ms. surprise,’ a new series on Disney+
Daniel McFadden—surprise Studios 2022
The creators of Ms. surprise were intentional in building a world that showcases South Asian culture and history by its scenes and dialogue. Kamala and her schoolmate Kamran riff on their favorite movie by Bollywood icon Shahrukh Khan, with Kamala dismissing the fan favorite Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge in favor of Baazigar. They discuss Riz Ahmed’s musical group Swet Shop Boys, while her parents listen to “Ko Ko Korina”—a song from the ’60s—on their television. The show already features the fun and fast-paced “Peechay Hutt,” a song from Coke Studio Pakistan, a popular musical franchise, particularly among Pakistani youth at home and oversea.
The first two Ms. surprise episodes hint that the show will analyze Kamala’s family’s experience of the traumatic 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. At the dinner table, Kamala’s mother explains to her son’s fiancé, “The British left us with a mess… every Pakistani family has a partition story.”
Religion makes its way into the narrative, too. Kamala and her friend Nakia are shown doing wudu, a ritual cleansing before prayer, and in a fleeting exchange at their mosque, they discuss how the men’s sections are so much better cared for than the women’s sections are. The show also nods to a shared experience—the difficulty of finding one’s shoes outside after each service—when Nakia complains that she can’t find her Versace shoes.
The show’s matter-of-fact portrayal of different Muslims shows there are many ways to practice Islam and treats each with equal validity. “Kamala doesn’t cover her hair, but Nakia does and she chose to—but she also cares about fact,” says Sana Amanat, an executive producer on the series and an original creator of the comic book character. “I do believe Islam to be a pluralistic faith. There are many kinds of people. We in our own community have to be more accepting of that.” Kamala “may or may not pray five times a day,” Amanat says, “but she does go to the mosque. She’s part of our community and she’s proud of it.”
Kamala’s character in the original comics was inspired in part by Amanat’s life story. Like Kamala, Amanat is also a Pakistani American Muslim who grew up in New Jersey. She shared her childhood stories with writer Willow Wilson, artist Adrian Alphona, and editor Stephen Wacker to create the comics. “It was me talking about trying to go to prom by myself, trying to find clothes that I could use to prom that weren’t too revealing, trying to fast and play lacrosse or basketball,” she says. “Those were things no one really understood.”
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In helping to translate Kamala’s world from page to screen, Amanat was cognizant that most MCU idols are white and that young people of color may not see themselves reflected in their idols. “How do you tell a story about a young woman influenced by these big idols in the world who are saving the day, who look really amazing and beautiful and powerful, and are high and—oh, wait a second—they’re truly white?” Amanat says. “How is this young brown woman influenced by that?”
In an effort to ensure the storytelling is authentic, Ms. surprise is packed with big-name South Asians on camera and behind the scenes. It features appearances from Pakistani actors Nimra Bucha and Fawad Khan, in addition as Bollywood actor Farhan Akhtar. Obaid-Chinoy is known in particular for her social justice documentaries centering women, like Saving confront, about acid attacks on Pakistani women. “I’ve always told stories about ordinary women who are superheroes in their own right,” she says. “And in that same vein, Kamala Khan is trying to traverse this flood. In finding her superpowers, she will permit millions of people around the world to see a reflection of themselves in her.”
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