Why ‘Ms. Marvel’ director told us the show’s cast and crew was ‘rare’
Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who is behind episodes 4 and 5, talked about recreating history and working with a team of well-known South Asian actors
“Ms. Marvel” is rated TV-PG and is available to stream on Disney+.
Marvel’s latest series, “Ms. Marvel,” offers an authentic South Asian story through its cast and crew of well-known Indians and Pakistanis.
Consider the directors for the show: Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, a Muslim European director duo; Meera Menon, an Indian American director and writer; and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a Pakistani Canadian documentarian and two-time Academy Award winner. So far, viewers have gotten a taste of what this entire bunch has to offer — whether it’s El Arbi and Fallah’s version of Kamala’s life in Jersey City or Menon’s model of an Eid celebration in America.
But Obaid-Chinoy’s episodes take us all the way to Pakistan, where Ms. Marvel’s journey began. A few of the scenes she directed take viewers into 1947, when India and Pakistan became separate nations. This partition resulted in mass displacement, death, riots and a deeper division between Hindus and Muslims. Episodes 4 and 5 attempt to depict this historical moment as accurately as possible.
In an interview with the Deseret News, Obaid-Chinoy revealed how she put her documentary skills to use in these episodes, what working on set was like and what she thinks of the lead actress, Iman Vellani.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: It’s so nice to virtually meet you. So, let’s start from the beginning — How did you get connected to this project?
Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Well, I knew that “Ms Marvel” was looking for directors and I have always wanted to tell stories that made people see things in a different light. This would be the perfect shift from documentary filmmaking animation into narrative filmmaking. So, I decided to throw my hat in the ring — I put together this presentation and met with Marvel Studios, pitched them my idea of what I wanted Kamala Khan to be like, and what kind of adventure I wanted her to go on. Before I knew it, I was calling “action” on set.
DN: What were some of the ideas you had initially pitched that actually came to fruition?
SOC: So much of my episodes are rooted in my ideas — where she goes, the Red Daggers hideout is, the beach where she goes on the heritage walk, her cousin’s and grandmother’s interaction with her, and of course, the (India-Pakistan) partition.
I wanted Kamala to bear witness to this monumentally historic moment in our lives that is seldom visualized on screen, as she listens to snippets of conversation — all real exchanges that we drew from oral histories — and for her to just be Kamala Khan and not a superhero.
DN: Did your documentary skills come in handy while filming those scenes?
SOC: I took all the photographs that spoke to me from 1947 and I recreated them on the train platform. So, everything you see on the platform comes out of a photograph I was bringing to life.
DN: Let’s talk a little bit about the action sequence and the process of getting there.
SOC: Well, I knew that I wanted to use the location as a prop — the pushcarts, the fabrics, the soda truck — as much as possible. Gary Powell was there and he’s one of the best stunt directors that there are. We sat down and worked on how we wanted the chase to be.
Then Sana Amanat, who’s one of the co-creators, and I talked about all of the things that we find that are so germane to South Asian audiences, like six people on a bike. We wanted to bring all of those elements in, and create like an obstacle course.
We’ve made sure that Kamala was on the street running, trying to drive a car. The rickshaw was there, and there was a truck, because Pakistan has these beautiful trucks that are hand-painted. We wanted to draw all of those things in.
DN: That sounds beautiful and it definitely comes across in the show. Farhan Akhtar, an actor I previously interviewed for the show, mentioned that the set was a happy environment to be in. Why do you think that was the case?
SOC: It’s so rare to have a cast and crew that is drawn from around the world that has a singular goal and vision, which is to give life to Kamala Khan, to make audiences fall in love with her.
We had Indians and Pakistanis on set as actors and crew members. We had people that came from as far away as Australia and Canada and England. It is so rare to have that on a film set. Kudos to Marvel for putting together the authentic voices: Kamala Khan’s parents are Indian but the cousins are Pakistani. Farhan Akhtar, Mehwish Hayat, Nimra Bucha, Fawad Khan are all there on set. it was truly special to direct these episodes.
DN: What do you think about the actress who plays Kamala? How do you think she fits into the role?
SOC: Iman Vellani is Kamala and she’s a first-generation Canadian and an MCU nerd herself — not just in character, but in real life.
When we were working together, I don’t think she quite realized the magnitude of who she was about to become. Millions of young people around the world see a reflection of themselves in power in the diaspora communities, in the Indian subcontinent communities and in the immigrant communities.
DN: We previously had reported that the show was getting review bombed, even though critics' reviews were extremely high. What do you think about that reaction from the U.S.?
SOC: We live in a deeply divisive world but this is such a beautiful story of a family. The critics have already embraced it and everyone who watches “Ms. Marvel” becomes an ambassador of the show. The viewership of the show is going to grow.
DN: My last question: Who is your favorite Marvel superhero? It can’t be Ms. Marvel.
SOC (laughing): Yeah, one of my favorites is Thor. But of course, we all love Spider-Man.