Right representation demands authenticity. In past, many Hollywood movies and TV shows have tried to portray the South Asian culture on screen. However, finding ‘the right way’ these are done through a Western lens has been a tough job. These representations are often tagged with many cliches like exotic costumes, jewellery, accents, or wrong portrayals.
It all started with Tony Stark’s abduction by the Ten Rings in Afghanistan, or Bruce Banner’s humanitarian efforts in Kolkata (West Bengal), but since then, a lot has changed. Marvel is now trying new genres in its new projects. It is looking for stories and characters which are diverse. It wants its fans in even the remotest part of the globe to have that familiar feeling that even they are a part of this huge universe.
Let’s look at some of Marvel’s attempts at South Asian culture representation in its recent projects. Things they did right and things they did not.
After the phenomenal success of Black Panther (strongly representing the Black communities), Marvel eyed at representing Chinese culture on screen. Shang-Chi tried to be an honest and sincere attempt to reflect the complexity of the Asian culture. A number of Chinese inspirations can be found in this movie like – Dragon being represented as a serpentine creature, 9-tailed fox Huli jing, Fighting styles like Tai Chi, Shrines of the dead, Guardian Lions Shishi, Lotus Flower lanterns, and many more.
Simu Liu brought this superhero to life. The presence of Awkwafina and other heavyweight actors such at Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh, this ambitious project proved to be a tremendous success. Behind the scenes, East Asian creatives were just as well represented. Dave Callahan wrote the script and Destin Daniel Cretton sat on the Director’s chair.
When Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani was cast as Kingo, as one of the all powerful cosmic beings known as Eternals, every South Asian rejoiced. Indians were excited on hearing that there is going to be a Bollywood number in the film. The veteran Bollywood actor- Harish Patel was co-starring in the movie too. Kumail jacked up for the role and Indians rushed to theatres. Be it the use of Hindi in the film or the use of Bollywood slang like Dishoom when Kingo fired fireballs from his fingers at the Deviant or a brief look at a semi-traditional Hindu wedding in the rich Gupta period or the chemistry between Kumail and Harish’s characters, each did a solid job.
For too long, pop culture has presented a narrow view of India and the subcontinent, problematically focused on its wealth disparities. These attempts highlights the role of South Asians in Hollywood’s success even more obvious. Hopefully, when the Eternals return, Kingo and India, will be an even bigger part of the story.
Marvel’s latest offering – Ms Marvel, is truly a breath of fresh air. It shows the vibrancy, ebullient, funny and positive side of Muslims and Islam in Hollywood. It is a slap on the many films and projects in the past that have brainwashed everyone in believing that every Muslim is a terrorist. Iman Vellani, who plays the titular character of Kamala is truly a star in the making. Her mother thinks the superhero costumes are too ‘tight’ and will lead her to do haraam activities. Receiving a mysterious amulet inherited from her nani, our high-school Muslim girl heads to a spectacular adventure. In an ever-going dark and gritty superhero stories, the show embraces its comic book roots.
Frequent usage of Hindi words like Chalo, Kameena kahin ka, etc just brings these stories closer to South Asian audience, making them feel more familiar and connected. Because of this scenes like a group of characters talking about one of the most tragic incidents in Indian History – the partition between India and Pakistan and the resulting riots, are sure to give goosebumps. Occupying the director’s chair are Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and Meera Menon. The series showcases some amazing performances from Zenobia Shroff (the Mom) and Mohan Kapur (the Dad) and soon enough Farhan Akhtar is also about to make an appearance in one of the upcoming episodes.
As said earlier, the right representation demands authenticity. So, Marvel still has a long way to go. Maybe somewhere a girl from a third-world country is finding a pride by ogling at Kamala Khan’s powers. And imagining the same sparkling purple projections protruding from her tiny steel bangles on her wrist.