[The following story contains spoilers for Ms. Marvel’s fifth episode, “Time and Again.”]
At first glance, a documentary that won two Oscars and seven Emmys doesn’t seem like the most obvious fit for Marvel Studios’ latest Disney + series, Ms. Marvel – but Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy quickly proved herself to be the most ideal choice.
Obaid-Chinoy directed episodes four and five of Kamala Khan / Ms. Marvel’s (Iman Vellani) origin story, and the two episodes took Kamala on a trip to modern-day Karachi, Pakistan, as well as to the distant past in the form of 1947’s partition of India. The Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker not only grew up in Karachi, but she’s also devoted her life to documenting the partition of India, which turned British India into the independent dominions of India and Pakistan.
“I started an oral history archive in Pakistan in 2007. It is the largest oral history archive of the partition in Pakistan. So we’ve recorded over 3,000 interviews, and we have over 40,000 photographs from 1947 in our archive. We also built the first museum about partition in Pakistan, ”Obaid-Chinoy tells The Hollywood Reporter.
So if anyone was going to bring authenticity to this point in Kamala’s journey, it was Obaid-Chinoy, but even she recognized that her hiring was a roll of the dice. “Initially, I really did think about the insanity of giving these two episodes to a documentary filmmaker who’s never done narrative, but then as I began to look at them… I completely understood why I was tasked with it,” Obaid-Chinoy says.
In a spoiler conversation with THRObaid-Chinoy also broke down the big twist involving Kamala’s role in her family’s partition story.
Ms. Marvel is a complete left turn from your previous work as a documentary, although something tells me that you may have found a connection between the two. So why did you want to help tell this story?
For the better part of two decades, I have been telling stories of extraordinary people who are creating change in their communities, whether it’s health or education or climate change. They are superheroes, but they’re heroes without capes. And they have all found their voices on this journey towards connecting with their communities. So when Ms. Marvel came to me and I was deciding whether I’d want to put my hat in the ring for it, I thought, “This would be the perfect project for me to cross over, because it’s true to my values of trying to create films that open people’s eyes to something that they wouldn’t necessarily have gravitated towards and it introduces people to a different world. ” They are Ms. Marvel fit all of that for me, and I thought I could contribute towards Ms. Marvel’s story.
What did your earliest conversations with Marvel entail?
So very early on, I had meetings with the supervising producers, and we just talked about why I wanted to do the project and what I could bring to the project. And then just before the pandemic hit, I flew to LA and met with [Marvel President] Kevin Feige, Victoria [Alonso]Lou [D’Esposito]Jenna Berger, who was the supervising producer at that time, and [head writer-EP] Bisha K. Ali. And then I gave this presentation, right down to what Kamala should be wearing. So I thought about the story long and hard. I have two daughters, and I thought about how this superhero would change the way my own daughters see superheroes and see themselves in this divisive world that we live in. So I thought about how I’d want to shape the character and how I would bring authentic voices to help Kamala tell her story.
In episode five, you were tasked with recreating real-world history in the form of 1947’s partition of India. Did you utilize archive footage so that unfamiliar viewers would immediately know that this was a very real story despite its depiction in the heightened Marvel universe?
The partition of the Indian subcontinent has very rarely been visualized, and even though it was one of the largest mass migrations that the world saw, it is not a world event that everyone is familiar with. So I thought that the best way to contextualize where we were and what the stakes were, was to draw from history.
I started an oral history archive in Pakistan in 2007. It is the largest oral history archive of partition in Pakistan. So we’ve recorded over 3,000 interviews, and we have over 40,000 photographs from 1947 in our archive. We also built the first museum about the partition in Pakistan. So I have dedicated my entire life and my energies towards understanding the partition because no independent archives existed in my country. There wasn’t anything that really talked about the true heartbreak and horror that people went through, but also the triumph.
And so when I read episodes four and five, I was really delighted that I was the director who was tasked to bring them to life. Initially, I really did think about the insanity of giving these two episodes to a documentary filmmaker who’s never done narrative, but then as I began to look at them and spend time with them and live and breathe them, I completely understood why I was tasked with it.
I’m amazed by the fact that so much material exists and that you already possessed a lot of it.
Early on, I drew from the oral histories from the Citizens Archive of Pakistan and from the Citizens Archive of India. Those are two independent archives that exist in both the countries. And then I went into Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs from 1947. She photographed the processions leaving their homes, refugee tent camps and the train stations. And then Jules O’Loughlin, my DP, myself, Christopher Glass, the production designer, Arjun Bhasin, our costume designer, [executive producer] Sana Amanat and Jenna Berger sat down after I pulled hundreds of photographs. I made this drive, and then I shared that with all the [department heads].
So in episode four and episode five, every single frame that deals with the partition is a recreation of an image that I had seen and wanted to bring to life in this story. For the first time, we had been given the opportunity to tell the story of partition to an audience that is truly global and international. So the script came with a responsibility on my part to do justice to that time. So many of our stories and so many of our families are linked to 1947, and it was something that I took very seriously in recreating.
All season long, we’ve been hearing about Kamala’s family’s partition story, and then episode five revealed that Kamala was actually the one who helped young Sana (Zion Usman) onto the train, not Aisha (Mehwish Hayat). What were the most important factors to you as you presented this reveal?
This story of partition is the story of one family that was torn apart, and it’s emblematic of so many stories of families torn apart. So when Hasan [Fawad Khan] goes onto the platform and loses baby Sana, you hear him screaming out her name. That story of calling out your child’s name in this unfamiliar place, with the bustle and the mother who gets stabbed just a few tracks away, intercutting literally the breakup of a family in this truly chaotic time, was important. The tension had to build to a level where you could feel the pain of the father, the mother, and the daughter, as all three of them grappled with the events that were unfolding around them.
So for the first half of partition, I wanted Kamala to be Kamala. I did not want her to be a superhero because she was going to be bearing witness to this very important historical moment. And when she walked on the platform for the first time, I wanted her to hear snippets of people’s conversations and to understand what it meant for people to leave their homes, their lives, their best friends and their family members. I wanted her to understand where she was before she found her great grandmother [Aisha] and saved her grandmother [Sana].
Kamala conjured platforms for Sana to walk across, but then she was knocked over and seemingly lost her connection to Sana. Did the subsequent trail of stars still come from Kamala, or did Sana and Aisha somehow contribute to them, too?
They came from Kamala. She saved her grandmother. When she fell, that broke the platforms that she was creating, but it resulted in the trail of stars, which Hasan saw.
Each mother in this episode had to learn to let go of their child at a certain point. Aisha had to do so much earlier than present-day Sana (Samina Ahmad), Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff) and Najma (Nimra Bucha), but what’s your impression of that through line?
The entire series is about mothers and daughters, and it’s about their relationships and the sacrifices that they make. Each mother and daughter in the series has a different relationship, but together, they have a very universal bond. But it also tells a story about how mothers have to let go of their daughters so that they can go and find their own voices.
Since you’re from Karachi, are there any personal or autobiographical touches that you were able to include on the modern-day sets?
In recreating Karachi, I thought about all the landmarks that I had visited when I was growing up and the things that meant most to me. I wanted the audience to walk the streets of Karachi through my sort of lens and how I see my streets. So the color and the vivaciousness of Karachi were important to recreate. Karachi is always seen through this yellow filter, and I wanted people to see what Karachi is, which is bright and colorful.
Because of this series, people all around the world now have a better understanding of Muslim and Pakistani culture. Was accurately depicting your culture to the uninitiated one of the many benefits of this job?
Absolutely. It is so important to have storytellers behind the camera who can bring authenticity to it. We often see Pakistan, or we often see Muslims, but the storytellers are not from that region. And when they are from that region, they bring a heart and soul to the storytelling that is very different. It’s a connectivity that is very different. Why does Ms. Marvel shine so much? Why does it authentically tell a story? It’s because Marvel put together the most diverse cast and crew that you can think of. Crew, especially, came from around the world in order to tell this story, and they all drew on their own experiences to create costumes, production design and props. So I think that’s why the vivaciousness of Ms. Marvel really comes through. You can actually see that there is a through line of jokes and language and music and festivities that have been woven in, and they speak to the communities where these stories come from.
Have you already started to feel the impact of this story and character on Muslim and Pakistani children?
I will say that my inbox is full of people reaching out from all around the world to say that their children finally have a representation of themselves on screen. And so I think that is extremely important. The idea that anybody can be a hero is true representation.
Now that you’ve had your first go-round with narrative storytelling in the MCU, would you like to reunite with Kamala someday?
I would love to continue to be a part of the storytelling team that tells her story, but there are some bigger horizons for Kamala in The Marvels. There are other storylines that she has to conquer now.
Story edited for length and clarity.
Ms. Marvel is currently streaming on Disney +.