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Disney's 'Ms. Marvel' features 1st Muslim superhero


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A new Disney+ series features the first Muslim superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and is now one of the highest rated shows of its kind.

Amna Nawaz talked to the director about bring this character to life. It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Matt Lintz, Actor: What does it feel like?

Iman Vellani, Actress: Cosmic.

Amna Nawaz: It's the origin story of Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani American living in New Jersey and Marvel's newest superhero.

The six-part series now streaming on Disney+ follows Khan, a Marvel Comics-obsessed teen and super fan of Captain Marvel, who suddenly finds herself thrust into the superhero ranks when an ancient family heirloom grants Khan her own superpowers.

Iman Vellani: I'm a superhero.

Amna Nawaz: But "Ms. Marvel" brings something new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, as it's known. The series is based on Marvel's first Muslim lead character and weaves Kamala Khan's culture throughout, with Pakistani music, food and dialogue in Urdu.

Zenobia Shroff, Actress: Bara Hulk or choti Hulk?

Amna Nawaz: I spoke with one of the directors of the show, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, on representing both hero and heritage in "Ms. Marvel."

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Director: If you had told me that this story would be told 20 years ago, when I was growing up, I would have laughed at it.

But my daughters are going to have a superhero that looks like them, that are use — about curfew just the way they do, or that are given what they should be wearing.

What "Ms. Marvel" does is, it takes audiences into our world, lets them in into our secret, that we have this beautiful, colorful, incredible culture.

Amna Nawaz: Pakistani Canadian Obaid-Chinoy burst onto the world stage in 2012, winning an Oscar for her documentary "Saving Face" on acid attacks against women in Pakistan. She won again in 2016 for "A Girl in the River" about honor killings.

How does a director go from Academy Award-winning documentaries to a live-action superhero teen series? What is it that drew you to this project?

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Amna, I have always sort of filmed men and women around the world who are extraordinary, who are creating change in their communities, working on climate change or health or education.

They are superheroes. And so, when "Ms. Marvel" came around, I thought about what she would mean to millions of people around the world who would see a reflection of themselves in her. And I knew immediately that she was in the same vein as the kind of projects that I have always been doing.

Amna Nawaz: The heart and face of the show, Pakistani Canadian actress Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan.

Iman Vellani: I really hope that the show can do for other people with the comics did for me.

Amna Nawaz: Iman Vellani is actually Kamala Khan, she is a Pakistani Canadian who grew up as a first-generation immigrant.

And she is just this incredible actress. And she sort of just eased into that role.

Saagar Shaikh, Actor: Oh, my God.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: In the filming of the series, Iman connected with her own culture.

Amna Nawaz: In the final two episodes of the series, Khan finds herself in Karachi, Pakistan, Obaid-Chinoy's hometown.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: We often see Pakistan in Hollywood through this yellow filter. It's like the entire country has jaundice.

In my episode, she goes on this chase through the streets of Karachi, where you have trucks and buses and things happening. In the chaos of her chase is the beauty of Pakistan that I wanted to bring onto the screen.

Iman Vellani: About the bangles.

Samina Ahmed, Actress: That bangle belongs to my Aisha.

Iman Vellani: The one who disappeared during Partition, my great-grandmother Aisha?

Amna Nawaz: There is a history lesson embedded in the magic. Khan herself time-traveling to 1947 Partition, the division of India and Pakistan that led to one of the largest and deadliest mass migrations in world history.

Tell me why you decided to go into that in the detail you did?

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: It isn't something that people talk about very much.

And it's definitely never visualized in Hollywood. I didn't want to sanitize the history, that moment. It might be part of a superhero story, but these kinds of stories are very real. Many families lost each other in the move. Many people were killed in them.

And so that had to be kept alive. The ethos of 1947 had to be kept alive.

Amna Nawaz: Today, Kamala Khan is breaking ground and taking up space in a world that's long sidelined and silenced voices like hers. A report last year from the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative looked at the 200 top-grossing films between 2017 and 2019; 90.5 percent didn't feature any Muslims and speaking roles.

Among those that had any Muslim characters, less than a quarter were women. The representation on screen, Obaid-Chinoy says, is rooted in the team off-camera, like executive producer Sana Amanat, lead writer Bisha K. Ali, and their teams.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I remember walking on set and thinking that what I'm experiencing is truly historic, where not only is there representation of people from around the world who are helping to tell the Kamala Khan story, but there is also representation in terms of the number of women who are in decision-making seats.

In the "Ms. Marvel" story, you can see it on screen that it has been told with a lot of love, with a lot of electricity.

Amna Nawaz: And that story is resonating. "Ms. Marvel" now boasts a 98 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, the highest rated Disney+ original series ever and the highest rated Marvel series in history. Though critical acclaim is high, some audiences are just now catching up.

There were some early reports that viewership, at least initial viewership, lagged some of these other big series launches. And I wonder why you think that is.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: We're used to seeing superheroes who are white and who are men.

We're not used to seeing brown, women, immigrant superheroes. And I think that audiences were slow to accept it. I think the idea of "Ms. Marvel" doesn't sit well with a lot of people. But I will also say that it is changing, because, as more and more people watch it and word spreads, even if it's out of curiosity, the naysayers are watching it.

And there are elements of it that are resonating with them, because, at the heart of it all, it is the story of one family and their struggles and their love and their celebrations.

Change comes slowly. It never comes easy.

Amna Nawaz: Kamala Khan has now firmly found her place in the superhero world. Audiences will see her next in the feature film "The Marvels" coming in 2023.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

Judy Woodruff: I love that, and it is about time.

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