MS. MARVEL’s Bisha K. Ali on Partition, Representation, and Hopes for a Red Dagger Spinoff

Ms. Marvel’s finale brought Kamala Khan’s origin story to a close, revealing that Kamala is a mutant, which bodes big consequences for the future of the MCU. And we saw Kamala’s first outing in her superhero suit, made with love by her mother. The show brought the first Muslim superhero in the MCU to our screens with a writers’ room full of Muslim and South Asian writers led by showrunner Bisha K. Ali. She’s no stranger to the MCU after working on Loki as well as popular shows like Sex Education. Nerdist spoke to Bisha K. Ali about Kamala’s journey in Ms. Marvel, the impact of Partition, and the importance of specificity in representation on-screen.

split photo of Bisha K Ali and Ms. Marvel together interview
Linda Kupo/Marvel Studios

Nerdist: It’s been such a journey for Kamala throughout the series. She went from believing that the bangle gave her powers, to believing she’s a Djinn and now a mutant. What was the motivation behind taking her through so many different moments of self-discovery?

Bisha K. Ali: That’s exactly it. The word that you put there was self-discovery, and that’s exactly her journey. That’s the whole arc of the show: she’s discovering who she is as an individual. Part of that is the stories that we believe about ourselves, and, especially for someone from [mine and Kamala’s] shared background, [part of that] is the things that people want to believe about you and the things that people say about you, the things that your own family might tell you about who you are, or [even] the stories they don’t know about who you are. The heart of this story is so much about the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we believe about ourselves, and the way we speak about each other. That ties up incredibly deeply with [the questions] “What are her powers?”, “Where are they from?”, and “What makes her who she is?”

That’s why we were moving through these different spaces. “Am I the worst possible thing I could imagine?” which is very much episode three when she hears the word Djinn. There’s nothing worse [for] someone from Kamala’s background to hear. That’s what knocks her off her track emotionally, where she says, “Well, I can’t be the superhero.” That’s because she just heard that word, which is just unfathomably bad for her. She’s looking outside for answers all the time. It’s only when she goes back into her own past when she [understands] “It doesn’t matter what I am, because really my power comes from these four generations of women.” That’s why we’re kind of going through this journey with her. 

The show has been lauded for its specificity in representation of Muslim and Pakistani communities. But there’s also often pressure to be representative of a community while trying to appeal to a wider audience. Did you feel that pressure? Do you think you were able to balance it effectively?

I don’t really know how to do something that’s really general. If they wanted that they should have hired someone else! That’s not really my approach and never has been in any of my work previously. I feel stumped at the idea of having to represent a billion plus people. What does that look like? I kind of get a bit confused when people say, “It’s good representation. It’s not perfect.” I’m like, “Okay, I’m excited to see the example of perfect representation that you’re talking about.” But the idea of specificity is the core of what I do and what I’m excited by and certainly what my writers are excited by. Can we go as specific as possible into what this family’s life might be?

MS. MARVEL's Bisha K. Ali on Partition, Representation, and Hopes for a Red Dagger Spinoff_1

Some people will connect to some of it. Some people will connect to none of it. Some people connect to layers of specificity. If you’re with us on the journey of who this character is because you have the ability to empathize with a human that isn’t yourself, then I think you’re willing to go on that journey and see different things that are exciting and interesting.

Whether you are personally from whatever kind of intersection you share with Kamala, you might be able to pick up something different at different layers. For me, it was always about specificity, always about leaning into specificity. I don’t know that this idea of representation that one story is going to represent a billion plus people is possible. If anything, that really feels tokenizing to me and I refuse to be tokenized. For me, it was always about being as specific as possible and [go] along for the ride and meet this character that we all love.

What was most important for you to show about Kamala and her identity?

In terms of her identity, something that I haven’t seen as much before and that was really kind of the heart of this—I do think I can speak for all of the writers when I say this—is it was all coming from a place of love and from celebration. I feel like she’s got conflict with her parents, but that’s not about any idea of oppression from them. That’s not really what it’s about.  I don’t think we’re even hinting that that’s what it’s about. So for us, what was really vital from the start, and certainly for me from the start was [that] this is about celebrating her community, celebrating her family, and showing that they’re a literal part of herself by the end of this journey.

In the final episode, whatever she goes off to do in the MCU, she’s literally wearing the love of everybody in her community on her, as she goes out in her name, in her mask from Bruno [who is] her found family and in the scarf from the Red Daggers, another family that she’s joined and in the outfit that her mother’s made for her with definitely some input from Sana Nani as well. All of those elements combined, her family and her community, and who they are is her superpower. That’s really, really important to us. What was most important for us was that celebration and that love for all of this. I think that really comes through in the show.

Nani and her daughter speak on the couch on Ms. Marvel
Marvel Studios

Definitely. I loved seeing the wedding and everything. I was so happy just seeing all of that. In adapting Kamala’s origin story from the comics and that exploration of her identity, what was most important for you to hold onto and carry over to the show?

Really the characterization, I would say. A lot of the characters are our version of the characters, certainly. But a lot of the characterization. The comic book doesn’t act like she’s oppressed. The comic book itself is very much about this family and how much love they have for each other too, we’re just leaning into it more for television purposes. Adaptation is adaptation for a reason they’re completely different mediums. I love the comic books.

Another element that we wanted to bring to life was just how vibrant and whimsical the comic books are. I think you can really see that in the show, that’s how Kamala sees the world. We really, from the beginning, wanted to be inside of Kamala’s head. We wanted to be inside of her psychology and you can see that from [the beginning]. We’re so into her because not only is Iman [Vellani] an incredible actor, but also we’re seeing her world brought to life through her eyes from the beginning all the way to the end. That was something that was really rooted in and inspired by the comics.

Why did you decide to include Partition in Ms. Marvel? Were you confident in handling it sensitively, but also not let it overshadow Kamala’s own story?

Bisha K. Ali: I think it is Kamala’s story. It’s inherently part of Kamala’s story because it affects every generation of her family so it inherently affects her. I think that there’s like a two page spread in the comics (Ms. Marvel (2015) #8) that mentions Partition, but obviously we’ve gone much further than that. We actually discovered that two-page spread and remembered it as we were already discussing Partition in the writers’ room because it felt so important and vital to all of us.

I think the way that we’ve approached it with such reverence, and with care, and with respect is firstly because of our intention, which we said at the beginning. and I’m very intentions-based. I’m obsessed with the idea of niyat (the Islamic concept of setting right intentions before beginning something). My mom was always really strong on niyat and [asked], what are your intentions? So I think about niyat a lot when it comes to the show.

Kamala Khan looks at her glowing bangle on Ms. Marvel
Marvel Studios

[Secondly] there’s the fact that in our writers’ room, we had so many people whose families were also affected by Partition. We all felt this deeply and we’re all investigating this deeply within ourselves in real-time. There’s a real bravery and a vulnerability and I have so much pride in my writers’ room for engaging in this. I think it was very brave of them to trust me with it. It was very brave of all of us to trust Marvel with it. I think it’s not about overshadowing her story. It literally is [Kamala’s] story and it’s a story of us writers in the writers’ room too. I also think that [with] the team that we brought on to bring it to life, every single person knew how important it was and how we had to respect this.

For example, we had Fatimah Asghar in our writer’s room who wrote episode five in particular. She has spent so much of her life working and thinking about Partition. It became a no-brainer in terms of the discussions we were having and in terms of how much reverence and respect [she has] and how knowledgeable she is.

Then add to the mix that the director that we brought on board was Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and she’s done decades of work on Partition as well. That certainly gave me a lot of confidence. There’s no way I could have done that alone. I don’t think anyone could do that alone. But this super team of people who are approaching it from a place of compassion, and approaching it with the same amount of reverence, and the same amount of respect, gave me confidence.

Along with the Partition storyline, there was definitely a lot of focus on intergenerational relationships between mothers and daughters. Why was it important to you to focus on those relationships?

Hmm, good question. I don’t know why it was important. It just felt right. I think about Pakistani women and how we get represented in the media. I think, “What does that look like and what do I want it to look like?” I also think the relationship with [Kamala’s] mother is so complicated. I think as a teenager, basically a teenager or as a young adult, you end up going through this evolution of seeing your parents slightly differently. Muneeba, even to the audience, because we’re starting from Kamala’s point of view, we see Muneeba as a mother. As time goes on, you also see Muneeba as a daughter. Then you eventually start to see Sana as a mother and Sana also as a daughter. 

Nani and her daughter speak on the couch on Ms. Marvel
Marvel Studios

We are more than just mothers, we are more than sisters, there’s more to us. There’s a wholeness to all of us. That felt like something really important to explore. The fact that her powers come from this awesome line of women was so important to us to put on-screen and was so important a story to all of us personally. I think the root of who she is is this family.

Was there anything that didn’t make it to the final product of the show that you wished was there?

Oh, like a million things, but that’s just because I’m always coming up with a billion things. Listen, if I could have had like 60 episodes, I would’ve done 60 episodes.

We would’ve watched them.

Thank you! You say that now. Careful what you wish for! I have to say I’m so proud of the show in terms of how much we got across in a short space of time and the kind of representation we did get to do. I know I just spent the first 10 minutes [of the interview complaining] about representation and the limitations of that. [Ms. Marvel] is just something that feels hopeful and that feels beautiful and I’m so proud that we were able to create that.

I think that’s the legacy of the show is that hopefulness and that optimism, that celebration. In terms of those things, in terms of my goals, for what the show was, I think mission accomplished. But in terms of, “Oh, wouldn’t it have been fun to do this?” Do I want a Red Dagger spinoff in my heart? Of course I do. There’s a million things I want to do, but my brain is always going.

A still from Ms. Marvel shows Kareem AKA the Red Dagger and Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel standing in Karachi in superhero poses
Marvel Studios

Was there a favorite cultural or religious reference that you guys included in the show? There were a lot, definitely.

There’s a lot.

Is there anything in particular that stood out?

I don’t even know where to start! What’s interesting is it’s like the idea of us including it almost feels like a deliberate act. What else are we going to write? This is us! It felt so natural that I’m like, “What do you mean by ‘include?’ This is what happens because we would do that. That’s what we imagine.” It’s so interesting hearing that. It’s not just you, a lot of people kind of asked those questions, like crafting those moments in. I’m like, “No, we just do it. That’s just who we are.” I think watching it back, one tiny, small thing that I think about a lot is me, Fatimah, Sabir, and Aisha were talking about. [Kamala] has her mom worried that there’s nazar (evil eye) on her and that’s why she’s passed out at the table rather than she’s had this vision.

That was always something that we were really excited about talking about. “Oh, what did your mom do when you felt bad?” We were having those conversations in the room. I also really loved a very small detail [of] her mother putting kajal on her when they’re having that conversation before Eid. Small things like that that I don’t think anyone’s even picked up on. But that’s such a specific thing and experience that I really I’m so glad [about] the tiny pieces along the way. [I also was excited about] saying “Allah-u-Akbar” in celebration. Having that on screen, and being a joyful moment. I also think Aamir is a whole vibe. I’m into Aamir, man. [I love] the fact that he’s always in salwar kameez every time we see him. That’s straight from the comics as well. So yeah, just all of it.

photo of Aamir, the Sheik, and Tyesha at wedding Ms. Marvel representation
Daniel McFadden/Marvel Studios

I don’t know how much you’ve been seeing the reactions from people, but have you had any favorite ones so far? Or anything interesting that stood out from how people reacted to the show?

I love that people are really proud of catching the fact that Hameed who climbs the tower is the shoe thief. I’m like, “Yeah guys, we couldn’t have made it more obvious.” I really enjoyed that. I loved the people that are responding to the Illumin-Aunties, which kind of goes beyond the Muslim and South Asian community. It really seems to be that every immigrant community is like, “Yep. We have the Illumin-Aunties,” which is great. Sabir Pirzada is the one who coined the term Illumin-Aunties. I guess the thing that’s really personal to me is we’ve seen some tweets of young people saying that, “Oh, this had me open up a conversation with my parents about their parents and their parents.”

For me personally it has a very big impact emotionally. I feel quite moved by that when I see it and that feels very gratifying. But yeah, I love some of the stuff that people are catching and are excited to see. Both MCU connected, both culturally and on all these different levels. 

Who in the MCU would you like Kamala to meet next?

In Bisha Fantasyland? I feel like any answer I gave could get me in trouble. I’m not going to answer that question respectfully. Actually, I’d love for her to meet the Hulk in Bisha Fantasyland. That seems like a safe thing to say in my dreams.

All episodes of Ms. Marvel are currently available on Disney+.

Featured Image: Linda Kupo/Marvel Studios

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