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Wednesday, Nov 30, 2022

Ms Marvel: How the MCU show uses music to cure generational pain, repair cross-border tensions

Ms Marvel: Combining the Gen-Z sounds of Ritviz and Hasan Raheem with songs from icons such as Abida Parveen and AR Rahman, the new MCU show uses music as a diplomatic tool to unite generations and nations.

Iman Vellani in a still from Ms Marvel. (Photo: Disney+)

On the most difficult days — the days on which you can sense the moral fabric of our nation is being ripped apart — the best thing you can do is to play a popular Coke Studio Pakistan video and scroll through the comments section. In less than a minute, your faith in humanity will be restored — even as faith, in all its toxicity, is what is driving us apart. So, it makes all the sense in the world for Ms Marvel, a television show designed to bridge borders, to lean on Coke Studio — possibly the biggest diplomatic tool this side of the Kartarpur Corridor — to drive home its themes of brotherhood, unity, and a shared past.

But enough has been said about the show’s frankly radical integration of South Asian culture into what are, essentially, modern American myths. No matter how cynical you’ve become, the sight of a Pakistani-American superhero rubbing shoulders (potentially) with the Avengers seems almost unreal. But the experience is significantly enhanced by the show’s deft use of music — the songs don’t just add valuable cultural flavour, but also repeatedly remind viewers of what the show is about.

Initially a low-stakes story about a teenage girl experiencing super-heroic growing pains and overcoming internal struggles about her identity, Ms Marvel reveals itself to be a more sprawling saga as it goes along. It’s no Pachinko, but it offers a similar exploration of generational trauma, and the unique form that it takes when it is, specifically, passed down from woman to woman. The show traces the origin of this trauma to the Partition of 1947 — an event in our recent history that younger generations in the subcontinent have avoided engaging with for reasons that are too unclear for me to speculate about here.

Millions died in the tragedy, but you won’t find museums dedicated to the Partition in every major city, at least in India. Nor would you find curated reminders on street corners that might have borne witness to the atrocities — like the Stolpersteine scattered around Europe. You’d think that The Partition Horrors Remembrance Day is something that has been observed for decades, but no, it was declared just last year. Stories about the tragedy, therefore, have been communicated either verbally, or through artefacts.

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In Ms Marvel, our heroine Kamala Khan finds herself in the possession of a family heirloom that originally belonged to her great-grandmother Ayesha. The heirloom — an ornate bangle with magical powers — crossed the border with her grandmother Sana, skipped her mother Muneeba’s generation altogether and found its way directly to Kamala. The idea of families in the subcontinent holding onto artefacts such as this is rooted in reality. Author Aanchal Malhotra even wrote a book about it. Jewellery of all kinds — necklaces, earrings, pearls — survived the Partition, forever etched with the memories of what happened. And it is Ayesha’s bangle that brings three generations of women in Kamala’s family together.

Episode five of Ms Marvel ends with the three women — Sana, Muneeba, and Kamala herself — having finally reached a degree of understanding, after a lifetime of resentment. Muneeba always thought of her mother as an absent parent, too preoccupied with her past as a survivor of the Partition to care for her family. And Kamala, who is herself torn between her Pakistani roots and American values, had never been able to identify with the more conservative Muneeba. But after a life-changing adventure in Karachi, the three huddle up in a heartfelt scene towards the end of the episode, as we’re played out to the song “Tu Jhoom.”

It’s an anthemic number that blends the electronic heartbeat of MGMT’s music with the soulfulness of Abida Parveen and Naseebo Lal’s rustic vocals, as the two icons engage in a trancelike back-and-forth about the importance of embracing one’s individuality and not being bothered by inevitable judgement and hardship. “Peedan nu main seene laavan, te main hasdi jaavan,” Naseebo Lal belts in the opening lyric, as Abida Parveen counters, “Tere bas mein kuch vi nahi hai, dil nu bas samjhaavan.” The song choice works on multiple levels. Not only does it invite a moment of much-needed reflection about what we’ve just seen, but symbolically, there couldn’t be a more appropriate representation of what separates, and ultimately unites, different generations. You can almost imagine Sana enjoying Abida Parveen’s Sufi music on a hot Karachi evening, while thousands of miles away, her granddaughter and millions of kids her age literally ‘jhoomo’ to Coke Studio.

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And it was only in episode four that Ms Marvel needle-dropped perhaps the most popular song on the soundtrack, “Pasoori” by Ali Sethi and Shae Gill. Like “Tu Jhoom,” “Pasoori” is another Coke Studio banger that doubles as an empowering anthem about individuality and “setting fire” to setbacks. Sethi’s contributions to mending cross-border relations with his music cannot be overstated. He speaks eloquently about the power of art, particularly that which is rooted in subcontinental history, and he often does it on the most secular platform available to him, Instagram. But perhaps his bigger achievement is how elegantly he has been able to erase the generational divide through his revisionist ragas; he is influenced equally by the Malika-e-Ghazal Farida Khanum and, by the sounds of it, Madonna.

Some of the artists featured on the soundtrack have defined post-pandemic era Gen-Z music across India and Pakistan. These are people who shot through the stratosphere during (and because of) the pandemic. The beautiful thing is that the average white Marvel fan wouldn’t know that Ritviz was raised in Pune and Hasan Raheem is from Gilgit. And those who do know this probably wouldn’t care.

Admittedly, the cynical side of my brain will keep telling me that music supervisor Dave Jordan and his team have simply gone and licensed the most obvious ‘desi’ music for the show. This is Marvel, after all; the studio doesn’t let ‘maslay’ get in the way. They’ve shelled out millions for songs in the past. But either by design or by chance, the music of Ms Marvel does what every good soundtrack should and accentuates the story’s core themes, and helps the show cultivate something that has evaded all but a handful of past Marvel projects: an identity. And isn’t that what Kamala had been trying to find all along?

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Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

First published on: 13-07-2022 at 08:33:17 am
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