Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has earned many accolades in her career in activism and filmmaking, but she is perhaps most recognized as Pakistan’s first female Oscar winner. Her documentary work is well-known for shining a light on the female Pakistani experience, tackling the social and political issues in her home country that few would be brave enough to speak out on. Marvel Studios tasked Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and fellow directors Meera Menon, Adil El Arbi, and Bilall Fallah with the shared responsibility of bringing Kamala Khan, their first Muslim superhero, to life in Ms. Marvel on Disney+. She now celebrates the release of the fourth and fifth episodes which she directed, and as fans can clearly now see, these last two installments of the show required an entirely unique set of skills to pull off.
The series has now taken Kamala Khan back to her roots, both literally and metaphorically. As a Karachi native, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy was thrilled and just as nervous to be bringing her hometown and its culture to a project of this scale. Karachi is not only the largest city in Pakistan but among the most populated in the entire world. As such, depicting the locale in Ms. Marvel brought a multitude of challenges, especially when the show couldn’t actually film in Pakistan and had to introduce new heroes like the Red Dagger. In our exclusive interview, the Ms. Marvel director details these hurdles as well as what this series means to her both as a director and Pakistani woman. This interview is one part of three with Red Dagger stars Farhan Akhtar and Aram Knight.
Spoilers for Ms. Marvel follow!
How does it feel to be one of the creatives bringing Marvel’s first Pakistani hero to life?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: It is so special to be part of the team that is breathing life into a comic book hero and bringing her onto the screen because I’ve loved Ms. Marvel from the day I read the comics. At the heart of this superhero project, is the story of strong women, of family, of finding your voice. It’s an immigrant family, so when she’s not a superhero, she’s arguing about curfew or sneaking out. She’s got friends, finds a cute boy and has a crush on him. In that, you are also introduced to Kamala’s world, culture, and religion. I think that is a wonderful way of birthing a superhero. It’s been truly a privilege to be part of that.
So you first came into contact with Kamala Khan from the comics?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I knew of Kamala Khan from the comics. I’ve been keeping track of the comics and reading them off and on. I have two daughters who also read the comics, so I was very familiar with that part.
You have seen such great success in your independent projects that focus on social and political topics in Pakistan. When coming on board a large-scale Marvel production, did your creative process change at all?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I think that so much of what I’ve learned in the field of documentary filmmaking, visual effects, and animation has lent itself very well to Ms. Marvel. I wanted to have quiet family moments where I connected grandmother-granddaughter, mother-daughter, and even friends together when it comes to the Red Dagger and Kamala. But I also wanted big moments like the chase. I also wanted to bring history to life when it comes to the partition. Everything that I’ve done in the past really came in handy. I told Marvel what I wanted to create and that gave me the tools to do it.
You directed the fourth and fifth episodes of Ms. Marvel. When it comes to getting the scripts, how much input do you have on the story?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I worked very closely with the writers and with [Ms. Marvel co-creator] Sana Amanat and [Executive Producer] Jenna Berger to bring my Karachi into Ms. Marvel by drawing from authentic histories in order to tell the story of 1947 and the partition that happened at that time. So I was able to influence and bring my voice into the story.
Many of the scenes set in Karachi were actually filmed in Thailand, was the expectation to recreate Pakistan in a different country ever nerve-racking?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: As a Pakistani filmmaker, it was extremely important for me to be as authentic as possible. I worked very closely with the production designers, costume designers, locations team, props team, as well as the vehicles team to really replicate Karachi and its streets. I didn’t want someone watching it that comes from that part of the world to feel like we weren’t really in Karachi. So there is a lot that I actually filmed in Karachi, that when you add that to Thailand substituting as Karachi, it really makes it feel like you are there. The biggest compliment is that so many people have been surprised that we filmed the majority in Thailand because it looks so real.
Obviously, lead star Iman Vellani is relatively new to the industry, what was it like directing her?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Iman Vellani is Kamala Khan. She’s a first-generation Pakistani Canadian, and an MCU nerd, so she brings so much authenticity to this role. There would be moments when she would be on set and I would be like, “Are you still talking about the MCU?!” She draws so much of her own inspiration from that. She is very much the character she plays.
To wrap things up, what do you hope audiences will take away from your two episodes of Ms. Marvel?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I hope that audiences enjoy being in Karachi, enjoy going on this adventure that Kamala has, and understand that sometimes you have to go back to your roots to find your voice.