Toronto star Iman Filani reconnects with Pakistani and Muslim roots in ‘Ms Marvel’

TORONTO – When Toronto’s Iman Villani auditioned for “Mrs. Marvel” two years ago, she was just 17 and her room was floor-to-ceiling decorated with Avengers props.

Iron Man and Captain Marvel were also favorites, but so were Mrs. Marvel, or Kamala Khan – a young Pakistani girl who lives between two cultures and dreams of being an artist, and like Vilani is also a Captain Marvel fan. . Until, of course, one day she sneaks out of the house to attend AvengerCon and discovers she has special powers.

“I just fell in love with the comics because I saw a girl like me,” says Villani, now 19, about her first role on screen. “She was a fanatical superhero and was not ashamed of that or her culture. It helped me reconnect with my own roots. Kamala got her power and I get this role together, so it felt like we were going on this journey of self-discovery together.

Marvel has only recently begun to highlight more diverse superheroes, most notably with 2018’s Black Panther and 2020’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, with another Torontonian, Sim Liu.

As Vellani’s Kamala on the show says, “It’s not the brown girls in Jersey City who are saving the world.”

Or Muslim girls, if the long history of film and television has anything to say about her. But me. Marvel has been breaking down barriers for almost a decade. When introduced to the original comic book series by author J. Willow Wilson in 2014, Kamala became the first Muslim character to headline a Marvel Comics book.

“Film and television shape the way we see people, and so when Muslims are portrayed in a very monotonous way, that’s how you see these two billion people in the world,” says Vilani, who is Pakistani and Muslim.

“We want justice to be done and the picture rolled on an accurate picture, and this is just a story of one daughter and one family. But I really think we did our best to create a character that can give people hope and show them why comics are so great, and I really hope it has the same effect that comics have on me.

It feels like a lot of pressure, especially with the program being broadcast all over the world – including in Pakistan – but Vellani feels nothing about it.

“I think the work will speak for itself,” she says. “The mere fact that I am in this light will be enough inspiration for many young Muslims and South Asians to see that there is a place for them in the industry. He’s a different character than the kind of Muslims and South Asians you’re used to seeing in the mainstream media, he’s very fresh, very genuine, and very similar to the actual experiences in which you grew up.

This is largely due to the incredibly diverse cast and team behind the camera, including creator and screenwriter Bisha K. Ali, co-executive producer Sana Amanat, directors Adel Elaraby, Bilal Falah, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and Mira Menon. Even fashion, art and soundtrack are explored with South Asian and Arab artists.

“The fact that my first job in Hollywood was with so many women and so many South Asians is absolutely insane,” says Villani. “It has never been heard before. Working with all these incredibly talented creators who are really good at what they do, so wonderful in general and in touch with their culture, has made me feel very proud of my Pakistani roots.

In fact, Villani says, it was particularly inspiring to talk about “being brown” in the industry, a common topic of discussion between the cast and team while occupying a building in Atlanta during filming.

“It was a constant party and outing, all the relationships you see on screen are about what they were like in real life,” says Villani, adding that her relationship with co-star Rish Shah was grounded that way. on which many South Asians can find. living in the West Familiar.

“He is the first person I voluntarily listened to Bollywood music without my parents playing it in the car and I shouted to stop it. We were just two black-headed people who would never listen to that kind of thing, who sat in silence, listened to and enjoyed that music and bonded together like our characters do. It’s a basic memory

Vellani has always wanted to be part of the industry and his aspirations have never wavered. When she was part of the TIFF Next Wave 2019-2020 panel, a group of young filmmakers and aspiring filmmakers, she was asked who would play her in a movie? She reacted to Iron Man — the character, of course. She also expressed her hope for more diversity in the industry and her dreams of one day becoming a cinematographer.

Today, she says, cinematography was the first party that came to mind. However, playing was never the point. For Villani, it’s always been about being behind the scenes, making “Mrs. Marvel” an even more unexpected experience.

“I did not know what I was good at, and I did not know what I liked to do,” says Villani. “High school was very confusing for me. My whole family is very academic. My brother is an engineer, my mother is a nurse and my father is an accountant. I had no one in the arts to emulate, but that was the only thing I found joy in. So it was hard for me to get out of there and find the people I was in contact with, and that’s why TIFF Next Wave was such a great opportunity. … It is very important to find like-minded people who connect with your passion.

As for the next step, Villani has one ambition: “Do everything, work with everyone and plan nothing, because that’s what brought me here.”

The only thing she’s sure about is that things are about to change dramatically. And even though she had about two years to prepare, from filming to release, “it still looked pretty crazy.”

Fortunately, while acting is not something her family always fully understands, they could not be happier.

“Marvel was the only thing I ever talked about when I was growing up, and now it’s still the only thing I talk about, but they actually have to listen now, which is pretty cool,” Vellani says with a smile.

“My father was so excited, he was like, ‘Oh, cute! So this is how Marvel reimbursed me for all the money I spent on merchandise, movie tickets, T-shirts and comics? It has been replaced.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 8, 2022.

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