Ms. Marvel is a stepping stone for Pakistani-Muslim representation everywhere with its Pakistani-specific cultural inclusion, historical dialogues and ethnically authentic cast (for the most part). This includes actress Mehwish Hayat, who plays Aisha, Kamala’s great-grandmother.
Aisha is a powerful fighter introduced as a part of the ClanDestines. Initially, she wants to return to her Noor dimension with the rest of the Djinn. However, when she meets her future husband and falls in love, she starts a family and aims to protect them.
When Najma returns years later to get the bangle back and confront Aisha, Aisha makes a quick decision to protect her family. She forces them on the train and sacrifices herself for their safety. Aisha goes from this warrior to a mother, wife, and lover whose only fight is her family.
When we spoke with the actress, Mehwish Hayat explained the ins and outs of getting the role and much of the impact the representation and inclusion have had. She spoke about the story and the progression that Marvel has made for Pakistani-Muslims and South-Asians everywhere.
Read below for our in-depth interview regarding the cultural, historical, and progressive impacts her character and the show have on Pakistani Muslims worldwide.
Q: Going back to the beginning, what was the process like of getting into Ms. Marvel? What brought you to the role? How did you feel when you got it, and what expectations came with that?
Mehwish Hayat: So I was asked to audition for a scene, I mean, for the character, and there was a scene that wasn’t exactly the character. They probably wanted to see if I was good at it, so I recorded my first self-tape. Little did I know that a few hours later, I would be contacted by them because they liked my audition. That’s when I learned more about the character and the story, and I was shaking.
I was like, “wow, I’m going to be able to do this.” Funny enough, I picked up the comic book a few years ago as I returned to Pakistan from the US. It was a superhero that I could relate to and a superhero that spoke to me, and I was hoping that Marvel would make a show or movie out of it.
Then they announced the series, and I was like, wow, and I applauded them on Twitter for actually giving us the first brown Muslim superhero. Then, when they cast Iman, I was so happy that a Pakistani girl was playing a Pakistani role. I applauded them without knowing that later on, I would also be a part of the show as Aisha, a character that is very close to my heart.
I gave it my all, and I’m so happy that Aisha’s story resonated with many people and touched many hearts. It was amazing, and I didn’t know what the reactions would be when people got to see her, but so far, so good.
Q: It truly is impressive to see your character and how she grew from this fighter and warrior to this lover and family woman. What was it like playing those two distinct sides to the character and the switch? Physically, how was it playing the more challenging, warrior side?
MH: What I loved about Aisha’s character was its many shades; it had so much that I could do as an artist and an actor. The transition and shift were so beautiful to play this warrior-turned-lover. In Pakistan, we don’t have many action movies; you know, the ones we do have are not based on a female character. So to play a role that involved action, I wanted to be physically fit, so I remember spending most of my evenings at the gym whenever I was not shooting.
Overall, it was just so beautiful. The whole journey of Aisha and what happens to her family and the fact that she’s a mother who wants to protect her child and she has a husband that she wants to ensure gets to a safe place, even if it means sacrificing her own life.
So, playing that role has significantly impacted me, and she will live in my heart forever for being such a wholesome being, from going from a djinn, to a mother, to a wife, to this vulnerable person. I think, as an artist, the nuances were a real treat to play.
Q: Being a part of this ground-breaking series and all the incredible ripples it is causing for South-Asian representation, how did it feel that you got to play a Pakistani character? That instead of being umbrella-termed as South-Asian, you were able to distinguish your Pakistani heritage in a Pakistani role?
MH: You know, Marvel needs to be applauded for giving us a platform and for having Pakistani actors playing Pakistani roles because it has never happened before. I have always hoped for it and have been speaking up about the ongoing misrepresentation of Muslims and Pakistanis on many platforms.
I wanted this [role] to be a fair, balanced portrayal, and we saw a Pakistani story with this show. We saw Pakistan, our culture, and for all South-Asians, I think it’s a treat, and it’s the beginning because it’s never happened before. So for this, I believe that Marvel needs to be applauded.
For giving us this global platform and making us a part of the show where people could relate and resonate with us and be like, “Oh, we know them! They’re from Pakistan.”
But for me, I mean, the response has been so overwhelming, and the love that I have received from all parts of the world, not only from Pakistan and India but also from the US and other places. So I think it’s a moment where I pinched myself to try to believe it.
And two years ago, I did not know what impact it would have, but I think it has touched many lives. So the show is a treat and a love letter, you know?
Q: How did you feel, and what was your reaction to learning, that a mainstream Hollywood TV series touched upon the Partition’s history and its ramifications?
MH: Honestly, the Partition was such a turbulent time in our history. And to be in that surrounding, even if it was for the story, and just the fact that they had this vital part of our history portrayed on TV, has never happened before. It was really moving. Even when we were reading the scenes, I was in tears because my great-grandparents were born in India. So it’s like the show said that “every Pakistani family has a Partition story,” so it’s a significant time in our history, and to be able to live that, even if it was for a short period while we were filming.
I was getting goosebumps and had tears in my eyes, seeing and feeling what the people must have gone through. So to be able to showcase that on a mainstream Hollywood project, I mean, was a brave and brilliant move because, you know, for us, it has great importance. But at the same time, for the west to see this episode in history and how it happened, it was something that they learned, and they found out about.
For us, it moved us to tears and these sentiments of being able to feel that this is what happened and this is what people went through, such as leaving everything behind and not being able to see your family, etc. So, it was a chaotic time, and to showcase that, Marvel needs to be applauded.
Q: Now, in terms of the set, what differences did you note working on an American set versus having worked on a Pakistani set?
MH: There is a vast difference. I mean, it’s massive, and to compare that would be a bit unfair of me. From a Pakistani set to being on a Marvel set was like being a kid in awe of how everyone was working and all the different departments. I learned so many things that I want to implement in my part of the world. It will help us grow because I learned how production works and how the sets are made.
I mean, usually, in Pakistan, I have always worked on real-time locations. So seeing these massive giant sets, like the Partition and the rose field, was fascinating. I think I was spoiled because I just wanted to be part of this world of that world, and I didn’t want to leave, you know. I was mesmerized by how attention to detail, sets are made, and everything is accurate.
Q: What was it like working with Iman Vellani, this Canadian-Pakistani actress who is the embodiment of our future representation? Did you have any advice for her? Now, representation is featured in mainstream media and does not require particular media, so how does it feel knowing that Hollywood is making those strides?
MH: Oh my god. Seeing her on set and working with her was such a delight. She is such a professional actor. I mean, I could not believe this was her first project. Her energy and talent are inspirational to me. I learned so much from her. She has many fantastic ideas.
I remember we would be reading the scenes and discussing, and she would have some valid points about how the scenes are being done. And then, I would sit there and be in awe of her because she’s just so amazing. I knew then that she would be a big Hollywood star, seeing her grow and prosper like this and have all these fans going crazy.
I mean, it’s so well deserved, and she is talented. We need more talent like hers to be brought to the floor, and I think she’s such an inspiration to so many girls out there. And it just warms my heart seeing her grow.
So, I mean, she already knew everything, and if anything, she was just worried about how the whole world would go, from not knowing her to knowing her. So I told her, “you know what, the world’s going to change for you, but for the better.” Because she is going to be such an inspirational figure for girls out there, and after that, she embraced it.
Q: Now, speaking for yourself, are there any stereotypes or inaccuracies surrounding Pakistani-Muslims that you often see in mainstream media?
MH: I mean, I have been speaking up about it. How Muslims have been misrepresented and stereotyped. Usually, whenever you see a Muslim or a Pakistani, they would be villains or bad people. For the longest time, that has been what used to be happening in the West and Bollywood. And now I can see there is a shift, and things are changing. But I always asked for a fair, balanced portrayal.
I mean, we can’t just always be baddies. Okay? So, this shift was needed, and better representation was needed, and I think this show does exactly. It hits home with that Pakistani culture and portrays us in a more balanced and fair light. So, I think this is needed, and I hope this is the first of many because now, the world is seeing us Pakistanis or Muslims as ordinary.
Getting to speak with Mehwish was a delight. We bonded over the many aspects of the Pakistani and Muslim cultures and also got to talk a little about the disconnect many ABCDs feel with their Pakistani culture because of their lack of exposure. Ultimately, thank you to Mehwish for bridging that gap in the disconnect with all the history and representation she brought forward through Ms. Marvel.