The Bloody Story of Partition Made ‘Ms. Marvel’

The 1947 separation of India and Pakistan is at the heart of the show — and made me understand my own family’s history better

The Bloody Story of Partition Made ‘Ms. Marvel’
Iman Vellani, who plays Kamala Khan, at the June 2 premiere of “Ms. Marvel” at El Capitan Theatre  in Los Angeles / Jon Kopaloff / WireImage

The image of an old train is central to the story of “Ms. Marvel.” For many South Asians, the trains represent loss, desperation, fear and grief. During the Partition of India and Pakistan, millions rushed toward train platforms, hoping to secure passage to their new homeland. The largest mass migration in history occurred in 1947, but its ramifications are still felt today. In Marvel’s latest series for Disney+, the character Kamala Khan’s story is traced back to the time of Partition.

Partition is at once a story of desperation and silence — I did not learn about my own family’s experience with this bloody relocation that landed us in our homeland of Pakistan until I did a school project on it. For years, I was completely unaware that my grandparents had fled their homes in the middle of the night to avoid persecution; many of their neighbors’ homes were burned as tensions flared in the region once the British ended their empire and left two newly formed countries to manage the movement of 10 million people.

I spoke with “Ms. Marvel” co-producer Fatimah Asghar, who wrote the fifth episode, which takes place almost entirely in the past. “There had not yet been a South Asian show like this on American TV. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that, and in particular with Partition, it’s a very contested history.” In writing the episode, Asghar emphasized that she did not want the depiction of a bloody tragedy to veer into “trauma porn” or be overly explanatory. The horrors of Partition, and the strife leading up to the migration, are shown through the lens of a love story between Kamala’s great-grandparents. By couching the story of Partition in a story of love that is central to the characters’ development, “Ms. Marvel” underscores the importance of this event that caused so much intergenerational trauma without laying the (contested) facts out for audiences to understand. Rather, the loss and grief stemming from Partition are shown through deeply human emotions.

The pain and suffering caused by Partition affects politics, both national and interpersonal, today. India and Pakistan have fought two wars in the 75 years since their creation and have had ongoing insurgencies, skirmishes and tensions stemming from border disputes. The British changed the borders of India and Pakistan at the eleventh hour in 1947 before declaring both nations independent, leaving the former subjects of the crown confused about where they needed to migrate to ensure their safety. Neighbors burned one another’s homes, and women and children were left behind as men traveled to their new countries, hoping to secure a better life for their families. My great-grandfather was in transit to what would become Pakistan when he was wrongly told that his children had been killed in their village; he later died in an insane asylum after being unable to fathom this loss. At the heart of the geopolitical conflict between two nuclear-armed nations is the deep wound of mistrust, betrayal and loss.

Bringing such an event to the screen was no small feat; Asghar explains that the team behind “Ms. Marvel” was able to depict the reality of Partition in a large-scale way because of the resources Marvel has at its disposal. The opening scenes of the episode show pictures of crowded trains, hundreds of people walking toward their new homes, all overlaid with the voice of a news announcer declaring that Pakistan and India would be created out of the British Raj. “For me, I wanted to show the difference between the narrative of Partition and the reality of it,” Asghar explained. “There’s a much deeper story than the official news that was reported. The reality is that there are people who deeply do not want to leave the land that they are on, who then are forced to.”

Filmed in Bangkok, the final scenes of the fourth episode zoom out to show multiple trains and platforms, all packed with people desperately trying to catch the final trains of the night, setting the scene for the next episode. Snippets of conversations are overheard as friends tell one another that they will be missed, as families run toward trains that are already too full, with people climbing on top to make it to the other side of an artificial, human-made border. Families, including the Khans, are separated as desperate travelers clamber around one another. My grandmother faced a similar fate, leaving her home in the middle of the night with her siblings to travel to Lahore. As a child, I understood her loss of leaving home suddenly in terms of material losses — her toys, her books, her favorite clothes. As an adult, I understand the fear she must have felt as they traveled under the cover of night, hoping to remain unseen. “Ms. Marvel” helps me see her loss of homeland as part of a deeper, intergenerational wound. None of my grandparents were ever granted visas to return to their childhood homes in India. “My passport is Pakistani; my roots are in India. And in between all this is a border marked with blood and pain,” Kamala’s nani (grandmother) explains to her as they watch the kites flying above Karachi.

Intergenerational pain is at the forefront of the relationships among Nani; Kamala’s mother, Muneeba; and Kamala — each is trying to pull away from the generation before as a reaction to the pain they feel in trying to find themselves. Nani longs to have known her own mother, who was killed by Najma, a member of the supernatural Clandestines, during Partition. Nani knows that her family has magic in their genes and that one of them will eventually heal the wounds caused by history. Muneeba moves away from her mother because she is ridiculed by her community for her mother’s eccentric beliefs. Kamala wishes her mother would understand her passions and defies her guidance by wearing the bangle that grants her the “Ms. Marvel” superhero powers.

Asghar wanted to ensure that the pain on display was a real, lived experience: “We have to see and understand people in their context to see a humanized version of them.” By taking Kamala back to the scenes of the train station, “Ms. Marvel” allows audiences to see firsthand why those involved often do not tell their stories. “What does it mean to hold this story in our bodies?” Asghar asked. For Kamala, as a child of the diaspora whose distorted sense of home goes back generations, internalizing this conflict is what allows her to fully embrace her powers as “Ms. Marvel.” Kamala longs to understand the parts of herself she doesn’t understand, just as Nani “tries to fill the holes in herself” by learning more about her mother.

Asghar described these characters as having “a deep protective pain” about their history — while watching the show, that protectiveness resonated deep within me. This is the story of my ancestors, of their pain, loss and sacrifice. “Ms. Marvel” recognizes the sensitivity of this moment in history and depicts it with stunning honesty through a story that all audiences can understand.

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