In the initial low-stakes world of Ms. Marvel, the biggest hurdle Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) faces is to her social life. Her mother, Muneeba (Zenobia Shroff), won’t let her attend a fan event unsupervised, polices her clothes and keeps prodding her to bury her head in books, instead of in the clouds. South Asian audiences will recognise a lot of their own mothers in Muneeba’s overprotectiveness, but also her fierce desire to give her daughter a better life than the one she had. Shroff moved to New York from Mumbai when she was 23 and has been working in theatre since, with her breakout role being 2017’s The Big Sick. She drew upon her experiences of being an immigrant to play the part. Over Zoom, she spoke about how Brown vs White audiences reacted to Muneeba, not wanting to play a woman who only made biryani and channeling her pain into her art:
Can you tell me a little about being approached for this character? Do you remember what your circumstances were like at that point?
We were deep into the pandemic. It was August 2020. Nobody was auditioning, the industry was shut. We were all at home. Then this came along and I saw that it said ‘Marvel’. The audition sides were this made-up conversation between Muneeba and Kamala so I knew what the part was and that this was for a new Marvel show called Ms. Marvel. I tried not to get too excited. I did it like a regular audition on Zoom in my living room. I was fortunate enough to have a young friend help me out. She was in LA, I was in my apartment in New York. I sent her the sides and she read the other part. I sent in the tape and two weeks later, I was told, ‘There’s a lot of interest in you.’ Two or three weeks later, I got ‘The Call’.
What was The Call like?
It was really weird. I was going to (department store) TJ Maxx to return a pair of headphones I’d bought because they weren’t working. I got a call from my agent, who said, ‘Hold on, I’m connecting you to the president of our company.’ I knew that meant I’d got something big. I still remember where I was — facing this row of women’s clothes, which I wasn’t about to buy. The company’s president told me, ‘You got it!’ I’ve been working for 35 years now, so it wasn’t like telling a 20-year-old they got the job but it was still an out-of-body experience because I know the magnitude of what it means to be in the Marvel universe. I didn’t even end up returning the headphones, I just walked home in a daze. I remember sitting on the couch at my house and thinking that my life had changed. I might have shed a few tears. I was just like, ‘What the hell just happened here?’
Once you’d got the part, what was your prep process like? Did you read the comics?
Kamala Khan is my 14th South Asian child. I’d played South Asian mothers 13 times before. So I didn’t have a lot of prep to do. I had that down. We weren’t given the scripts because of privacy issues and I didn’t know much about the Marvel universe. I didn’t even know that the source material was Sana Amanat’s comics. I come from a world of Ibsen and Chekhov and avant-garde playwrights. So there wasn’t much I could do apart from going through the comics and preparing to relocate to Atlanta for five months. Also I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody, not even my dearest friends. I only told my mom and dad, who were in India.
I moved to Atlanta three weeks before we began shooting and so my prep then was just meeting Mohan Kapoor and Iman Vellani and just getting to know each other a little, getting to know Adil and Bilal, who directed the first episode. We did some Zoom calls with our producers. We did three weeks of rehearsals, but not every day.
One of the warmest things about the show is the family dynamic. How did you develop that over those three weeks?
It’s very funny — Mohan, who plays my husband Yusuf, grew up on Peddar Road. I grew up on Hughes Road. There was literally only a bridge between us. He went to Cathedral school, I went to JB Petit school, opposite that. We have half the world of South Bombay in common and yet we’d never met because I left India when I was 23. It was strange how we had these parallel lives growing up and yet we never knew each other at all.
I asked the Marvel team who was playing Yusuf and they told me it was a guy who had a game show in India (Saanp Seedi). The first time Yusuf and I met, this big Mercedes bus had come to pick me up from my hotel. He was standing in the doorway and he went, ‘Hello wife!’ And I thought, ‘Okay, I’m gonna like this guy.’ We had such a baseline knowledge of who the other person was. We’re the same age, grew up in South Bombay together, went to the same kind of schools, knew the same people. We never once talked about creating chemistry, we just understood who we were because it’s in our DNA. We were raised by South Asian moms and dads. Neither of us are parents but I have a lot of young people in my life and I’ve played a lot of mothers. Our chemistry was totally organic.
Iman and Saagar Shaikh, who plays Aamir, were both raised in North America, but also by Pakistani parents. So there’s a thread that goes through the four of us, there’s an understanding of each other. And that’s what you see onscreen.
Muneeba is a tough character to nail. She’s overprotective, which most South Asian children watching immediately recognise, but for audiences from other parts of the world, she can come off as overbearing. How did you calibrate these traits?
Brown people everywhere, Black people everywhere, Black people in America, Asian people everywhere — everyone got Muneeba. Only White people didn’t. They were like, ‘What? You’re not letting Kamala go to the party?’ Only ultra-liberal White people didn’t understand her. I’ve lived in America for 30 years, I’ve seen Brown and Black people talk to their kids pretty much the same way. In fact, they’re tougher. They’re like, ‘I’m gonna smack you on the head if you don’t listen right now.’ It’s only White people who have this delicate approach to parenting. I didn’t want to do that, I was going to play a South Asian mother. Muneeba is a little protective, but if you watch the show, you realise why. Yusuf, at the end, says they tried so hard to conceive her, for so many years. She’s so precious to them. There isn’t a South Asian mother on the planet, wherever you’re living, who isn’t like Muneeba Khan.
What about Muneeba drew you to her?
Your job as an actor is to take what’s given on the page and then to elevate it. On the page, Muneeba was this protective, ‘Kamala do your homework/Kamala go to your room/Kamala you can’t go out’ kind of person. It was just a barrage of that. How do you take that dominance or that over-possessiveness and flip it to make Muneeba strong and interesting? There’s a different side to that coin. I didn’t want her to be that nagging mom. I didn’t want her to be that stereotypical mother, I didn’t want her to be just the woman who made the biryani. I was always going to do something more with her. The challenge was to not make her like the 13 other South Asian mothers I’ve played before because no one wants to see that again and again.
When you’re doing a series, you don’t get all the scripts at once. You get them as they come in so the challenge with Muneeba was to take all her traits and then layer them. I had some sense of her arc — that she was going to start off very combative but then turn around when they get to Karachi. By the time they get to the dhobi ghat, she’s on board with the fact that her kid has powers. I kept layering Muneeba. Like, for example, she might be angry. But is that anger coming from love? From frustration? It’s not pure anger all the time. On the page, she was really just the bad cop while Yusuf was the good cop. My challenge was to make her a fully-fleshed out character. They gave her a wonderful backstory and my job was just to serve that.
You mentioned the dhobi ghat scene, so I have to ask you about it. It’s a big moment for Muneeba — she not only realises her daughter is Ms. Marvel, but she gets confirmation of all the things she used to dismiss about her mother.
You’ve hit the nail on the head. No other journalist has put it so accurately. It’s a very big moment for her.
It’s a big emotional upheaval! And it could’ve been a big dramatic moment but Muneeba plays it with a sort of quiet understanding. What went into that acting choice?
We struggled with that scene, to be honest. I wanted it to be a bigger moment. Muneeba was going through so much then, exactly like you said. She realised that A: this kid has powers; B: her mother was not just lost in a fantasy, all of what she said was true. Muneeba not only had to acknowledge Kamala as a superhero, but also acknowledge that all the stories she thought were only in her mother’s head were real. It was a huge moment for her. But film is a collaborative medium. You win some, you lose some. I would’ve liked Muneeba to have had more of a reaction. I fought for that a couple of times. I fought for the line, ‘So you are Night Light??’ because I thought there needed to be some sort of an impact. But I don’t think Muneeba was given her due in that moment. She should’ve been given a much bigger reaction because so many things came to fruition for her. She realised the meaning of the bangle, she realised that Aisha is no longer this woman she thought she hated, she realised her grandmother’s powers have passed on to her daughter. But it wasn’t filmed in that way.
What were the behind-the-scenes discussions of this scene like?
They weren’t contentious. They were collaborative. My job was not to fight for Zenobia, I had to put the ego away. My job was to fight for Muneeba. Sometimes, the language on the show was very White and I’d say, ‘No, Muneeba wouldn’t say this’ and they’d understand because the show was run by Brown women. Sometimes the language would be too sophisticated for Muneeba. If you remember, in episode 2, she says she doesn’t know English very well. And when you’re not a native speaker, some words can be too advanced. So I’d approach the writer, director or producer and say that something wasn’t working for me and it would get rewritten on the spot. They were very receptive. But it’s not just about you, everybody in that particular scene had to be happy with it. You do the best with what you’re given.
There’s this scene I love. Muneeba tells Kamala about how America was her mountain. You’ve spoken about moving to the US when you were young, having a thick Bombay accent and being told to change your name several times. How much did those experiences of being an immigrant inform your performance?
It’s like those lines were written for me. That scene wasn’t hard for me because I just had to substitute that experience for mine. When I moved to New York, I knew good English because we were raised in British-English schools, I was a sophisticated South Bombay girl, but even then, it was a tough town. It was unheard of that something like Ms. Marvel could be made. I was told to change my name so I could have a better shot. I was told I could be White-passing, which is a terrible thing to say, I was told to take American dialect classes. I also faced a tremendous amount of sexual harassment, something that was very accepted in the late 80s and early 90s. It wasn’t talked about till the 2000s. Trying to make it as an actor was hard. I worked day jobs, I modeled. America was very much my mountain.
I became a stronger woman and now I’m protective of the next generation. I’ve tried to mentor lots of young actors so that these things don’t happen to them. This show is the culmination of years and years of South Asians in their 40s and 50s pounding the pavement. Kids like Iman have a seat at the table because we built it.
That’s a powerful sentiment. I’m going to move to a lighter scene and ask you about the wedding dance number you’re part of. How much time did you get for rehearsals and what was shooting that like?
I’ve been a lifelong dancer. My mother sent me to Bharatnatyam and I’ve done 7 or 8 years of that. I was one of Shiamak Davar’s eight original students. I started my career in musical theatre so the dance part of it was easy for me. We had two days of rehearsals because we didn’t just have the time. Two young South Asian girls trained us at their studio in Atlanta. We shot it over two days. It was a lot of fun, but the night before we had to shoot this for over 10 hours, I got a call telling me that my mother back in Mumbai had been diagnosed with a disease that would take her life, and it did. To get that news on the eve of this performance — I was like, ‘How am I going to dance for 10 hours?’ But we do what actors often do, take that pain and channel it into what you do when they call, ‘Action!’
Is there a reaction to your performance or a compliment you’ve gotten that has stayed with you?
Muneeba got a lot of love. I was very overwhelmed. Some of the best reactions have been a lot of, ‘Can you please be my mother’ which is very touching. There’s been a lot of, ‘You remind me of my mother.’ Someone said, ‘My mother has never seen herself represented onscreen like this and we want to see more of that.’ And then people have said very complimentary things like, ‘Muneeba needs her own show,’ ‘Muneeba needs an Emmy,’ ‘Muneeba is the MVP of Ms. Marvel’. I got a lot of compliments on the chemistry between Iman and I.
I’m so proud of this show. Representation does matter. Hundreds of young girls and their mamas have written to me to say that it’s been amazing to see themselves on the TV and that’s been the most gratifying part. We moved the needle.
I know the Khan family is in The Marvels. Is there anything you can tell me about that?
That it’s the reason I had to reschedule this interview and that it’s releasing on July 28, 2023.