Marvel’s new Disney+ series wonderfully weaves in South Asian culture with Pakistani-American Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), but Episode 2 dials the Bollywood up to 100 — and may hold the key to where this series is heading.
Freshly superpowered Kamala arrives at school with a new spring in her step, confident enough to correct a coach who mispronounces her name and dodge overzealous basketball players in the hallway. Her unflappable strut is cut short when she runs into Kamran (Rish Shah), a handsome and charming new student.
Suspiciously handsome and charming.
I have refrained thus far on this website from explaining just how deeply seen and attacked I feel by “Ms. Marvel,” but watching Kamala get ready to ruin her life for the first attractive brown boy in school hit home a little too hard. Kamran is English which is illegal for crushes and extremely fraught for children of colonialism! He’s tall and mysterious, drives a car, and slo-mo exits a pool to “Jalebi Baby” by Tesher. If you listen closely, you can hear the echoing gasp of every Desi person watching this as they feel both piping hot shame and just piping hot in general.
But I digress.
Kamran gives Kamala and her friends a ride after they go to a party, when he and Kamala have this exchange:
Kamala: “Do you like, watch, I don’t know, Bollywood movies and stuff?”
Kamran: “Uh, obviously. But only the greats like ‘Baazigar,’ other cool stuff like that.”
Kamala: “I mean it’s not a surprise you like ‘Baazigar,’ it’s only SRK’s best work.”
Kamala: “Yeah, I know popular opinion says —”
Kamala gives him a look of nothing less than adoration. Bollywood movies are extremely popular, but talking to an attractive stranger about something you love always hits different. Despite the devastating relatability of this classic crush interaction, the wildest part is of course the “Baazigar” reference. “DDLJ” (“Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge”) is the longest-running film in Bollywood history, so popular it’s actually being adapted into a Broadway musical. Best work or not, it’s the film that catapulted Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) to stardom, and remains a feel-good family film beloved by generations.
“Baazigar” hit theaters about two years before “DDLJ,” before SRK was entirely rebranded as the romantic hero of a generation. The drama/thriller is nothing short of batshit, with the normally cheeky but romantic Khan playing a traumatized, vengeful murderer and also kind of a fuckboy. It’s a chaotic fave, which I could respect if we knew a little more about Kamran. He may simply love mess, or he’s just a teensy bit psycho? He might be that one guy who raves about “American Psycho” for all the wrong reasons. Of all the Bollywood or SRK movies to name-check in a major Marvel show, this one is an intriguing choice.
In the film, Shah Rukh Khan plays Ajay, a young man trying to get close to the family of one Madan Chopra (Dilip Tahil). He simultaneously dates both of Chopra’s daughters and murders one of them (plus a few more people to cover it up). It turns out that Chopra used power of attorney to steal Ajay’s father’s entire business, putting the family out on the streets and leading to the death of Ajay’s father and sister. It’s undoubtedly entertaining, complete with Bollywood’s signature musical numbers and Johnny Lever’s unnecessary but inspired turn as a forgetful head servant — but it is also violent, twisted, and not sure of its ultimate message. It is not, as Bruno (Matt Lintz) says in his spell of jealousy, “pleasing.”
Disney/Marvel shows are hardly puzzle box mysteries. A “Baazigar” reference could just be a “Baazigar” reference, a treat for those in the audience who understand it and another chance for “Ms. Marvel” to flex its magnificent South Asian representation. Kamran could just be a boy who likes her, a foil to Bruno, a connection to her culture that Kamala didn’t know she needed, even if he is suspiciously charming and handsome…have I mentioned this enough?
But family secrets are deeply enmeshed in both “Baazigar” and “Ms. Marvel.” Kamala herself is trying to learn more about her maternal grandmother and what happened the day her family fled India in order to better understand the bangle that gave her superpowers. Madan’s daughter Priya (Kajol) thinks she knows everything about her father, and learning that he betrayed Ajay’s family makes her almost sympathize with her sister’s murderer.
The episode ends with Kamala on the run after exposing her powers to save a child at the Eid celebration. Damage Control swoops in to take her into custody, but she escapes — right into Kamran’s car, where he introduces her to his mother (Nimra Bucha). This would be significantly less foreboding if she weren’t leering in the backseat, and if Kamala hadn’t just had a vision of her before losing control of her powers.
The vision could just be part of Kamala’s new abilities, but it could also connect their families in a twisted tale of vengeance and violence (Johnny Lever cameo or bust!). Maybe Kamran loves “Baazigar” because it’s the template for his plan to exact revenge on the Khans by getting close to their daughter.
The word baazigar is often translated to gambler — one who loses in order to win, as Ajay explains in the film. Kamala’s family lost a lot during the India’s Partition, and it’s likely the same is true for Kamran — but he hopes to win it back.
New episodes of “Ms. Marvel” air Wednesdays on Disney+. “Baazigar” is free on YouTube with ads.