When it comes to MarvelTV shows and movies, a huge spectacle and expertly-executed fight sequences are a given. What is setting these new additions to the MCU apart from their predecessor is their music. Of all the things that Marvel movies and TV shows are known for, music and OSTs were never high on that list. That began changing a little with Guardians of the Galaxy and its ‘Awesome Mix’, and continued at a sludgy pace with Thor: Ragnarok’s role in reigniting people’s interest in Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’.
But the newer MCU shows and movies, like Moon Knight (Engelbert Humperdnick’s ‘A Man Without Love’ took ages to get out of your head too, admit it!) and Shang-Chi and The Legend Of The Ten Rings (Asian arts collective 88rising’s specially curated soundtrack is still featured heavily in our playlists), have taken it a step further.
Most recently, Ms. Marvel got added to this ever-growing list with its soundtrack featuring an eclectic mix of genres, predominantly from South Asian artists. While the fact that this was MCU’s first Muslim superhero and lead character with her own TV show and that Fawad Khan and Farhan Akhtar made their MCU debut with this one were remarkable on their own, the soundtrack has continued to gather steam even weeks after the show’s finale episode. So what was it about this OST that has resonated with so many people?
US-based Indian origin musician Atif Afzal (or A-Zal, his “artist name”), who composed two featured tracks on the Ms. Marvel OST, chalks it up to some magic that is beyond his understanding, “I had done Loki with Marvel last year and none of this happened then, to be honest. It was received well but there was some magic this time around that I’m still trying to decipher. This is not an Avenger movie that has been running in theatres for a long time, this is a TV show. But I think it’s because of the performances, and the fact that the show had Asian representation in a way that has not been seen this way in the genre, in both the casting and performances, and the soundtrack. It shows that this music is reaching global audiences.”
Afzal acknowledges how things blew up for him, unexpectedly so, after the show’s release. According to him, it’s more surreal because he had no idea he was composing for the show while he was working on the tracks, “I didn’t know till the last minute that it was for Ms. Marvel. They keep it pretty confidential, even on the contract and stuff it’s not mentioned. On the release day, I got a message from the Marvel team, all the guys I had been working with, saying ‘Happy Ms. Marvel day!’. They told me that people loved the soundtrack. This time, I have been flooded with many messages from people telling me they loved it.”
When asked how one composes for a show that they know nothing about, the musician elaborated more on the journey from his song creations to the two tracks (‘Dheeme Dheeme and Aye Khuda’) being featured on the OST. “You never know what you’re working on with Marvel. It doesn’t happen anywhere, like Netflix US or any other television network. But with Marvel, there’s always secrecy. We have codewords. I’m in talks with the studio for other releases but it’s still very confidential. They give you details about the plot, the scene, or the characters, whatever you ask because it’s very important to know this so that you can write the right tracks,” he says, “They gave me the basic synopsis and technical details and I presented about 14-15 tracks to them, out of which five were exactly the ones that they had asked for and four-five tracks which were not on the brief at all (I have the tendency to do that), which I felt would be perfect for the brief and I just wanted to surprise them with something that they wouldn’t be expecting. They narrowed it down to two to three tracks and selected the ones that finally made it into the show.”
When he’s not creating music for globally popular Marvel shows, the music composer is working hard to release his first pop album 17&11 Nights out into the world, “Somewhere in everyone’s career, they face the question ‘why am I doing what I’m doing?’ I realised that I’d been doing this for a decade and I had never released a song of my own. I love writing for movies and I would never stop doing it.”
Afzal, who has been in the industry since the past decade, moved to the United States of America in 2018 to break into Hollywood and expand his repertoire, but that didn’t come without its own set of challenges. “When you’re a person without any contacts in the industry, you need to constantly think about how are you going to meet people, and how are you going to break through. That’s something that I had to constantly work on and evolve with. There were times when I used to save money and spend lakhs of rupees just to meet and network with people. It’s a constant process of reinventing and figuring out how to get to the next step.”
But things are looking up for Afzal, not only is his first album shaping up for a late 2022 release, he has been roped in to create the soundtrack for his third Marvel TV show. “We’re working on the songs but I still don’t know what movie this is so I can’t even tell you anything about it. When I worked on Ms. Marvel, I was more excited, because somewhere I was reassured that I must have done a good job with Loki, that’s why they’re hiring me again. This will be my third project with them.”
So is he living his dream life?
“Yeah, but also no. How do I put it? All the pieces are beginning to come together like a jigsaw puzzle and eventually that would lead to my dream. So my dream was never defined by a Marvel movie or Hollywood. My dream was never bound to a certain outcome. But interviewing with Hans Zimmer to assist him was a big deal for me. He is someone I look up to immensely. Working on stuff with Marvel and then doing my own album are all part of a larger dream that is beginning to stitch together. Everything is hopefully leading me to it. Now, one of my dreams would be to hold a Grammy.”
Make note of the name, people, you’re going to be seeing a lot of it in the future!