When British-Tamil pop-star and political activist Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam (Mathangi), better known as M.I.A. was growing up in London in the 80s, she had a different dream than that of becoming an artist. She wanted to be a documentary filmmaker, and as a result, she recorded a lot. With Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. director Stephen Loveridge has created a personal portrait of his friend and old school-mate through footage the pop-artist filmed herself, spanning multiple decades and continents. As it says in the promotional material, this isn’t your regular biographic documentary. It would be almost impossible to make a regular documentary for M.I.A.
Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. is in many ways a culmination of Mathangi’s own documentarian aspirations. Loveridge may have been the one to cut it together and form a cohesive and trimmed-down structure, but the core of it all stems from Mathangi. It is her archive footage, it is her confessionals, her difficult-to-answer questions. Mathangi, even at a very young age was unafraid and unapologetic. She asked hard questions of everyone around her and herself, with the camera as her focus-point. We see her interrogate her estranged father when he returns home; asking what he has been doing for all these years, how he could have stayed away from his children. We see her visit her family in Sri Lanka at age 19, in an attempt to understand her roots. Her welcome is warm, but she is also met with skepticism from one of her subjects who questions her credibility; “you’ve never had the war-zone experience” he says with a smirk. It’s a moment that highlights Mathangi’s strange position; in the West, she is a foreigner, a stranger, someone to dismiss; but here, in her childhood town, she is also met with questioning glances and scepticism.
“… lived through a war, came as a refugee, that is now a pop-star; what are the goal posts?” This is a question Mathangi poses, mostly to herself, early on in the documentary. It sums up parts of her story in a very matter-of-fact way and highlights some of the major challenges she’s had to face both pre- and post-pop stardom. As a politically minded pop-star who has never been afraid to speak her mind, Mathangi has always been surrounded by controversy. When initially speaking out about the political situation in Sri Lanka in the early 2000s, she was branded a “supporter of terrorism” and told to “shut up and play her music.” In an interview with Bill Maher, the television host patronizes her and deliberately attempts to reduce her voice with questions of authenticity; “so does everybody from your hometown speak with the same British accent as you?” he laughs — and disappointingly, so does the audience. These attempts to discredit Mathangi have occurred over and over again, but she’s never backed down.
When Mathangi realized nobody wanted to hear her talk about the Sri Lankan-genocides, she made the video for Born Free with director Romain Gavras. This video, which depicts genocide against young red-haired men, caused an immediate uproar and people called for her head. Just a few weeks before she put out the video for Born Free, she had shared brutally graphic videos from Sri Lanka, which nobody seemed to care about.
“This is what happened to a kid whose dad went off to become a terrorist” is another self-interrogating line spoken by the artist in Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. and although it is clear she sees her father as a political activist and revolutionary, it’s none-the-less a situation that has shaped her entire person. When speaking to her brother and sister about their father’s return to London, she meets their anger and distrust with a more mature and grateful point of view; “He’s made us the people we are today. He’s given us a background!”
These situations and confrontations are what make up the whole of Loveridges’ documentary, and while he aims to also create an overview of her career — the N.H.L. controversy, meeting Spike Jonze, etc. — it is the more intimate and personal moments, between Mathangi and herself; Mathangi and her family that stick with you.
Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam aka M.I.A. is a star. Her voice is one that needs to be heard. The conversations she starts are ones we should care to engage with, and this documentary is a great place to start for those who might need an introduction.