For Sri Lankan-by-way-of-England rapper M.I.A., née Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, it was never just about the music. She’s a rebel with a very real cause. But according to Steve Loveridge’s debut documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival at Grand Lake Theater Tuesday, it was that passion that led to both her pop star status and eventually alienated her from the limelight.
There’s an unexpected punk feel to the grungy footage, the majority of which was shot by Maya (who studied documentary filmmaking in London). Personal confessionals and intimate moments – brushing her teeth in the morning in her childhood bathroom in Sri Lanka, killing time with family – gives the impression that we know who she is in an intimate way, without any sheen.
What becomes clear as we follow her ascent is that Maya is a product of her upbringing. Growing up in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, M.I.A. is Tamil, an ethnic largely residing in Sri Lanka and Southern India. Her mother emigrates with her and her siblings to England to escape the burgeoning civil war and the life their father chooses as he founds the EROS, a Tamil militant group.
Independent, sensitive, and confident as hell, M.I.A.’s sensibilities and swagger feel authentic, and as her career takes off, she continues to unapologetically put her feelings about the atrocities in Sri Lanka into her music.
In comparison to what’s happening politically in her home country, the Super Bowl fiasco where Maya flips off the camera and reportedly cost organizers millions in advertising revenue (which she was sued for), feels silly and out of touch. Yet as Matangi tells it, the American public was more ready to discuss the morality of that gesture over a war where children are dying. It’s outrage at those political hypocrisies, from Loveridge’s vantage point, that defines M.I.A. as a human and as an artist.
Mainstream media asks that messages on social justice come in a palatable package (think: Beyoncé at the United Nations, or anything on-brand for Bono). In a telling moment, M.I.A. mock laughs, saying “they want me to be Aziz Ansari.” What she’s grappling with is the question: how are you supposed to act like a pop star when anger is (rightfully) a part of your every day?
M.I.A. will never be singing in a white dress while images of volunteers doing humanitarian work are projected on a screen behind her. It’s difficult to be palatable when you’re a real person with a real personal history, deeply-felt family conflict, a culture and industry that is actively working against you, and are from a country that is struggling with itself. M.I.A. tells Billboard “it’s not the film I would have made,” but it’s certainly the film that fans and anyone who might not know her story will want to see in order to understand the woman and the artist behind the controversy.