Man­tangi/Maya/M.I.A.

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - The New York Times

In 2010, ran a pro­file on Bri­tish-Sri Lankan hip-hop and pop star Mathangi “Maya” Arul­pra­gasam, aka M.I.A., which many peo­ple (in­clud­ing M.I.A. her­self) saw as a hit piece. Us­ing un­flat­ter­ing quotes by col­lab­o­ra­tors and paint­ing the artist as a pam­pered star­let who dab­bled in pol­i­tics she knew lit­tle about, the fea­ture may not have de­railed her ca­reer and rep­u­ta­tion, but it served as one of sev­eral fac­tors that caused her suc­cess in the 2000s from smoothly pro­gress­ing into the 2010s.

Matangi / Maya / M.I.A., a doc­u­men­tary about the song­writer and per­former’s life and ca­reer, serves as a re­minder of how prom­i­nent she was in the mid-2000s cul­tural zeit­geist thanks to songs such as “Galang,” “Sun­show­ers,” and most fa­mously, the peren­ni­ally in­fec­tious “Pa­per Planes.” Di­rec­tor Steve Loveridge at­tended art school with M.I.A. in the late 1990s, where a long­time friend­ship blos­somed. Thus, he has a trove of footage — en­com­pass­ing per­for­mance, song­writ­ing, and ca­sual mo­ments — chron­i­cling her early life, her rise to promi­nence, and her tu­mul­tuous past decade, when she was sued by the NFL for giv­ing the mid­dle fin­ger on a Su­per Bowl broad­cast, as well as de­rided and dragged down for pub­licly ad­vo­cat­ing Sri Lanka’s Tiger rebels against the coun­try’s gov­ern­ment. In footage through­out the film, she notes that her opin­ion on such mat­ters was dis­missed be­cause she is a woman.

The movie proves this point by let­ting us see these events through her per­spec­tive, but more im­por­tantly, by giv­ing us the full con­text of her back­ground. She spent her early child­hood in Sri Lanka, where her fa­ther Arul was an ac­tivist and rev­o­lu­tion­ary. She had lit­tle con­tact with him due to the Sri Lankan civil war, which forced her fam­ily to move fre­quently through­out the coun­try, and then even­tu­ally to In­dia be­fore mov­ing back to the United King­dom (where they had pre­vi­ously lived and she was born). This tur­moil is com­pellingly con­veyed in the film, and it clearly col­ored her en­tire world­view and artis­tic prac­tice, from her visual art to her fash­ion choices to her mu­sic.

Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. is richer than the usual mu­si­cian doc­u­men­tary (due to the en­ter­tainer’s back­ground). The film ex­plores sub­jects such as mass mi­gra­tion, refugee and im­mi­grant cul­ture, the chal­lenges in be­ing a celebrity woman of color, and more. Loveridge is care­ful to make sure it never strays too far away from the mu­sic, how­ever, which re­mains as brash, joy­ful, and grip­ping as ever. It’s hard to imag­ine that her par­tic­u­lar hy­brid of hip-hop, dance­hall, and In­dian and Mid­dle East­ern mu­sic, made by an un­apolo­get­i­cally po­lit­i­cal brown-skinned woman, has crossed over into main­stream cul­ture around the world, giv­ing voice and in­spi­ra­tion to refugees and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies ev­ery­where. Through that lens, it’s lit­tle won­der that ma­jor me­dia fig­ures tried to drag her down. — Robert Ker

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