Berlinale 2018: Matangi/Maya/M.I.A is a fascinating political documentary on the fiesty Srilankan musician

Meenakshi Shedde

February 22, 2018 13:44:54 IST

The last Sri Lankan talent one can recall in a Western feature-length film made by a foreigner is Jacques Audiard’s French film Dheepan, with former Tamil Tiger Jesuthasan Antonythasan-turned-actor. It had won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015.

Now the Berlin Film Festival is showcasing the fascinating documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A by Steve Loveridge on the British rapper-pop star-activist of Tamil origin. Born Matangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, she became more familiar to South Asians after music composer-singer A.R. Rahman and she earned an Oscar nomination for Original Song for 'O Saya' from Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 (they collaborated on the music and lyrics; but Jai Ho won).

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Matangi aka MIA.

The documentary showcases a musician who is fundamentally shaped by her childhood experiences of the war in Sri Lanka, diverse trans-continental Asian and Western influences, and by her controversial politics, supporting the Tamil rebels. Matangi remains the quintessential outsider. She is not a flawless character — who is? — and may also be somewhat naïve and revelling in being a bad girl, a standard template for popular musicians. But there is no doubt that she lives life on her own terms, outspoken about her political views, and fearlessly willing to pay the price for it.

A US-UK-Sri Lanka co-production, the film also won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Tellingly, this debut feature of British director Loveridge, underlines the underbelly of racism in Western media. In a powerful sequence, he shows Maya’s crushing disappointment with Madonna, whom she had greatly looked up to. We sense that, whatever success Maya may achieve in the West, as a brown 'outsider,' she will always have Western, especially American, media questioning her credentials and motives. And Maya has certainly tasted success worldwide. She is perhaps best known for her song 'Paper Planes', and her music for Slumdog Millionaire earned both an Oscar and a Grammy nomination in the same year. 'Paper Planes' sold 4 million copies. She has performed alongside Jay Z, Kanye West and T.I. at the Grammys. Her albums include Arular (named after her father), Kala (named after her mother), Maya, Mathangi and AIM. And it doesn't hurt that she's gorgeous.

The documentary primarily follows a chronological journey spanning decades, with the transcontinental zigzaggings and influences of its star, including substantial footage shot over the years by Matangi herself. Her father Arulpragasam aka Arular was one of the founders of the Tamil resistance movement and worked with the Tamil Tigers. Their lives under threat, Matangi fled with her mother Kala and siblings to the UK as a refugee when she was nine. Growing up in inner-city immigrant neighbourhoods, she picked up diverse musical influences, including hip-hop, rap, bhangra, and other music from Africa and West Indies. She studied at Central Saint Martins School of Art, London — together with the film's director Steve Loveridge. We see her revisit her extended family in Sri Lanka as an adult and film her journey. She speaks Tamil haltingly, with a charming, clipped, British accent.

MIA and director of Matangi/Maya/M.I.A, Steve Loveridge.

Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war between the government and the Tamil rebels, claimed up to 100,000 lives from 1983 to 2009, according to UN reports. Because of their political antecedents, a male relative advises Matangi to register at the nearest police station and always keep her papers ready, "because the police still come on night searches without warning."

Back in the UK, Arular's political affiliations and his in-absentia relationship with his family, has affected everyone. Matangi poignantly says that when they met him again after many years, they thought he was their uncle. While their single mother Kala, who mostly brought them up, remains discreet, Matangi's sister is furious that “he never once sent us even a postcard.” Her brother Sugu drips scorn, accusing their father of “killing 17-year-old kids.” Her own attitude seems contradictory, resenting her father’s long absences, yet identifying passionately with his cause.

Getting an early break from Justine Frischmann of the British pop band Elastica, Matangi later mixed her own tracks. She worked with a number of musicians, video directors and producers like Diplo, with whom she had a relationship. She is savvy in putting together a hip package, with cool clothes, dance moves, pout, much swearing and mostly catchy music. She also collaborated with Nigerian immigrant rapper Afrikan Boy, and later sang onstage while pregnant with her fiance Benjamin Bronfman.

Matangi has often used her music to draw attention to the causes she believes in.

While Sri Lanka's war had horrific casualties on both sides, she was keen to highlight the genocide against the Tamils, and uploaded a video with a child being shot. When it doesn’t get much traction, she says “I did it my way,” uploading an ironic, staged video Born Free, with young, redhead fighters racing through exploding landmines and a white child being “shot” in the head. An editor of the New York Times is caught on camera, gushing over Matangi before slamming her in a lead article. She suggests that the West is okay with brown people, so long as they are mild-mannered, but feel threatened if they express their political beliefs.

Matangi was a cheerleader for Madonna at the National Football League Super Bowl championship half-time show in 2012. "I've always looked up to Madonna as a strong person," she says, and was crushed to see her meekly following sexist, racist orders at the show. So, I raised my middle finger in public, Matangi says, and the American media drubbing her as a fashionably fake radical, leading a glamorous life (her partner Ben Bronfman is the son of Edgar Bronfman Jr., former Warner Music Group CEO) while talking about beleaguered Tamilians in Sri Lanka.

To Loveridge’s credit, the documentary, while capturing her contradictions and underlining the inherent racism of Western media, remains loyal to and admiring of her. One hopes the documentary will soon be shown in India and Sri Lanka. I wonder what the Tamils in India and Sri Lanka will think very about it.

Updated Date: Feb 22, 2018 13:44 PM