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‘Matangi/Maya/MIA’ – celebrating the many facets of a truly singular artist

A compelling and frank documentary tells the extraordinary story of Sri Lankan musical maverick Maya Arulpragasam

“Why are you a problematic pop star?” The question is asked by filmmaker Steve Loveridge, and it’s directed towards the subject of this enthralling new documentary: the British-Tamil performer MIA. Problematic seems quite a loaded, even sexist term to me – would you apply that adjective to a politically outspoken male recording artist? Besides, what’s so striking about this fascinating feature-length portrait of the singer is how hard it is to reduce her to a single label.

Even the title advertises the many sides of this performer: Matangi/Maya/MIA. Three names by which the performer is known, each a different variant on how she has defined herself. Matangi evokes her Tamil background, Maya her London upbringing and MIA her stage persona as well as her turns as documentary filmmaker, Britpop acolyte, peace activist, innovative recording artist and scourge of wholesome American sporting events. This, and more Loveridge’s documentary covers, and you still suspect there’s a lot left out.

Loveridge got to know Maya Arulpragasam when they were both art students at Central Saint Martins in London. He’s done a good job marshalling all the disparate material and plotting out Maya’s career, from her childhood in London as a newly arrived Tamil immigrant from Sri Lanka to the vertiginous fame she enjoyed in the 2000s. But you feel Maya’s influence guiding every frame. Not only has she shot much of the early material – an early ambition to be a documentary filmmaker meant that she travelled widely and intimately with her camcorder – but this is a performer adroitly in control of her own image.

Loosely chronological, the movie sets out with a vivid dissection of Maya’s childhood. Much of it was spent in Sri Lanka, but the actions of her Tamil separatist father – a leading activist in the movement – meant that she and her family soon left for London.

The film’s lucid, distilled and shocking account of the abuses suffered by the Tamils leaves you in little doubt about the urgency and conviction behind Maya’s advocacy

Clips from home movies of the time convey a strange mix of normal English girlhood – Maya dancing spiritedly to the pop music at the time (Madonna was a favourite) – and the extraordinary pressure of political exile. When her father, after years spent fighting the Sri Lankan authorities, moves to London, Maya and siblings discuss the impact his absence has had on them. Her sister bemoans the lack of birthday cards; Maya, still in her mid teens at the time, looks to the positives. “He made us damn interesting,” she says.

The remark offers a glimpse of the resilience shown by Maya as her performing career takes off, and in charting the vaunting profile of the artist in the 2000s he brilliantly captures the singer’s force-of-nature artistry, blazing confidence and exhilarating musical eclecticism. On its own terms it’s a sympathetic portrait of a highly creative performer (with an appealing maverick streak: best conveyed when she flips a middle finger to the TV cameras, dancing with her childhood hero Madonna, during a Super Bowl broadcast – and for which she’s told off, like a naughty schoolgirl, backstage by a pompous NFL official).

But alongside the music is Maya’s commitment to the Tamil cause, and a determination to parlay her celebrity to raise awareness of the appalling plight of this minority people in Sri Lanka. She is predictably castigated by the press, especially in the US – witness how Bill Maher greets her appearance on his chat show with smirking condescension. But the film’s lucid, distilled and shocking account of the abuses suffered by the Tamils leaves you in little doubt about the urgency and conviction behind Maya’s advocacy.

If the film doesn’t quite deliver the rounded conclusion we might expect, then that’s largely because Maya, still in her early 40s, isn’t finished with us yet. In the best of possible ways, we’re left wanting more.

Matangi/Maya/MIA is in cinemas from September 21

Image: A still from Matangi/Maya/MIA