Many labels have been applied to the work of Mathangi Arulpragasam, better known by her stage name M.I.A. She’s been described as a provocateur, an anti-establishment controversialist and, at times, even a terrorist sympathizer. Stephen Loveridge’s new film about Arulpragasam, who goes by Maya, takes a look beyond the reductive headlines that have been applied to the uniquely talented rap star, whose Tamil heritage figures centrally in her music and advocacy against the brutal treatment of Tamil people during and after the Sri Lankan civil war.
Maya was born in London, but her family soon moved back to Jaffna in Northern Sri Lanka. There, her father became a political activist, founding the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), which was affiliated with the Tamil Tigers. As the war raged in Sri Lanka, Maya’s mother returned to London with her children when Maya turned 11. Loveridge’s film, MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A., paints a picture of the musician from home movies. As he told me when he stopped by Deadline’s Sundance Studio this week, Maya was rarely without a camcorder from her earliest years. The pair met at Central St. Martins art school in London, where they were both studying film on the Fine Arts program, though Maya says she left Loveridge alone when he started asking for her tapes to cut a documentary: it wasn’t until the Sunday night premiere of the movie that the musician even knew which of her footage had made the cut.
I spoke to Maya and Loveridge before the screening, and in the video above Maya joked that she feared a falling out would ensue when she finally saw the film. But in fact, the film captures the struggle she has faced to be taken seriously, recording run-ins with the media and accusations of hypocrisy as her success and wealth rose and she advocated ever louder for some of the world’s poorest, most desperate people. Beyond a simple music documentary, Loveridge’s film makes a case that Maya’s anger and frustration with the situation her people face inform not just every song she writes, but the way she lives her life; that this is more than just armchair advocacy.
Check out more from them in the video above. After the premiere, I sat down with Maya and Loveridge again to gauge her reaction, and to discuss the pair’s frustration with the narrative of “M.I.A., rap superstar” that has been presented in the media.
DEADLINE: As you said in our studio, this film isn’t about M.I.A. the musician, but Maya the person. Was that always the intention?
LOVERIDGE: I think that’s why I made the film. That’s why I chose the material I chose. We live in a Twitter age of 140 characters. People don’t have time to find out the background to a story, and media moves so fast. Often when we see M.I.A. appear in media it’s like, “Controversial pop star,” or, “provocative and outspoken,” and that kind of thing. And they’re all kind of bywords for, “mouthy idiot.” It’s always this kind of snark when people talk about her. They’re starting to really frustrate me.
MAYA: When we started they were longer sessions, and they got shorter and shorter with time because the world is changing. And people’s attention span is changing; the way they grasp ideas is changing.
LOVERIDGE: The part of the film where Maya does an interview with New York Times, and a very unsympathetic journalist turns up, Lynn Hirschberg, and does a take-down piece that became this kind of viral thing. The article really angered me at the time because, to me, it was just racist. It was like somebody turning up to a Tamil in 2010 and not doing their homework. I mean, if you spoke to any Tamil that year they were in trauma [after the civil war came to an end], and to come and do that to someone when they’re in that vulnerable state… I just thought she was disgusting and I always have that chip on my shoulder. It really ruined me when people were like, “Oh M.I.A., that idiot is a rich girl now. She’s sort of rubbish.”
And I don’t mind when it’s genuine criticism. I criticize celebrities and Maya’s made missteps in the press sometimes. But that particular thing I thought was just such an injustice that I’m really glad that I get to address that in the film. And it’s not about attacking the journalist personally—lots of people are doing it and she probably has an editor and they may have an agenda. It’s not about confronting critics of M.I.A., it’s a film about trying to reestablish her reputation. Because this is the kind of thing that happens to a lot of people, not just Maya. The dismissal of people’s stories is endemic.
MAYA: I think it’s also because it’s very rare to have somebody who comes from that place and does the advocacy stuff. And it’s also about the platform that I got given at that time. To be that famous or successful at that moment when all that happened. Because I never could have predicted that the civil war was going to come to an end in 2009, the same time my song was a hit. That’s just some weird universal s–t. That’s beyond my control, you know? But that’s just what happened. And no one could piece those things together to be like, “This person who made our hit this week, is also that person who’s connected to that thing that’s on the next page of the same newspaper.” With the civil war coming to an end, and these 400,000 people that were bombed, and this person belong to the same thing, and actually, this person’s directly connected to this because of family.
So, on the one hand, I can see, yeah, it’s disgusting, but I forgive it because of the lack of previous examples. You know, it’s a rare story, so obviously it’s difficult for people to grasp. I had to get on with it because this is like every other thing where you don’t make sense. And I don’t make sense to the local guy at the sweet shop. And I don’t make sense to Lynn Hirschberg. And you can’t hang onto that, you just have to move on, you know.
DEADLINE: But it’s not unusual for the press to be confronted with an artist who believes in something. Many actors get away with it. Oprah can deliver that speech at the Golden Globes.
LOVERIDGE: But there’s always this suspicion that nothing is more important in America than your celebrity and your personal brand. Everything feeds into that. It’s the most important thing in the stack. And so, whenever Bono says something, or Angeline Jolie says something, everyone has that suspicion that, “Well, obviously your fame is the most important thing.” When it’s someone who’s directly connected to a situation… Maya let go of the celebrity to go and do that, and everyone thought that was a stupid thing to do. Like, “Save your fame, look after that, that’s the thing to protect. And your advocacy must fit nicely into that.” They couldn’t cope with someone who went, “I don’t want to do this right now. I don’t want to be M.I.A. This is more important to me.”
MAYA: Advocacy and fame now sit together quite comfortably, but they didn’t seven years ago. And you were definitely different already, you know. Already even putting that word next to that word, you were a loser. Which is how Lynn Hirschberg managed to get my ex-boyfriend to talk s–t about me in the article. To be like, “Yeah, I told her to shut up and never talk about politics and never talk about things.” That’s how everybody was easily convinced into it, because it was advocacy, and that was a dirty word in the celebrity realm.
LOVERIDGE: The important thing to say is I didn’t interview Maya saying any of this in the documentary. Because I didn’t want to make an angry film that was Maya sort of saying, “You said this about me, see how it’s not true.” And make something that was kind of, just all about improving MIA’s reputation.
DEADLINE: You present the evidence in the form of her footage, which was all private, home movies.
LOVERIDGE: Yes, I wanted to make something inspiring. Or to go, “These are some of the pitfalls that could happen to you, but it’s still worth going for it.” You know, I’m really proud that Maya did what she did and involved me in that journey. And I think it’s a happy and positive film.
MAYA: And I think that also, the fact that you’re not American is totally different. When you look at celebrities from America, the space they’re given to discuss these things is way bigger. And it’s way more celebrated than if you come from the outside. If you come from outside, you have to be put through this finite tunnel of expression where you’re expressing yourself and what’s wrong back home. But also, at the same time you’re becoming assimilated to American culture and so it’s a very fine line. The press always saw me as an agitator or whatever because of that. Because I wasn’t sensitive to the way Americans wanted to digest the Tamil issue.
You know, I knew that it was already difficult. That situation in my country broke down into very basic terms. Two sides. Terrorists, not terrorists. Everybody had to support the not-terrorist group, because if you supported the other group—the minority in the country—you were supporting terrorism too. It put me in a difficult situation because it’s not that you were retaliating against the establishment or the system, but you’re establishing a discussion about the language and the words used. The words that were used made it difficult for me to be like, “Hey, I come from this place and these are real people.” They were like, “We don’t get that because you’re on this side.” To this day, that’s why there is no resolution there because that hasn’t been properly solved.
Political activists that are more global in the way they look at things, and they know that those parameters affect different countries in different ways. Sri Lanka is such a little country. I was stuck in the middle of those things and that was really difficult to communicate to people who are not political. And no music fans were political then. Maybe now, you know, you can have discussions, but then, definitely not. It was the beginning of EDM. How are you going to present this complicated minutiae that was actually affecting the view out there and discuss it in an arena where music press and political press were completely separate? Maybe now they’ve joined together. But before, they hadn’t. So they said, “Shut up.”
DEADLINE: There was a rousing standing ovation at the screening the other night. You imagine many in that room were M.I.A. fans, but many were not. So that reaction was to what people saw in the film. Stephen, how did it feel for you, with Maya on the other side of the room watching it for the first time?
LOVERIDGE: Oh my god. I have never been so… I don’t know. Not nervous; nervous isn’t even the word. It was…
LOVERIDGE: Yeah, just totally surreal. I really wanted to cry because we were standing up and Maya was there and it was really moving. But at the same time there was a spotlight in my eye and I couldn’t see her face to go, “Is this going down well with her?” I was sort of torn between two emotions—Wow, I made a film. People really like it, it’s getting a really good response. And just this fear that I was going to see this person go, “What the f–k was that?” But we’ve had a great day together today, talking about the film.
DEADLINE: How did you feel, Maya?
MAYA: I think it’s nice that he managed to filter it down to the essence of what needed to be discussed. Because in my own head, there’s a million other things that I would have wanted to discuss. You know, it’s almost like he just literally took what I said and put images to it, like it was really simplified, but he had every shot. Which is so weird, because I never knew that I had those things. When I handed him the Elastica tapes and the Sri Lanka stuff, the things that he picked out were not the things that I gave him the tapes for. And the fact that he found a shot to represent things I’d said throughout time was kind of amazing, you know.
LOVERIDGE: Yeah, I think that the stubbornness to make the film I wanted to make was because I was very aware and conscious of the sort of film that I thought that you would have made with your own material. And I knew I wasn’t using the shots that you would use. And it’s been really interesting that I think in our friendship I’m always the shy, unconfident one, and she’s the really provocative, out-there one. But this has been a lesson in the fact that maybe I am a bit more confident than I thought. I stuck to my guns and got the film that I wanted to make. It was worth it.
The Deadline Studio is presented by Hyundai. Special thanks to Calii Love.