SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — For the last 17 years, beginning with “A Bug’s Life,” every film from Pixar Animation Studios has screened in theaters along with a Pixar-created short film. It’s no different this time with its newest release, “The Good Dinosaur,” which hit theaters Nov. 25.
However, the latest short from the studio, “Sanjay’s Super Team,” which is a personal tale of intergenerational differences, is very different from the previous short films and is breaking new creative grounds at Pixar.
In the directing debut for Indian American animator Sanjay Patel, a long-time Pixar associate, the no-dialogue film is the first to feature non-white characters in the lead, the first to be “almost based” on the life of the person who created it, and the first to talk about the Hindu religion.
Produced by Nicole Paradis Grindle, the seven-minute short animated film has been shortlisted with nine other titles to advance in the voting process for the 88th Academy Awards, which will be held Feb. 28, 2016 in Los Angeles.
“It’s a really, really big deal. It’s going to bring more attention to the short. It’s breaking barriers and opening new doors,” Patel told India-West.
In “Sanjay’s Super Team,” Patel uses his own experience to tell the story of a young, first-generation Indian American boy, Sanjay, who lives in his parents’ motel, and whose love for western pop culture comes into conflict with his father’s traditions.
The young boy is absorbed in the world of cartoons and comics, while his father tries to draw him into the traditions of his Hindu practice. Tedium and reluctance quickly turn into an awe-inspiring adventure as the boy embarks on a magical journey into a world populated by the superhero-like characters of Hindu mythology, returning with a new perspective that the father and son can both embrace.
As a kid, Patel said, he was torn between two different cultures, like little Sanjay in the short film, and was reluctant to partake in any of the cultural or religious traditions of his parents.
“As an immigrant kid, I tried extremely hard to fit in with mostly the white kids that I was surrounded by, and, so in many ways, I just rejected everything about my parents’ culture, my identity. I just didn’t want to do anything with my Indian heritage,” he confessed.
Talking about the theme of the film, Patel said that after he was burnt out on European and Western art, he was looking for new inspiration. He came across a book on miniature paintings, and it was through the vehicle of fine arts that he began to read the myths and the philosophy of these images of Hindu gods that he had seen growing up.
“Despite going to three different art schools, I was never exposed to the Asian art, let alone Indian art,” recalled Patel.
As Patel learned more about Hindu mythology, he began to see some of his parents’ habits in a new light and that helped him “decode his parents.”
“In my house when we sneeze we say Sita Ram,” Patel explained to India-West.
“I had no idea what that meant. Now I know there are two very sacred characters from Ramayana. I never knew what my father's name Gopal meant; now I know it’s another name for Krishna… The stories unlocked different parts of my parents, and ultimately led me to appreciate and respect them.”
“As I started reading I was, like, these are timeless characters, there is timeless wisdom here, and this is archetypal stuff, and I was so inspired by it,” added Patel.
So, a decade ago, outside of his day job as an artist for Pixar, Patel started illustrating these books mainly to educate himself and was amazed by the response that it received from his friends.
He has published four lavish pop art-style graphic children’s picture books, Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth, The Big Poster Book of Hindu Deities, Ramayana-Divine Loophole, and The Little Book of Hindu Deities.
Pixar’s chief creative officer John Lasseter invited Patel to develop a short after coming across his work at one of the displays at the studio.
Patel, who has worked as an animator on Pixar films like “A Bug's Life,” “Toy Story 3,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and “The Incredibles,” was initially reluctant to direct the short, because he didn’t see himself reflected in the popular culture and thought that immigrants’ stories didn’t matter.
“It wasn’t until the president of Pixar, Jim Morris, called me and asked me why I hadn’t responded,” that he decided to pursue the project, said Patel.
“I described how I was inspired by my parents’ culture. I was convinced that there was no room for it here at Pixar, and I didn’t think they would do a story about those subjects/ themes. But, he said Pixar was always interested in telling new and good stories. It was hard to argue with that.”
“I think it was on the strengths of Sanjay as an artist and story teller that they wanted to tell the story,” the producer of “Sanjay’s Super Team,” Nicole Paradis Grindle, told India-West.
“It wasn’t that they were setting out to do something different.”
In the beginning, Patel admits, the idea which he pitched to Pixar did not include the father-son relationship. It was more about a little boy from India ignoring his culture, but, when he shared the history about him and his dad, and what every morning was like, with Lasseter, he suggested Patel combine the two ideas to deliver a more personal story.
“I told him how every morning my dad had his poojas and aartis, and I sort of had my poojas, which was centered around eating cereal and worshiping my gods, which were cartoon characters like Transformers,” said Patel.
“It was also John’s idea that we put the photos of Sanjay and his father at the end of the film, and Sanjay’s name is in the title,” said Grindle.
The studio tried to strike the right balance between embracing modern pop culture and honoring the Hindu religion. Several consultants were brought in to check if the short was reverent enough or if any lines had been crossed.
“But Sanjay has done the main work here. He wanted to present his father’s religion in a very respectful way,” Grindle told India-West.
“It’s a very important thing for my family and the community, so the last thing that I want to do is to show any disrespect,” added Patel.
Simulating the deities and taking care of the jewelry so that they look natural and don’t catch the eye were also some of the challenges faced by the production team, noted Grindle.
The film showcases Patel’s relationship with his father on-screen, but watching television and films just wasn’t something his father did, not even the Pixar movies that Patel had worked on.
“We immigrated in the early ‘80s. Having left the U.K., my father hadn’t seen a movie since then. ‘Sound of Music’ was the last film that he saw,” shared Patel.
“It was very unusual to show him a Pixar movie based on him and me. He was really emotional and was very proud of what I have been able to accomplish,” the animator told India-West.
“From the parents’ point of view, it is not only touching to see your child succeed but also to have your child recognize what your experience has been… to recognize what had sustained his father for so many years, such a hardworking immigrant,” noted Grindle.
Now that the short is already out, Patel has hopes for how it will be received.
“Some of my American friends are going to be intrigued by it,” he said.
“Any Indian American kid who is working or living between two cultures when they see Sanjay and his dad, hopefully they will find a bit of themselves, and I think they will connect to it completely,” Patel added.
On the surface, Grindle said, it may look like a short that is talking about a particular religion, but deep down it delivers a very universal message.
“A lot of people we have spoken to, who come from different cultures, found that the relationship between the father and son resonates with a lot of immigrants; different religion but a similar issue,” said Grindle.