Sanjay Patel Finds His Superpower

The Oscar-nominated director of Sanj’y's Super Team talks about animating Hindu mythology.

February 24, 2016

I grew up in a Hindu family. As a kid I’d often sit with one of my grandparents at a home altar, eyes still filled with sleep, for (very early) morning prayers. They’d tell me what to do: wash those flowers, bring me that plate, fill those diyas with ghee, repeat after me, touch that with your right hand, ring the bell. Eventually I was reciting slokas by memory, but only snatches of Vedic verse come back to me now as an adult. Ritual has all but disappeared from my life, save for one or two days a year at a family wedding or around Diwali. I light agarbati so my apartment smells like home. As an adult I look back with selective nostalgia, skipping over the decade or so between childhood and now where tradition and religion—early wake-up times, weekly trips to the temple, a smear of red powder on the forehead, mantra after mantra after mantra—was something I pushed back against.

So when I watched Sanjay’s Super Team, I cried. Not because Sanjay Patel’s short film is a smart foray into new, global mythologies or the chance for brown-skinned characters to be on screen, but because the tension between a superhero-obsessed little boy and his devout father is the story of those intervening years in my life—floating between cultures, navigating home life and the world outside. That universality makes it more than just a Hindu story, or an immigrant story. And in a year where the Academy Awards is being heavily criticized not just for a lack of diversity, but for overlooking the significant contributions of black filmmakers, actors and writers, a Best Animated Short nomination for Sanjay’s Super Team is my one little bright spot.

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Patel joined Pixar 20 years ago as an animator on A Bug’s Life, and this short is his directorial debut for the studio. I spoke with him about growing up Hindu in America, animation for kids and adults, and finding his inspiration in Goa Trance.

You know, I knew I’d relate to some of Sanjay’s Super Team but I didn’t think this very cute kid’s movie would be so emotional. Was this always meant to be a personal story?

SANJAY PATEL: It didn’t start out that way! The inspiration was always the real-life history between me and my father, but I was kind of afraid to be that candid. The story started out as this boy in India not being interested in the cultural stories that were all around him, and basically discovering the tales from his own heritage. It’s about a kid in the modern world coming to appreciate these roots stories—there was no father, there was no relationship element. I pitched that story to John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, and for context I told him about me and my dad and what we did every morning. He was immediately struck with the real-life history and felt there was a way to merge those two stories together.

Was that difficult, given that it’s your first time directing?

Initially I was just taken aback. Growing up here in the States and not having that many positive representations of people from my community, there’s this subtle undertow of ‘these stories don’t matter.’ It just seemed absurd that Pixar would be interested [in the story], let alone turn it into a short film. So then there’s this kind of weird confirmation that happens. It’s like, wow, this stuff does matter, and it is relevant. It’s really and truly healing.

“It’s like, wow, this stuff does matter, and it is relevant. It’s really and truly healing.”—Sanjay Patel

You actually created a whole series of children’s books about Hindu deities.

The first book, The Little Book of Hindu Deities, was self-published because it was for my education, it was my homework. I wanted to retell these stories to my friends at Pixar in a way that was modern and digestible, and in a way I could also share with my nieces and nephews who had shorter attention spans. I wanted to take everything I knew about the art of animation and the art of commercial communication and put it together with this rich material and my parents’ culture. So I did this simple book and straight away it sold out, Penguin Books decided to purchase it and we did a larger reprint. And then the emails started flooding in. They were from families that felt there was nothing out there for them that was contemporary and also informative, and I really got a sense of what it was doing for people in my community. There were teachers and profs teaching the book to their American students. It was reaching people in a way I didn’t expect. So I kept doing it. There’s an endless well of mythology from South Asia.

Is animation a leveler or a more potent way of telling stories?

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My first book looks like a hybrid-children’s book and it was designed that way because most people knew zero about these deities, so you have to start them at a child’s level. If they’re interested, man, there’s mountains of material designed for adults that’s from the culture. But there isn’t much designed simply, and in a way that’s accessible. Animation in its very design is for families, if not children, and it’s designed to communicate quickly and bridge this gap of pre-verbal learning. It’s instantly get-able.

The broader theme of cultural tension is something that’s present in literature and film, but it’s rarely presented in a medium that’s for children.

I was really excited about that actually. It’s a layer that was more designed for adults. I wanted to expose kids to these other superheroes they might never have known about but for adults, or the older kids, I think that’s the reality of most immigrant households. There’s this tension between their parents’ world and the world they’ve been brought up in. That’s the honesty and truth of my experience. Many here at Pixar who aren’t necessarily South Asian but are immigrants just totally connected with that point and were just thrilled by it. I don’t think it’s a theme that’s going to go away.

Is there a shift in the stories you’re seeing come out of the animation world, or the film world?

I don’t know about that. When I was approached to do this I had this skepticism like, ‘I don’t think you want to do this.’ I just didn’t believe they were interested, despite the studio asking me like three times! I was convinced, and the reason for that was because I hadn’t seen the studio do anything like it beforehand, nor had I seen other animated films approach the material. As the filmmaker I hadn’t seen it in the world yet and didn’t believe it could exist. It really took Pixar not letting me give up on that.

All of this internal resistance and now Sanjay’s Super Team is nominated for an Oscar.

It’s great if this brings more attention to people with stories that are outside of the mainstream, from communities of color. It gives more legitimacy to the idea that these stories are relevant and that they can connect to lots of people. In that way, it’s a big deal.

Sanjay Patel Finds His Superpower